Structural steel has many benefits when it comes to building. It is a significant element in modern architecture and design, providing strength and versatility to various structural elements. And while it’s no secret that to produce or fabricate steel, you need a considerable amount of energy.
Thanks to a few eco-friendly tactics and its inherent recyclability, steel offers sustainable advantages in construction and is a vital material for the economy. For example, the energy required to produce just one tonne of steel is roughly 40% less than it was in 1960. Moreover, around 25 billion tonnes of steel are in use today, equivalent to fifty thousand Burj Khalifa skyscrapers, each with an empty building weight of 500,000 tonnes.
According to the Australian Institute of Steel (AIS), the nation's steel supply chain representative, the steel industry can consistently lower its carbon emissions to offer a more sustainable, low-carbon material through cross-collaboration and communication, resource use, operations efficiency, and intelligent and innovative design.
So is steel sustainable? Let’s find out what the steel industry is doing to ensure steel has as little environmental impact as possible.
Is Steel Sustainable?
Of all the materials used for construction, structural steel stands out as one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly options available. Not only is it a crucial component in modern architecture and design, but its recyclable and reusable nature also promotes a circular economy methodology that sustainably reuses and recycles as much as possible to reduce our environmental impact.
Steel is Recyclable
One of the main reasons steel is considered environmentally friendly is its recyclable nature. Steel's capacity to be reused and recycled into new steel items is one of its primary and unrivalled sustainability benefits. Steel is easily the most recycled material globally, with around 650 Mt (or more than 80%) recycled annually, according to the World Steel Association.
As for Australia, metals have one of the greatest recycling rates (76%) of all solid waste generated in Australia, compared to 65% for paper waste, 18% for plastics and 58% for glass waste.
Steel's metallurgic properties mean that when recycled, no degradation occurs, allowing it to be melted down and reused an infinite number of times without compromise. For example, using recycled steel to make steel cans uses 75% less energy than producing them from raw materials.
Recycling 1 kg of steel keeps 2 kg of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Recycling steel also diverts these products from landfill and conserves raw materials. For every tonne of steel recycled, 1131 kg of iron ore, 633 kg of coal and 54 kg of limestone are saved.
Reusing Water and Slag
Water is an essential element in steel production, used primarily in the cooling process and for cleaning and descaling. Although this water becomes contaminated during steel production, most impurities are removed through special filtration processes, allowing 98% of the water to be reused. According to Sydney Water, BlueScope Steel uses around 20 million litres of recycled water daily to produce iron and steel, cool the plant and equipment, and decrease dust.
Slag, a stony waste product separated from metals during the smelting of ore, is another by-product of steel production. In the past, slag was dumped by steel manufacturers as it was considered unusable and had devastating impacts on the environment. However, today, almost all slag is repurposed for use in concrete. According to researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne, concrete made with steel slag was about 17% stronger than traditional concrete.
An Energy Saver
Building a steel-framed house is energy-efficient in both summer and winter. The inherent strength of steel products like lintels and t-bars supports thicker, more efficient insulation. In winter, you need less energy to warm the house with heaters and air conditioners. And in summer, steel-framed homes provide better air quality and reduce humidity, meaning that dehumidifiers and air purifiers are unnecessary, reducing energy costs and carbon emissions.
That being said, according to a 2021 article by EY, despite steel being one of the world’s most sustainable materials, “decarbonising remains a challenge”.
Steel Lasts Forever
Once you build with steel, you won't have to rebuild again. Steel posts and columns can withstand high winds, rain, fire, and earthquakes and are not threatened by termites and other boring insects. Steel beams and channels won't crack, warp, twist, split or rot and can be designed to resist rust and vandals.
Sustainability of Steel
Although carbon emissions from steel production have been sliced in half since the 1960s, it still accounts for around 8% of total global carbon emissions, making decarbonisation a global concern.
According to EY, “Steelmakers that move now to improve the sustainability of operations can get ahead of evolving carbon regulations and capitalise on environmental, social and governance (ESG) metrics to gain a competitive edge.”
Although the massive reduction in carbon emissions can be attributed to steelmakers transitioning from blast furnaces (BFs) toward the electric arc furnace (EAF), “creating a genuinely sustainable industry will require broader, bolder measures from all players across the steel value chain”.
The Australian Steel Institute
Now, let’s dive into who the AIS is and their commitment “to facilitating the steel industry to progress environmental, social and economic sustainability throughout the entire supply chain.”
Efficient Use of Steel
Under the Green Building Council of Australia's (GBCA) Green Star grading system for the efficiency of steel use, buildings that reduce the mass of steel framing used compared to standard practice can receive a Life Cycle Impacts Credit. These credits encourage the “industry to create buildings that are not just green but healthy, livable, productive, resilient and sustainable.”
Steelmakers must protect the environment by using sustainable technology and adhering to standards to ensure environmental credentials. While energy requirements for steel production have decreased by 40% in the last 50 years, Australia's steel industry has transitioned from 100% ingot casting to 100% continuous casting, improving yields and saving approximately 25% of the energy formerly necessary to create slabs.
Is Steel Fabrication Sustainable?
Building with wood and other materials often leads to detrimental environmental effects due to wastage in the form of unusable offcuts. Steel, on the other hand, is custom-made by steel fabricators, made-to-order for each project down to the smallest detail, meaning that wastage is almost nonexistent. Moreover, the wastage created by building with wood requires removing old timber.
Our qualified team of on-site welders for onsite welding and repair and steel fabricators have extensive experience in steel fabrication to ensure efficiency and quality. And to ensure we fulfil Australian Specifications and sustainability measures, we source our raw materials locally to satisfy Australian Specifications.
With next-day dispatch across the Sydney metropolitan area, you’ll have your builder’s hardware at your doorstep. And if you live or work nearby, select FREE pick-up from our St Mary’s or Belmore warehouse for structural steel supplies within 24 hours. And if you require more customised work, contact us today and get a quote for your steel fabrication.
Q: Is steel a sustainable material for construction?
A: Yes, steel is considered one of the most sustainable and environmentally friendly materials for construction, thanks to its recyclable and reusable nature.
Q: How much steel is recycled annually?
A: According to the World Steel Association, around 650 million tonnes (or more than 80%) of steel are recycled annually.
Q: How does recycling steel benefit the environment?
A: Recycling 1 kg of steel keeps 2 kg of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, diverts products from landfill, conserves raw materials, and uses 75% less energy than producing steel from raw materials.
Q: What is slag, and how is it used in steel production?
A: Slag is a stony waste product separated from metals during ore smelting. Today, almost all slag is repurposed for use in concrete.
Q: How is steel energy-efficient in construction?
A: Steel products like lintels and t-bars support thicker, more efficient insulation, reducing energy needs for heating and cooling. Steel-framed homes also provide better air quality and lower humidity, meaning less demand for dehumidifiers and air purifiers, reducing energy costs and carbon emissions.
Q: Is the steel industry doing enough to reduce carbon emissions?
A: The steel industry has significantly reduced carbon emissions since the 1960s, but it still accounts for around 8% of total global carbon emissions. More significant and bolder measures are required from all players across the steel value chain to create a genuinely sustainable industry.
Q: What is the Australian Steel Institute (AIS), and what is its commitment to sustainability?A: The AIS is Australia's leading steel supply chain representative committed to facilitating the steel industry's progress in environmental, social, and economic sustainability throughout the supply chain.