As recyclable metals are valued, there is an infrastructure for gathering and processing them. Although society is now likely to perceive metal recycling as an environmental activity, it has existed as a profitable economic sector in its own right for thousands of years. In most countries, the economics of gathering, sorting, preparing, transporting and using scrap metal employs more people and is of greater economic importance than the mining and refining of ores.
Recycling metals such as nickel creates win-win scenarios for both the environment and industry. It is an integral part of the metals industry; metals are recycled because of their value and because most can be recycled without loss of quality. This is particularly true of non-ferrous metals such as nickel.
Nickel and nickel-containing alloys can be returned to their original state or converted to a different, but still valuable, form. Examples are nickel-containing stainless steel scrap being turned into new stainless steel, or nickel from recycled batteries being used for nickel-containing stainless steel.
The efficiency of nickel recycling is one of the highest
Around 68% of all nickel available from consumer products is recycled and begins a new life cycle (reference year 2010); another 15% enters the carbon steel loop. However, around 17% still ends up in landfill, mainly in metal goods and in waste electrical and electronic equipment.
Recycling is an important factor in nickel's life cycle and an important contributor to global sustainability. Nickel-containing products, such as stainless steel, are durable and are designed for long-term use. Demand for recycled nickel is growing; it is part of the solution as a complement to primary production.
Download our infographic on nickel recycling here.
Declaration by the metals industry on recycling principles
"In 2006, the metals industry published a declaration on recycling principles. The declaration, which was signed by 18 metal commodity associations including the Nickel Institute, aims at encouraging policy-makers, designers and manufacturers to adopt life cycle thinking when developing metals recycling policies.
Many metals can be recycled infinitely without any loss of properties. To date, the levels of recycled metals and alloys in products are used as a driver for increasing recycling rates and as an indicator of environmental performance. However, such an approach could encourage inefficiency in the production and use of recycled metals; the declaration shows that the recycled material content of a product fails to take account of the environmental costs and benefits associated with achieving this goal.
Using the recycled content approach may increase overall economic and environmental costs, as metal available for recycling is diverted to manufacturing a specific product rather than to where the recycling loop is more economically or environmentally efficient. The objective should be to promote eco-efficiency in metals use while maximising the economic benefits to society.
A life cycle approach that considers the material flows at the end of the product life is preferable; this enables the most accurate assessment of the environmental and economic implications aimed at increasing recycling. Such an approach allows decision-makers to identify inefficiencies and associated environmental impacts as well as to optimise product recovery and material recyclability."
Download the declaration here.
Nickel in a circular economy
The concept of a circular economy is generally understood to be "a regenerative system in which resource input and waste, emission, and energy leakage are minimised by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops. This can be achieved through long lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling1. This is in contrast to a linear economy which is a 'take, make, dispose' model of production2.
Given its outstanding properties and high recycling efficiency, nickel, as well as nickel-containing stainless steel, demonstrates how primary materials can contribute to a circular economy. As nickel improves corrosion resistance, it makes the product longer-lasting with lower maintenance. Its high value makes repairing and reusing nickel-containing products economically attractive. The high recycling efficiency ensures that nickel re-enters the economy following the end of life of nickel-containing products.
1 Geissdorfer, Martin; Savaget, Paulo; Bocken, Nancy M.P.; Hultink, Erik Jan (2017-02-01). "The Circular Economy - A new sustainability paradigm?" Journal of Cleaner Production. 143: 757-768. doi: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.12.048.
2 Towards the Circular Economy: an economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition. Ellen MacArthur Foundation. 2012. p. 24.