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Stainless Steel's Sustainable Advantage

Sustainability choices can touch every aspect of our daily life and increasingly influence architectural design, construction and product manufacturing.   When comparative analyses are done, stainless steel is consistently one of the most environmentally friendly materials used today.  The animation and brochure, issued by Team Stainless, show how stainless steel contributes to a sustainable world in buildings, construction, transportation, healthcare, power, water supply and food.

Stainless Steel for a Sustainable Future
Stainless Steel for a Sustainable Future
The animation and brochure, issued by Team Stainless, show how stainless steel contributes to a sustainable world in areas including transportation, healthcare, power and water supply and food.

View the interactive animation

Comparisons of the sustainability  of construction materials have become increasingly common. The depth of those evaluations and the documentation requirements are changing in response to long-term public and private owner requirements, voluntary rating systems (LEED, BREEAM, Green Star, etc.), and in some cases building codes.

A complete Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) considers the required project life, expected material service life and the environmental impact of the material. In exterior  and other more corrosive applications, there is a direct correlation between corrosion resistance, low maintenance  and long-term ‘sustainable’ performance. Corrosion can lead to aesthetic or structural failure and premature material  replacement. It can have substantial financial and environmental consequences.  The extraction and production of materials require energy and produce emissions.  Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) databases  have been developed in Europe, Australia, the US and in other parts of the world so that decision makers can assess the environmental impact of each material they are considering.  Individual company and region specific industry association Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) also provide LCI information when databases are not available. This data should be third party certified and must be specific to the region in which the material is produced since energy sources and environmental regulations vary.

A growing number of national and local governments and private owners have been instituting minimum project and building service life requirements and the LCI databases are making more complete environmental assessment possible. Building projects can earn additional points in the current version of most widely used green building rating systems (USGBC LEED, BREEAM, Green Star, etc.) if a Whole Building LCA is done.  USGBC LEED and BREEAM use a  minimum design life of 60 years.  The International Green Construction Code (IgCC), an optional addition to the International Construction Code, encourages Whole Building LCA and uses a minimum service life of 75 years.

The building LCA standards  ISO 21931-1 and EN 15978 provide guidance on the boundary and accounting of each life cycle stage (or module).  ASTM E2921 Standard Practice for Minimum Criteria for Comparing Whole Building Life Cycle Assessments for Use with Building Codes, Standards and Rating Systems (insert link https://www.astm.org/Standards/E2921.htm) was developed to define criteria for ensuring comparability between whole building LCAs and uses a minimum service life of 75 years and Life Cycle Inventory (LCI) data. It is used by IgCC and USGBC LEED.

Proving its long-term mettle: Longevity, whole building LCAs, and stainless steel
This article discusses building sustainability assessment in detail with case study examples.
Credit: Stainless Steel World News, Issue 113, November 2016, pages 14–15, author Catherine Houska, editor Matjaž Matošec

Building sites with higher pollution levels, deicing or coastal salt exposure, and/or acid rain can suffer accelerated deterioration of construction materials. Molybdenum-containing stainless steels like Types 316, 444, and even more corrosion resistant alloys like duplex 2205 provide the necessary aesthetic and corrosion performance in these environments.  IMOA provides stainless steel selection guidance and the other articles and brochures on our Stainless Selection pages assist with appropriate selection.

The selection tools, case studies and climate & pollution data provided on this website help decision makers select the right stainless steel for any environment. Recent feature articles in North American magazines and several recent IMOA sustainability case studies highlight the contributions stainless steels are making to sustainable design.

Recycling and Recapture Rates

Stainless steel is 100-percent recyclable with no down-cycling, regardless of how many times it is recycled. Stainless steel producers use as much recycled content as possible. In 2002, the International Stainless Steel Forum (ISSF) estimated typical recycled content of stainless steels at about 60%. The Specialty Steel Industry of North America (SSINA) issued a Fact Sheet stating that 300 series stainless steels produced in North America, like Type 316, have a post-consumer recycled content of 75 to 85%. Some stainless steel producers report as much as 90% recycled content for their most common stainless steels

Researchers at the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University in New Haven, CT and the National Institute for Environmental Studies in Tsukuba, Japan, have examined the international life cycle of stainless steel in depth, including typical service life and end-of-life (EOL) recapture rates by application. In the building and infrastructure segment, they estimated that 92% of stainless steel is collected for recycling at the end of life. Their article published in Environmental Science & Technology provides details on this and other end-use markets.

Global Stainless Steel Cycle Exemplifies China's Rise to Metal Dominance

As the table below demonstrates, this makes stainless steel one of the most environmentally friendly metals available for construction.

Typical Recycled Content and End-of-Life Collection Ratio
Metal ProductRecycled Content (%)EOL Collection Ratio (%)
Carbon Steel
  Integrated mills 25-35 70 (sheet/strip)
  Mini mills 90 98 (beams, plate)
Stainless Steel 70 - 90* 92
Zinc 23 33
  Electrical wire 0 >90
  Other products 70 - 95 >90
Aluminium (11)
  Sheet 0 70
  Extrusions varies 70
  Castings ≤100 70

* 70% is the global average. Some producers report as much as 90%.

Table references:

“Comparing the Sustainability of Architectural Metals,” Catherine Houska and Dr. Steven Young, The Construction Specifier, July 2006, pgs. 80 – 90.

"Global Stainless Steel Cycle Exemplifies China's Rise to Metal Dominance," Environmental Science & Technology.

Molybdenum-containing stainless steel conserves natural resources in many ways. It does not contribute to landfill waste or require frequent replacement. It is possible to use thinner stainless steel panels, and reduce heat gain and air-conditioning costs through good design. Furthermore, stainless steel does not require coating to prevent corrosion, eliminating the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and associated toxic run-off. Stainless steel products are an excellent choice to protect the environment and create comfortable, attractive structures. Go to the worldstainless site to learn more about this remarkable material.

See also:

Sustainable Stainless Steel Architecture (Nickel Institute)
North American LEED Fact Sheet
International Stainless Steel Recycling Information

Team Stainless Stainless steel videos

IMOA Case Studies

Federal Building, San Francisco
Sunscreens greatly reduce the need for air conditioning in buildings. The Federal Building in San Francisco was built with computer-controlled stainless steel sunscreens which, together with natural ventilation, reduce the energy needed to cool the building by two-thirds. The molybdenum-containing stainless steel is highly corrosion resistant and is specified for a design life of 100 years.
Thin-film photovoltaic solar panels
Solar power is an increasingly prevalent source of carbon-free, renewable energy generation. New thin-film photovoltaic panels offer significant advantages over traditional arrays in manufacturing, cost and design flexibility. Molybdenum provides several advantages as a component of the back electrode in CdTe cells, and as the sole material of the back electrode in CIGS technology.
Friends Arena, Stockholm
Molybdenum is an important alloying element in high-strength steel (HSS), which enables lighter and stronger structures than conventional steel. This study looks at the use of HSS in the Friends Arena, Stockholm, which reduced the quantity of steel used for construction by 17% and also cut greenhouse gas emissions by 17% over the lifetime of the stadium.
Benefits of molybdenum use: The Myllysilta Bridge, Finland
Duplex stainless steel provides exceptional resistance to pitting and crevice corrosion from chlorides, and is therefore ideally suited to areas exposed to coastal waters and deicing salts. This lifecycle analysis study compared the total environmental impacts of the use of duplex stainless steel containing 3.1% molybdenum to clad the Myllsilta bridge in Finland, compared with mild steel and zinc-epoxy paint. The study found a 62% reduction in global warming potential, a 67% reduction in eutrophication potential and a 38% reduction in non-renewable energy, over the estimated lifetime of the bridge. The selected option also reduced photochemical ozone creation potential by 99%, by dispensing with the need for anti-corrosion paint.

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