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The Difference Between Ferrous And Non-Ferrous Scrap Metals

Posted on 19 January 2017

This is one of the most frequent questions in the scrap metal industry, particularly for those who are serious collectors. And understanding the differences can have a considerable bearing on the buying and selling of scrap material. In simple terms, ferrous metals DO contain iron, and non-ferrous metals DO NOT. But it’s not easy to discern when simply inspecting a piece of metal.

The unique characteristics of ferrous metals

In general, ferrous metals include steel and iron. They are essentially used for their characteristic structural strength and long lasting durability. Ferrous metals would be used in a wide range of applications – from construction and transportation, to domestic tools and hardware in the home.

Ferrous metals (and associated alloys) are susceptible to rust, except wrought iron and stainless steel.  However, if there’s rust present, then it’s a ferrous metal. Most ferrous metals are magnetic – an ideal characteristic for motors and appliances. The most recycled material is ferrous metal.

The unique characteristics of non-ferrous metals

Non-ferrous metals include the likes of aluminum, copper, brass, nickel, lead, and zinc. Precious metal like gold and silver is also non-ferrous. This metal family is much more pliable than ferrous metal, and therefore well suited where strength may be required, but weight might be a factor.

Since non-ferrous metal is iron-free, there is high resistance to rust and corrosion, making the metal ideal for water pipes, roofing materials, and outdoor road signage. These metals are also non-magnetic and with myriad industrial applications.  Aluminum is a highly recycled metal.

The pricing difference between the two metals

Scrap metal pricing is just as important to a smaller scrap collector as it is to a large company that generates high volumes of scrap metal. Overall, ferrous metals are usually in good supply, so the prices are generally lower than non-ferrous metal. Steel and iron (including various alloys) are continually being recycled in high volumes all over the world, so prices tend to be consistent.

Non-ferrous scrap metal is somewhat less abundant than ferrous metal, making demand higher, and therefore driving the price up. And while aluminum scrap prices may be consistent for the most part, copper and brass can fluctuate quite dramatically, depending on market needs. This is why it’s so important to monitor prices, and to ensure that the best price for scrap is attained.

Both metal families are key to the recycling industry

Beyond the differences, both ferrous and non-ferrous metals are key contributors to the recycling industry. With reliable and consistent flow of scrap, both of these metals can be very efficiently processed and then recycled into remanufactured metal that is just as good as the virgin original. The truth is, metal mining and manufacturing pollutes the environment, while consuming huge amounts of energy. This can be circumvented through recovery and recycling efforts, whether by small local collectors, or huge industrial scrap generators. In short, it makes good business sense. Metal recycling is simply a perfect model for recovery, remanufacture, and reuse.

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