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Could recycling more steel, aluminum temper the impact of a trade war?

steel bars
UM engineering professor Dan Cooper says the amount of steel and aluminum the U.S. fails to recycle is nearly equal to the amount it imports.


On Friday, President Trump's first tariffs hit $34 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Beijing quickly responded with its own tariffs on equal amounts of American-made goods. Many believe that this back-and-forth between China and U.S. is the start of a trade war.

Imported steel and aluminum are one of the main targets of Trump’s latest tariffs. 

Dan Cooper is an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan. He sat down with Stateside's Cynthia Canty to discuss why these tariffs would have minimal effect on the U.S. if the country did a better job recycling its scrap metal. 

The U.S. imports large quantities of metal, around 36 million tons of steel and nearly 5 million tons of aluminum in 2017. Cooper decided to look into how much of that metal the United States was actually recycling. When he did, Cooper realized that the amount the country fails to recycle is nearly equal to the amount it imports.

According to Cooper, it is difficult to find an exact figure, but he estimated that no more than two-thirds of the steel and aluminum we discard is recycled. The rest goes to a landfill or is exported. If the U.S. were to recycle more of their used steel and aluminum, Cooper said it could have large environmental and economic impacts. 

“Making steel and aluminum is tremendously environmentally harmful. Ten percent of all of the world's emissions — greenhouse gas emissions  — come from making steel and aluminum,” Cooper said. “But if we recycle rather than making them from ore, what we dig out of the ground, if we instead recycle, that has a much smaller carbon footprint.” 

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