There are two kinds of metals, ferrous and non-ferrous and both can be reprocessed an infinite number of times, just like glass. These are two types of materials that don't lose their properties during recycling, so long as they were not damaged before, such as by rust.

Ferrous and non-ferrous metals have different properties and are used for different purposes. Ferrous metals, for example, have magnetic properties, whereas non-ferrous ones don't. But when it comes to corrosion, ferrous metals can be affected by water, when compared to their non-ferrous counterparts. Also, non-ferrous metals, which include gold and copper, are more valuable.

Any metal is considered ferrous if it has iron in its composition. Also, due to this, non-ferrous metals are lighter, but for this article, we care about the fact that both can be recycled indefinitely without losing their properties or quality.

How it's recycled: How are metals sorted

Aluminum and steel are two of the most recycled metals in the world, according to experts and it makes sense, since many electronics manufacturers, but not only, started incorporating recycled aluminum in their devices. Apple, for example, uses 100% recycled aluminum for all their iPhone and Mac products.

As with every other product, recycling actually starts with collecting. The same goes for metal, which is being collected more carefully by people and specialized companies, in general, due to its higher value compared to paper or plastic, for example.

Sorting the metals is done at specialized centers, which can also take care of the actual recycling process, although people may sort metals before handing them over, as they will get paid a different amount for different types of metals.

Sorting companies will specifically look at the quality of the material, in order to figure out if the metals can be recycled and what quality can be expected.

Also, for products that are not 100% made of metal, they can be dismantled for the actual metal to be recovered, if its share is at least 50%.

Scrap metal coming in for recycling is being sorted based on its quality, but also if its ferrous or non-ferrous, which can be determined by using a magnet. Recently, more sophisticated solutions have emerged, such as X-ray detection.

Processing metals into new products

For processing metals, the first step is compacting all the available materials in smaller packages, based on type, so that they can be carried by conveyor belts easier. Then, before the actual processing starts, the metals are shredded to small pieces or to thin sheets of metal.

The reason is because smaller or thinner pieces of metals can be melted using less energy, meaning fewer emissions and a more efficient and fast process overall. This is where sorting based on type comes in handy, as each large furnace used for melting is optimized for processing its own type of metal, which may melt at different rates and at different temperatures.

Depending on how large the furnace is and how much metal has to be processed, melting can take mere minutes or long hours. If the heating is done with renewable power, this obviously has a lower impact on the planet.

Before they're molded into new products, metals have to be purified, to ensure that their quality is high enough and that they will remain strong during manufacturing and after that. This is especially important for metals that will be used in construction or generally, for those that will be exposed longer to the elements.

One of the most popular ways to purify metals is electrolysis, a process which is also used for generating green hydrogen. Still, different types of metals require different kinds of purification. Magnets can also be used to separate ferrous metals from impurities.

What can we make with recycled metals and why it matters

The molten metals are being carried by conveyor belts in special containers to cooling chambers, where they are being solidified and treated with chemicals to ensure better strength and resistance to corrosion. That's where manufacturers decide what they want to do with the products and solidify them accordingly to the shape and densities.

Just in North America alone 69% of end-of-life metals are being recycled, with steel and iron amounting to around 50 million tons per year. This is more than paper, plastic and glass combined.

As far as what we can do with recycled metal, it's pretty much anything that surrounds us. New computers, cars, bridges, bicycles or appliances, recycled metal can be implemented in all of them and actually is.

How it's recycled: Why should we recycle metals

Recycling metals has big benefits for the environment on multiple levels. Not only do we become less reliant on mining the material, but we also spend less resources on transport and first-hand processing. Speaking on which, recycling metals, as with most other materials, is a less energy-intensive process, meaning that fewer emissions are being freed in the atmosphere.

Besides the planet, communities have a lot to earn, as well, with recycling centers providing with job opportunities and economic growth, in general.

As some of the most recycled materials out there, metals can serve as an example for other industries to start processing more materials, to reduce the strain on natural resources, as well as to contribute to more economically-independent communities.