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The potential for material circularity and independence in the U.S. steel sector

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Full Publication Date
August 2020

Achieving a U.S. circular economy would reduce environmental impacts and increase material independence. This article calculates maximum recycled contents (RCs) and recycling rates (RRs) in an independent U.S. steel sector, and estimates the potential to displace current imports with recycled scrap that is currently destined for landfill, hibernating stocks, or export (LHSE). A U.S. dynamic material flow analysis (1880–2100) is conducted to estimate annual steel consumption and scrap generation. The results are coupled with a linear optimization model that minimizes primary steel demand while satisfying the volumetric and compositional demands of new consumption. The compositional analysis examines only copper content because it is of greatest concern to recyclers.

The best estimate is that the maximum independent RR is already constrained by copper contamination. Without interventions, this maximum RR will gradually decline throughout the century. The annual consumption to scrap availability ratio (C2SR) will decrease from around 1.4 today. Concurrently, the maximum RC rises but then plateaus below 75% as the RR falls. This highlights a conflict in the conditions for a circular economy: a C2SR approaching unity is a necessary condition for a high RC but leads to fewer opportunities for scrap contaminant dilution, which decreases the RR. Improved product design for recycling and deployment of scrap refining technologies will be needed to reach higher RCs. In 2017, the mass of U.S. scrap destined for LHSE exceeded direct steel imports. Domestic recycling of scrap exports alone could have displaced 36% of direct steel imports, reducing the U.S. deficit by $5.5 billion.

Kyle Syndergaard
Yongxian Zhu
Research Areas
Urban Systems and Built Environment
circular economy, copper contamination, dynamic material flow analysis, industrial ecology, recycling, tariffs
Publication Type
Journal Article
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Full Citation
Cooper, Daniel R., Nicole A. Ryan, Kyle Syndergaard, and Yongxian Zhu. (2020) “The potential for material circularity and independence in the U.S. steel sector.” Journal of Industrial Ecology 24(4): 748-762.