Region's manufacturing base understands value of recycling

'73 percent of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today'


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Pittsburgh has always been a green city, it's just that for the industries that have been strong here, green as in environmentalism, lined up with green as in cash.

Steel and aluminum, two of the traditionally strong industries in Pittsburgh, were early adopters of recycling, because it was cheaper to melt down old products to make new products than it was to go out and mine the raw materials.

"What you and I call junk yards is the original recycler," said Bill Heenan, the president of the Steel Recycling Institute.

The process of making steel has included recycled steel for the last 150 years. Anyone alive during World War II remembers the metal drives in which people would donate their old pots and pans to make guns and tanks for the boys overseas.

It's not just pots and pans that are making it into new buildings and bridges. Cars, refrigerators, washing machines and even parts of Three Rivers Stadium have been used to build buildings and bridges across the country.

More steel is recycled, by volume, than any other material.

This gives Mr. Heenan a slightly skewed vision of America because while the rest of us look at the Golden Gate Bridge as an engineering marvel and an architectural beauty, "we look at the Golden Gate Bridge as scrap and inventory," he said. "Eventually, we'll get it back."

US Steel doesn't just recycle old steel into new appliances, the company uses the waste gas that is generated in the baking of coal into coke in Clairton as fuel for two other plants in the Mon Valley Works: the Edgar Thomson Plant in North Braddock and the Irvin Plant in West Mifflin. That gas contains about 500 BTU's of energy or half the power of natural gas.

That big pipeline that runs from Clairton up to West Mifflin and North Braddock "is a very large recycling program," said Courtney Boone, a spokeswoman for US Steel. "When you reduce your energy, you reduce your environmental presence."

Kennemetal in Latrobe also is reducing it's carbon footprint, its waste and the amount of water it uses as part of it's Protecting Our Planet program. It is also looking to the lower level energy uses and changing the corporate culture to save electricity by turning off lights and computers.

The entire steel industry is interested in reducing energy, in part to cut back on the wild fluctuations of energy costs. Mr. Heenan said if an energy saving program has a potential return on investment of two or three years, the companies jump on it, knowing it could be paid back much sooner if prices spike again.

Mr. Heenan said the steel industry also has found a good use for slag as ballast for the railroads saving the environmental effects both of mining coal and from creating slag heaps. Slag high in nitrogen also helps fertilize fields.

When it comes to aluminum, Alcoa, which had a long tenure with Pittsburgh as its corporate home, has been recycling for as long as it has been processing the metal for products.

"We've been doing this since we invented the smelting process in 1888. That's because aluminum is so valuable and so easy to recycle," said a statement on the company's website.

Recycling is a natural for the company because it is cheaper to make aluminum from aluminum than it is to mine ore, that also reduces the energy used in mining and processing aluminum ore.

"Recycling saves 95 percent of the energy it takes to make new aluminum," Mike Belwood, a company spokesman said, adding "73 percent of the aluminum ever produced is still in use today, proving it is infinitely recyclable."

The other fun green fact about aluminum is that an aluminum can, once sold, can be back on the shelf as a new can in 60 days.

Liberty Tire Co., based in Pittsburgh with one of its plants in Braddock, is using a traditional waste material to make new products.

The company now owns the old Recovery Technologies Group, including the cryogenic plant along the Monongahela River where it freezes the rubber to make it brittle and it smashes the tires to tiny bits that are used for synthetic athletic fields, playground surfaces, mulch, speed bumps and railroad ties.

Another by-product of the process, the steel belts in steel-belted radials, is sold to the steel companies to be recycled.

Don Rea, president of Liberty Tire, said the company, with 20 plants across the country, processes 110 million old tires a year either by freezing them or grinding them up. That is nearly a third of the tires that are discarded across the country.

Mr. Rea said the process is also good for adding rubber to road materials, as is now required in California and Arizona where it makes roads quieter, more resilient and safer.

"We are a very green company because of the wide area of things we cover," Mr. Rea said.

One local company that has a history of developing the products used in commercial and industrial buildings has found a whole new life in green building products.

Moon-based Centria, which has its roots in Pittsburgh companies that date back 100 years, produces building envelopes: siding, roofing and flooring materials.

Centria produces the jacket that a building wears to protect it from the elements. What they have developed over the years are materials that offer that are certified as "Cradle to Cradle" materials, meaning they are environmentally-intelligent materials from the beginning of their life cycles to the ultimate recycling or disposal of the product. Mark Sherwin, the president of the company said the move to developing and producing "Cradle to Cradle" certified products is responsible for at least 10 percent of the company's growth.

The company's products can be found on most of the new buildings in town: the two stadiums, two sides of the Consol Energy Center, the Rivers Casino and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

For the insides of buildings, another Pittsburgh company, PPG developed zero volatile organic compound emitting paints (meaning they don't have that noxious smelling stuff) in 2001, but Tracy Pease, a brand manager for the company, said those paints have only really been marketed as Zero VOC over the last few years as consumers started to look for them.


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699. First Published March 16, 2010 4:00 AM


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