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When is a can not necessarily a can?

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I never thought about it this way before, but the can of diced tomatoes I used in a recipe recently may once have played a tiny part in holding up a house, keeping a family’s clothes clean or delivering the carpool. Steel, like aluminum, is a metal that’s highly recyclable, and while cans are the most common usage for both metals, reused steel can come from and go into a host of other products, from car bumpers to building materials to big-ticket appliances.

The amount of steel recycled in the U.S. in 2012 totals more than 60 million tons so far and is growing, according to the Steel Market Development Institute. In comparison, aluminum recycling was around 3.6 million tons as of Friday. Aluminum is much lighter, of course, and its ideal uses are typically smaller items such as cans, lawn furniture and lightweight ladders.

U.S. companies generated about 2.7 million tons of steel for packaging and containers in 2010, and an additional 14.2 million tons of ferrous metals, including steel, for other uses, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Steel, an alloy of iron and carbon, is created through one of two smelting processes, both of which require at least some recovered steel, which guarantees that every item made from steel contains at least some recycled metal.

The U.S. steel industry’s overall recycling rate is 71%, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, which several years ago published a comprehensive look at metal recycling from aluminum to zirconium, and offered a primer on the different types of steel and how they’re made, used and reused.

Factories that primarily use recycled steel reduce significant amounts of energy, water use, and air and water pollution. The amount of recycled scrap iron and steel used in the United States each year is enough to cover a two-lane, 10-foot deep highway from New York to Stockholm, according to Western Metals Recycling.

When recycled products such as aluminum cans are turned right back into cans again, that’s called “closed-loop” recycling, while the practice of gathering scrap steel, iron and other ferrous metals from a variety of sources and sending them to the smelter to become new steel is called “open-loop.”

A relatively small amount of recycled steel will be used to make cans and other containers for consumer use, and vastly larger amounts will go to make cars and buildings. The U.S. auto industry is the biggest steel recycler. With nearly 100% of obsolete vehicles stripped of their iron and steel at the end of life, the industry contributes nearly 15 million tons of steel to the pool annually. In addition to cars and cans, steel has become an essential component in industries including national defense and homeland security, energy, appliance manufacturing and several others, with construction commanding the largest share, according to a 2010 chart from the American Iron and Steel Institute.