Iron and recycling

Iron, I know, is now mostly produced from low-grade ore (at least, so sayeth What I want to know, mostly because I have a slightly disturbing desire to write a really disturbing bit of dystopian science fiction: How much is left, and what (theoretically) could happen when we run out? Is iron currently an easy-to-recycle material, and if not, is progress being made?

I do know from the prelim research I’ve done that most iron that’s mined is converted into steel: does this change the recyclability (which I’m certain is not a word) of the metal? I’m also guessing, but I don’t know, that the vast majority of iron is used in, say, heavy machinery and such, while most of the steel is used in buildings, structures, and cars - I imagine that this would add to the problem of recycling, as buildings aren’t really thrown out very often. Sample question of mine: what did they do with the metal rubble from the WTC wreckage? Was it just carted off and dumped with the rest of the stuff, or is there some way to melt it down into reusable form?

Weird anti-recyling version, but roughly the same tale can be found elsewhere

Just some fast answers off the top of my head.

I doubt iron is used in any heavy machinery. Iron is a relatively weak metal. I would be very surprised if steel were not used virtually everywhere. Maybe not wrought iron fencing, but all industrial applications.

And steel is a word used to describe a million different alloys of iron, with different amounts of a dozen or two other elements added in varying proportions to give it exactly the properties it needs. Recycling steel therefore requires differential smelting to take out these materials one by one. Sounds like a costly and difficult process.

And there is no conceivable shortage in the knowable future. Current world production of iron ore is about 1,000,000,000 tons a year, according to several sources.

This page gives world reserves as 800,000,000,000 tons, or eight hundred times as much.

I’m afraid a dystopia based on the lack of availability of iron is about the least likely scenario you could come up with.

Iron seems to be about 5% of the Earth’s crust. So we’re not likely to run out. Although I suppose the richest ores might eventually be exhausted.

In addition, steel is extremely recyclable.

There are really two distinct market segments to consider when one speaks of recycling - consumer and industrial. Ironically, the area people seem to comlplain about most - industrial activities - has a far, far higher incidence of recycling previously used materials than does the consumer segment. And this is logically so. After all, industry has a greater financial incentive to be efficient than does a private individual. Plus, it’s far easier to collect these recyclable materials from, say, an automobile graveyard than it is from your typical consumer landfill. Also steel recycling leads aluminum recycling by larg margin.

Anyway, the Society of Automotive Engineers claims that nearly 100% of the iron and steel in automobiles is recycled. The large appliance industry is close behind with about 84% of their steel recycled. Indeed, the specifications of the two most used processes for manufacturing steel require at minimum 25% recycled materials. (The Basic Oxygen Furnace method requires about 25% and the Electric Arc Furnace needs nearly 100%) In comparison, consumer recycling captures only about 35% of the recyclable teel available in the products they discard - such as aerosol cans, paint cans and small appliances.

“Steel is currently the most recycled material in commerce. More steel is recycled than all other materials combined. Steel’s unique magnetic properties facilitate its separation from other materials.” — from

I thought the problem wasn’t so much that we’ll use up all the iron, but that we’ll have used up all the easily accessible deposits of iron. If for some reason humanity has to go through a non-industrialized stage, it would be hard for us to start using fossil fuels and metal ores again, because you need the products of industry in order to maintain an industrial society.

Though I have wondered how inaccessible metal ores would be–presumably there’d be lots of abandoned machinery and buildings that could be scavenged.

I’d think any kind of junk yards or what-have-you would produce richer ores than anything found naturally. From what I heard, computer motherboards have higher % of gold in them than regular gold ore. You can “mine” landfills for more iron. Unless we start sending a lot of steel into space, we should never run out.