Christian M. 7 min read

Metal recycling

The world of metal recycling is fascinating. Not only are there over 20 metals typically found in waste, but this comes from a wide range of unrelated sectors, including marine and aerospace scrap, electronics and batteries, construction waste and aluminium drinks cans.

It’s so intricately linked to technology and infrastructure that it keeps growing and becoming more complex over time, but despite this, it’s actually one of the most widely recycled materials.

Why?  – Because it’s valuable—so much so that there is even a metal theft issue in the UK.

But enough spoilers. This article covers everything your business needs to know about metal recycling in the UK.

💡 Key takeaways:

  • Recyclability spectrum: Aluminium cans are easy to recycle, while electronics and batteries require specialised facilities.
  • Circular process: Most of the UK’s metal is collected, sorted, cleaned, shredded, melted, purified and used to manufacture new products.
  • The Future: The continued growth of metal recycling depends on global metal prices and the technological development of recycling technologies, especially sorting.

Can metal be recycled?

Metals are among the most recyclable materials available because of their unique properties (they can all be melted), our long history in metallurgy (we have thousands of years of experience processing metals) and their scarcity.

Both ferrous metals (like steel and iron) and non-ferrous metals (such as aluminium, copper, brass, and stainless steel) can be recycled multiple times without losing their properties and under a similar metal recycling process.

However, the recyclability of metal products varies. Those containing metal alloys (i.e. a mixture of multiple metals), hazardous metals (i.e. mercury, lead) or simply those that are hard to segregate are more difficult to recycle than metal products made predominantly from the same metal.

Here’s a list of common metal items by their Recyclability Score (Arbitrary score where 5 = easiest to recycle, 1 = hardest to recycle)

Easy-to-recycle metals products

Aluminum cansPoster boy of metal recycling. Highly efficient recycling process that is highly segregated at source.
Steel cansCommonly used in food packaging, magnetic separation simplifies recycling significantly.
Copper wiringHigh value and demand for recycling. Slightly more labour intensive to collect, sort and strip wiring.
Brass fixturesValuable and easy to segregate. Recycling is straightforward but requires separation from other metals in fixtures.
Stainless steel appliancesWidely recyclable and retains value

Hard-to-recycle metals products

Metallic packaging (composites)Challenging to recycle because the metals are fused together. Requires high-energy, specialised processes.
Electronics with rare metalsSmall quantities and diversity of metals requires specialised sorting and recycling technologies.
Coated or painted metalsMore expensive because coatings or paint need to be removed, often manually, before recycling.
Aerosol cansMay contain residual hazardous chemicals and requires de-pressurisation.
Alkaline batteriesSmall quantities and diversity of metals, and handling of hazardous chemicals.

How much metal waste is recycled in the UK?

According to the BMRA, the UK annually recycles around 10 million tonnes of ferrous metal (such as steel and iron) and around 1 million tonnes of non-ferrous metal (such as aluminium, copper, and brass).

While there are no official estimates of this metal’s provenance, our waste experts have made a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on their experience.

Source of metal wasteEstimates (%)
Industrial scrap40-50%
End-of-Life Vehicles (ELVs)25-30%
Construction and demolition10-15%
Electronics and electrical equipment (WEEE)5-10%
Utilities and infrastructure (e.g. pipes, cables)5-10%
Marine and aerospace1-2%

The metal recycling process in the UK

Metal waste in the UK goes through numerous processes, each managed by a specialised actor, such as collection companies, scrap yards, smelters, refiners and manufacturers. Here is a list of the main processes, and who is the principal actor:

Metal waste collection (Metal waste collectors)

Commercial waste collection companies in the UK are essential in managing metal waste from businesses and industries, including construction sites, manufacturing facilities, and offices. They provide commercial waste bins and schedule pickups (either regularly or ad-hoc) to ensure that metal waste is efficiently collected and transported to recycling facilities.

Collection can be in the form of Dry Mixed Recycling (DMR), segregated metal collection (aka single-stream) and even single-metal if a specialised business generates predominantly a single metal type, such as copper (electrical wires, plumbing pipes), aluminum (automotive parts, beverage cans) or precious metals (electronics, jewellery).

Ultimately, the collection company your business uses will depend on:

  • How much, how regular and how pure is your metallic waste.
  • What collection services are available locally.

💡 Did you know? The UK has one of Europe’s highest recycling rates for steel and aluminium packaging, with over 75% of steel packaging and around 70% of aluminium packaging recycled annually. (Source: BMRA)

Metal waste pre-processing (Scrap yards)

The preparation stage for melting waste metal involves pre-sorting, shredding and decontamination of the metal waste.

Reception and sorting: Typically, when a truck full of metal waste arrives at a scrap yard, it undergoes a basic screening process. Here, obvious contaminants or unrelated materials that were loaded are removed, either manually or by machinery like a front-end loader. The waste is also sorted into piles of different types and sizes, as any waste that is too large must be manually cut or crushed into smaller pieces to ensure it is manageable.

Shredding: The sorted waste is typically shredded into smaller pieces (below 15 cm in some cases) to facilitate handling and, sometimes, further segregation. This helps remove non-metallic materials that might be attached to or mixed with the metal. Depending on the specific type of metallic waste, sorting can be manual (i.e., humans on a conveyor belt), magnetic (to separate ferrous metals), by density (heavier metals sink), etc.

💡 Specialised metals: Waste electronics and batteries will typically be sent to specialised recycling facilities, as typical scrap yards are not designed to handle the more complex pre-processing of these wastes, which typically contain rare and precious metals in small quantities.

Melting and purification (Smelters and refiners)

Melting: The sorted and shredded metals are then sent to a smelter (although some have their own scrap yards), melting in large furnaces, each specifically designed for different types of metals. The melting process is carefully controlled to maintain the purity of the metal.

Purification: After melting, the metal is purified to remove contaminants. This can be done through various methods, such as electrolysis or chemical agents, ensuring the final product (e.g. sheets, wires, ingots, bars) meets the required quality standards.

New metal products (Manufacturers)

To complete the circular economy of metal, the purified metal in its final form (e.g. ingots) is sent to manufacturers to create new products. In the UK, recycled metals are commonly used in the automotive industry, construction, packaging, and in the production of electrical appliances. A portion of it is also exported abroad.

💡 Energy savings: Recycling metal saves up to 95% of the energy required to produce new metal from raw materials. For example, recycling aluminium cans saves 95% of the energy needed to make new cans from bauxite ore. (Source: BMRA)

Disposing of metal waste

Although most of the metal waste in the UK is recycled, a portion will always be disposed of in the general waste stream, most of the time accidentally or unknowingly. Technically speaking, this is illegal as businesses have a duty of care over their waste and must follow the waste hierarchy.

Metal waste disposed of in the general waste stream ends up in landfills or incinerated in waste-to-energy facilities. In the latter’s case, there is still a chance to recover metal because of metals’ high melting and boiling points, which leaves it in high concentrations (typically between 5 – 15%) in the remnant incinerator ash.

💡 Landfill Tax: This fiscal instrument charges a tax per tonne of landfill waste. Metal waste is dense and disproportionately contributes to this tax, providing a significant incentive for councils and businesses to reduce their quantities in the general waste stream.

The obstacles facing metal recycling

The UK is a global leader in metal recycling but still faces significant challenges in reaching 100% metal recycling rates. Here are five important blockers:

1. Contamination: One of the main challenges in metal recycling is contamination, mainly in composite materials (like alloys) or simply from small quantities of metals being part of complex, multi-material components like electronics. This can reduce the quality of the recycled metal and complicate the recycling process, leading to higher costs and lower efficiency. See other hard-to-recycle metals here.

💡Paint contamination: Developments in hydro or sandblasting have significantly reduced the price of removing paint from metals. However, it’s still costly at industrial scales, and the wastewater generated can be environmentally harmful.

2. Technological limitations: Effective collection, sorting, and metal processing systems are essential for successful metal recycling, but they are still lacking despite technical innovation. Up-and-coming recycling technologies are expected to improve each of these steps in recycling, even to the point in which new incentive mechanisms can be designed using blockchains.

3. Market fluctuations: The demand and prices for recycled metals can vary significantly and are influenced by global market trends, economic conditions, and changes in supply (finding or acceding new mineral deposits) and demand (how much is needed to meet industry needs). These fluctuations can impact the profitability and sustainability of recycling operations.

4. Regulatory challenges: Compliance with environmental and waste regulations and standards can be challenging for recycling facilities, especially when dealing with hazardous waste or ensuring emissions and effluents meet devolved legal requirements.

5. Awareness: Most SMEs in Britain are unaware they don’t comply with even the most basic waste regulations, even when these could represent savings in the form of reduced landfill tax and avoidance of non-compliance fines. Upcoming implementations of EPA 2021 will give regulators more compliance power, hopefully increasing awareness of metal recycling possibilities!

Future of metal recycling

The future of metal recycling depends primarily on what the UK government does, the international metal prices, and upcoming technological developments. Let’s look at each in detail:

UK policies

While the UK hasn’t set any specific metal recycling targets, several existing policies are designed to incentivise metal waste recycling. For example, WEEE (electronic waste) and End-of-Life Vehicle regulations exist to maximise metal recycling. Also, the introduction of Extended Producer Responsibilities via EPA 2021 should result in the design of products whose metal components are easier to recycle. But like all policies, only time will tell if they are successful in their mission.

💡 Scrap Metal Dealers Act: Arguably the most important law for metal recycling was introduced as early as 1964 and amended in 2013. One of the main changes was making cash payments for metal scrap illegal, requiring an audit trail to ensure compliance with regulations.

Metal prices

Some analysts expect metal prices to keep increasing in line with an increasing demand for infrastructure and technology. Higher metal prices make metal recycling a lucrative endeavour, especially considering that the rapid development of commercial recycling technologies, including AI and robotics, will likely make the process more efficient and cheaper. There is no better incentive than a lucrative business.

On the other hand, developments in the mining industry can also make extracting ore somewhat cheaper despite this being the environmentally poorer option. If mining companies pay environmental premiums in their operation, this may also help with recycling. Many variables are at play, so it is difficult to predict what will happen.


We are at the cusp of technological advancement, and it is still unclear how technologies like AI will accelerate development. Some say we are about to go exponentially faster than our current exponential improvements, as AIs will be able to train their own AIs and solve problems at breakneck speeds.

💡 Cheaper and more efficient:  AI-powered systems, equipped with machine learning algorithms and advanced sensors, could accurately identify and sort different types of metals at high speeds, even distinguishing between alloys and grades, without paying for labour.

How much does metal recycling cost businesses?

This is largely variable and depends on the volumes and types of metal waste your business generates, the location of your premises, and the recycling services available to your business.

Metal waste and collection providers

Metal waste comes in many forms, including electronic waste, hazardous waste, and oil & gas waste.

Each local council (sometimes including the council itself!) has a range of commercial waste providers, each providing different commercial waste collection costs. There are many reasons, including their recycling facility, whether they are specialists at certain metal wastes, the volumes and collection frequency they handle, and their business strategy.

Our comparison service lets you compare commercial recycling quotes tailored to your business, which should help you find the lowest cost possible.

💡 Hidden savings: Businesses that recycle their metal waste will pay less landfill tax because its tonnage will go to the recycling stream instead. They will also avoid non-compliance fines, which can be unlimited in England and Wales.

Metal recycling – FAQs

Our business waste experts answer commonly asked questions on metal recycling in the UK.

How long have we been recycling metal?

Metals are among the most recyclable materials available because of their unique properties and usefulness to society.

Humans have been practising metallurgy (i.e., separating metals from ore, forging new metal composites, recycling waste metal tools) since at least the Bronze Age, which started 5,000 years ago. During this period, humans began re-melting tools, weapons, and jewellery and minting coins from recycled metal in a prolific fashion.

More specifically, scrap yards took off during the 19th-century industrial revolution in the UK, with unprecedented amounts of metal waste generated from manufacturing, production, construction, etc. During WW1, scrap metal became paramount, with metal waste being collected from the battlefield and turned into military equipment.

Now, the sector is worth over £5 billion and continues to grow yearly, with an increasing number of vehicles, ships, electronics, batteries, and cables, just to name a few essentials in this digital age.

How many metal recycling facilities are there in the UK?

We have not been able to find exact numbers, as these include small, family-owned scrap yards and large corporations. The British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA) represents over 250 member companies, including many of the metal recycling facilities in the UK. You can find a comprehensive list of all recycling facilities here.

Are scrap yards considered metal recycling facilities?

Yes, a scrap yard is referred to as a metal recycling facility. However, only a part of the recycling process (i.e. collection, sorting and preparation for recycling) typically occurs in a stand-alone facility. The sorted and cleaned metals are typically sold to smelters, refiners and manufacturers, who then do the metallurgical recycling. Some of these also have their own scrap yards to cover the entire process.

Is metal theft common in the UK?

Metal theft has been a significant issue in the UK, particularly when metal prices are high. Metals like copper, lead, and aluminium are often targeted due to their value. Incidents of metal theft have included stealing copper cables from railway lines, lead from church roofs, and bronze statues from public spaces.

This issue still exists but has been dampened through the Scrap Metal Dealers Act in 2013, which prohibited cash payments for scrap metal and a record-keeping requirement.

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