06 February 2018

Stainless Steel

I like stainless steel items. They are durable, pretty and eco-friendly.

It seems I'm not the only one because that type of steel alloy is used all over the World and has many purposes.

From the architectural applications, where it's valued for durability,  corrosion resistance but also because it looks well and can be moulded to any shape imaginable and simply become a work of art.

Jin Mao Tower Shanghai China
JinMao tower is but one example of a building which facade is using stainless steel

Through various medical uses, where the fact that not only stainless steel items don't rust, but also they can be sterilised and re-used, thus cutting costs without endangering the patients.

To uses such as automotive and rail production.

And what's most important for an everyday user such as myself: kitchen utensils and tools.

There's no argument that not only stainless steel items are more durable than plastic or wood, but like in medicine, they are safer and easier to clean (boiling plastics anyone?).

Reusable Steel Water Bottle - BPA Free, 600ml


I asked myself recently: What is stainless steel actually and is it better for the environment in the long run?

And I've found this: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Stainless-Steel.html

There's no point in copying the whole article, it has brilliant information, and if you'd like to know more I strongly suggest to read it, but there are a couple of points where my eco-heart stopped for a bit.

Stainless steels are made of some of the basic elements found in the earth: iron ore, chromium, silicon, nickel, carbon, nitrogen, and manganese.

Whenever I hear about raping our planet for natural resources, I feel bad.
So how basic are those elements? And is mining them harmless?

Didn't have to search long and lo and behold the ugly face of mining raised its head. Not only iron mining is destructive to the land, but it produces quite a lot of pollution. (see Wikipedia). At least the resources aren't small. By no means does it mean they're sustainable, but they are there.

Chromium mining seems even worse if not controlled strictly. (source)

Silicon is the second most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, after oxygen. It can be found in nearly every rock on Earth, especially in common sand. Mining is practically safe and low-cost energetically compared to the other elements. Phew.

Same goes for nitrogen. By volume, dry air contains 78.09% nitrogen, which means that getting it is not a problem.

Nickel? The Philippines this year closed or suspended 17 nickel mines because of environmental concerns. Enough said.

Carbon - another product nearly everyone on earth is aware of. Mining is harmful to the environment, and carbon resources have been heavily abused in recent millennia.

Manganese is a key component of low-cost stainless steel. Manganese is an important element for human health, essential for development, metabolism, and the antioxidant system. Nevertheless, excessive exposure or intake may lead to a condition known as manganism, a disorder that causes symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease.

All of this looks pretty grim. And on top of the energetic needs of the stainless steel production process, it can't be good, can it?

Actually, as I've found, it is.

Not only most stainless steel we use nowadays is in 60% made of recycled material, but also, steel is 100% recyclable. That's right! If you have an old razor blade, do not despair. It might get moulded into some beautiful building or hospital needle and save lives.

Don't forget also, that stainless steel products are designed for a long life - typically several decades.
Didn't we all see at some point this colander or spoon than went down generations in our family? Exactly! Once all these minerals are mined they stay with us for a very long time and are still usable.

The same can't be said about polymers.

Most plastics are quite easy to break (according to many theories by design, so that we buy more and more often). Plastic items are soft, so they get dirty quite easy, and majority aren't that good with high temperatures.
That's not all. When they aren't clean they're hard to sort. When, otherwise recyclable, polymers are mixed with specific additives, they might not be suitable for recycling anymore.

What do I mean?

A recent study shows that only 9% of the 8.3 billion metric tons that have been produced were recycled. Half of all steel produced, for example, is used in construction, with a decades-long lifespan. Half of all plastic manufactured becomes trash in less than a year, the study found.

Post-consumer products may contain as many as 20 different types of plastic material; so one of the biggest challenges is sorting it all. Apparently recycling plastics uses only roughly 10% of the energy that it takes to make a pound of plastic from raw materials. Let's not be overly optimistic. US alone U.S. uses approximately 2 million barrels of crude oil a day to make plastics!

And that drilling and mining for oil is by no means less destructive to the environment than the materials used in steel making. Not only we deal with macro-devastation of land, but also explosive and toxic gases, fuel leaks, which pretty much were the news the last decade.
Oil mining literally stripes the land of vegetation, animal life and cause irreversible land changes, but also, that's the worst, the amount of gases leaking into atmosphere is casing climate change.

Reusing stainless steel uses around 25% of the energy used when creating from raw materials.
Global stainless steel production in 2016 was 45,778 mln metric tons. 60% of which comes from recycling. That's vastly less than the oil reserves devastation for polymer production only (let's not forget oil reserves are being depleted for other uses too)!

Recycling Economic Facts (source)

  • Between 2004 and 2014, the global production of plastics grew from 225 million tons to 311 million tons.
  • According to PlasticsEurope, 7.7 million tons of plastics were recycled globally in 2013, including greater than 3.5 million tons of post-industrial and post-consumer plastic scrap.in the U.S., according to ISRI estimates.
  • In 2013, ISRI estimates that 3.5 million tons of postindustrial and postconsumer plastic were recycled in the U.S.
  • The recycling rate for plastic bottles in the United States reached 31.0 percent in 2014, down slightly from 31.2 percent in 2013.
  • Only a very small percentage of recycled bottles are used to make new bottles.  Coca-Cola sources only 7% of its plastic from recycled material, while Nestle Waters North America uses just 6% recycled contact.


Conclusion

It is quite clear that a lot has to be done to make mining for materials safer and less destructive.
Ideally, we should not mine at all and reuse everything we can, and I hope such times will come sooner rather than later.
But the comparison of the environmental impact and usefulness of plastics versus stainless steel products is simple.
Oil drilling, by sheer volume of changes and hazards is way worse than any other mining on the Earth. Not even coal.

The amount of extremely hard to clean waste produced from plastic is catastrophic, while 100% of stainless steel and and most likely will be reused, and even if not it is dormant. It does not react with wildlife to the level plastics can.

That's why I've decided to stay with my metallic beauties :)

Decorating Spoon with Tapered Spout


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