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What is ferrous metal?

Ferrous refers to iron and steel. The word “ferrous” is derived from the Latin word for iron, ferrum

The most well-known features of iron include its natural magnetism and the signature orange rust of iron that’s been exposed to the elements. Iron is the second most commonly occurring metal in the Earth’s crust, and it is because of the movement of molten iron in the planet’s core that the Earth has a magnetic field. 

>> Learn more about iron

Almost all ferrous metals are magnetic. Using a magnet is one of the easiest ways that recyclers can separate their ferrous and non-ferrous metal to sell at Cohen. If it sticks, it belongs with ferrous, and if it doesn’t stick, it’s non-ferrous. Cohen uses enormous electromagnets mounted to excavators to move ferrous scrap and load and unload trucks. 

Steel: an Iron Alloy

Often, when you’re talking about ferrous, you’re talking about steel. Iron itself is not as strong or durable as it is when combined with other metals into alloys, like steel. The vast majority of iron – 98% – is used for the production of steel. Some types include carbon steel, super alloys, stainless steel, galvanized steel, and tool steel. 

Commonly Recycled Ferrous Scrap

  • Appliances: Washers/dryers, dishwashers, refrigerators/freezers, air conditioners, water heaters, stoves
  • Cars and some car parts: Rotors, drums, motor blocks
  • Cast iron, sheet metal, and wrought iron found in buildings, like ductwork, radiators, and railings
  • Plate & structural: I-beams, rebar, corrugated iron
  • Railroad scrap and railcars

Recycling the Leftovers: Scrap from Mills and Machining

Many stages of the steel manufacturing process will produce scrap. Recycling companies like Cohen are essential to help prepare that scrap to be melted down again. The type of metal, its composition, and the form that it is processed into (e.g., bales and briquettes) all matter when the metal is ready to be sent on for melting. Ferrous scrap like this played a significant role in Cohen’s founding. 

Turnings and borings are the byproducts of machining processes that go by the same name. Turnings are particularly useful to the steelmaking process because it is a naturally greasy material that melts fast in an electric arc furnace. 

Clippings, skeletons, and busheling are examples of the scrap left over when metal is stamped or cut into other shapes. It’s kind of like the extra cookie dough left over around a cookie cutter. The different names refer mostly to different forms this kind of scrap can take. 

Scrap metal that comes right off the production line like this is valuable because it is still “clean” which, in the scrap world, means it isn’t mixed with other materials and hasn’t been painted or otherwise altered. It doesn’t need as much processing in order to be re-melted because it already has the right composition with no contaminants.

Mixed Iron (which includes steel) is the most common grade of scrap that Cohen buys. 

This is what you can expect to see on your scale ticket when you bring a load of ferrous scrap to one of Cohen’s drive-thru’s. The majority of mixed iron is then turned into a product called heavy melting steel (HMS or “heavy melt”), which indicates the metal has been prepared to be sold and melted. 

Structural Applications of Ferrous Metal

Steel and iron truly are the backbone of the U.S. economy, given just how many different industries and applications they are involved in. One of the most visible places the average person is likely to encounter steel and iron is on the road. Not just in the cars and trucks that travel on it, but the bridges, tunnels and dams that carry people and goods across the country literally non-stop. 

See that concrete barrier on the shoulder of the highway? It’s likely reinforced with steel rebar. And don’t forget the millions of tons of products that are moved by trains and barges, two more transportation solutions that rely heavily on the availability of steel. In something of a twist of irony, scrap metal itself is often moved by rail or river. 

As new infrastructure goes up in some areas, old and obsolete structures must be torn down or renovated – another source of ferrous scrap. Beams, joists, supports, pipes, electrical components, lighting: all of it can be recycled. 

Is Ferrous Scrap Valuable?

Unlike non-ferrous scrap, ferrous metal is generally priced by the ton rather than the pound. On a per-pound basis, non-ferrous usually ends up being more valuable. Most non-ferrous metals are lightweight, while ferrous items like cars and I-beams are much heavier. A small trunk load of non-ferrous will probably pay better than a trunk full of ferrous (assuming you could even get it in your trunk). However, a bulk volume of ferrous scrap can make for a nice payout. 

Ferrous prices are adjusted on a monthly basis to reflect the global supply and demand. The prices that scrap dealers pay for ferrous metal ultimately ties back to what steel is selling for. Industries that need scrap for steel, like automaking, homebuilding, construction and infrastructure, electrical, oil, and aerospace, go through surges and dips in production that increase or decrease the value of scrap, respectively. That filters all the way down to the individual scrapper selling appliances for cash at a recycling center. 

Steel prices are also subject to foreign competition and international trade policies. Ferrous metal is exported to mills in other countries as well as being sold to domestic mills. The U.S. exported 18 million metric tons of iron and steel in 2019. When export conditions are good, the price for domestic scrap sales can go up as domestic buyers compete with foreign consumers for that supply. When export slows, there is more scrap available within the U.S., and prices can go down. The manufacturers who buy steel from mills can choose to buy domestically or to import from foreign mills, also impacting pricing. 

The scrap metal product that Cohen puts out is one of the building blocks of the economy. Scrap can be a useful economic indicator for other sectors – for manufacturing overall, and for individual sectors like homes and autos. Trouble or good times in the scrap world can be a sign of the same to come for businesses that touch other parts of metal’s lifecycle.

Recycling ferrous metal conserves energy and saves landfill space.

It takes less energy to create iron and steel from recycled iron than from iron ore. Using recycled metals also helps mitigate some of the damage done in the mining process, which is energy- and water-intensive and does extensive, lasting damage to the surrounding area. 

Virtually all metal, including ferrous, can be recycled over and over again without losing the properties that make it valuable and useful. That’s good, because even with the abundance of ore in the Earth’s crust, there is still a limit on how much we can access and use to make metal.

Cohen buys ferrous scrap metal from businesses and residents.

Call your local Cohen Recycling Center for current pricing. 

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