Home Economy, Policy & Business Can steel be sustainable?

Can steel be sustainable?

Tan Man Ee
As global steel consumption continues to grow, it is imperative for the steel industry to adopt sustainable, responsible production practices
Chief Operating Officer of NatSteel Holdings Pte Ltd
A steel manufacturing facility

Given steel is one of the most important commodities in the global economy and in our day-to-day lives, it is imperative the steel industry prioritises the sustainability of the material.

The importance of steel can be seen from just how much its production has grown. Global crude steel production increased from 189 million tonnes in 1950 to 1,809 million tonnes in 2018, with production doubling since 2000. The amount of steel produced in 2018 alone would be enough to build a whopping 43,100 Beijing National Stadiums.

The increased consumption of steel worldwide underscores how essential the metal is to modern society. While steel production can have an adverse impact on the environment through the emission of harmful gases, contaminants and waste, there is growing awareness among manufacturers about the importance of responsibility in production.

Separately, the good news is that the magnetic nature of steel allows for a swift and cost-efficient method of recovery from waste yards, which in turn means the metal is sustainable.

Recycling steel

According to the World Steel Association, by recycling steel, the consumption of iron ore and coal can be reduced significantly by 35 and 18 billion tonnes respectively. And by recycling an estimated 630 million tonnes of scrap annually, the steel industry has reduced the amount of carbon dioxide emissions in raw steel production by 950 million tonnes.

Apart from the great benefits that come with recycling steel, the steel industry in itself is also considered to be circular, with no resources going to waste. All of the steel industry’s co-products can be reused for other purposes. For instance, slag is used in cement for road construction, process gases assist in the production of heat and/or electricity, emulsions are used as reducing agents and chemicals are sent to chemical industries to be used as input materials.

While steps are being taken to recycle as much steel as possible, more has to be done to ensure continued sustainability. With cutting-edge technology, new opportunities are being explored to increase overall sustainability, beyond just recycling. These include, but are not limited to, conducting in-depth research and development to better manage emissions, investigating the process of converting steelmaking gases into useful energy, as well as engineering a way to reduce the reliance on fossil fuels for manufacturing.

As much as sustainability initiatives in the steel industry come into the mainstream compared to the past, there is a lot more than can be done from a sustainability perspective.

There has been a marked increase in sustainability efforts undertaken by governments and steel mills in Asia in the past few years, as concerns of sustainability grow globally. As the production of steel continues to grow, it is crucial—and heartening—to see that more countries around the world are taking steps to curb the wide-ranging consequences of climate change as much as possible, by increasing the recycling rate or cutting harmful emissions produced from the manufacturing of steel in recent years.

Local initiatives that go beyond recycling

Singapore is among 77 nations worldwide to have declared a commitment to the UNFCC’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which promises a reduction in the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases through lowering the demand for and reliance on fossil fuel.

The city-state’s National Environment Agency (NEA) has also implemented strict legislation and generous incentives, taking both a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach to minimise energy wastage and energy costs to the extent possible. Companies in the steel production line need to follow unbending standards and rules in order to ensure that production is sustainable and circular. Apart from this carrot-and-stick approach, the NEA also rewards companies that adhere to these standards through incentives.

The Energy Conservation Act (ECA), meanwhile, holds companies in the industrial energy sector in Singapore accountable, by making it mandatory for companies to adhere to both the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards, which covers electrically-driven, water-cooled systems in industrial facilities, as well as the Minimum Energy Performance Standards, which specifies the minimum level of energy performance that electrical equipment have to meet before being used for commercial purposes.

Various companies are looking to play their part too, as conversations around sustainable practices become mainstream. NatSteel, for instance, is leveraging technology, such as by installing molten slag interfaces that mitigate the wastage of essential resources for steel production, and introducing Grade 600 Reinforcement Bars – which are higher strength capacity bars that reduce the amount of steel reinforcement needed in the construction industry, thereby lowering the carbon footprint of the construction industry.

Paving the way for greener steel

Outside of Singapore, sustainability efforts by steel mills are also increasing. For example, the Japanese steel industry aims to reduce carbon emissions by using hydrogen for iron ore reduction and collecting carbon dioxide from blast furnace gases. The industry aims to achieve widespread use of this process by 2050, a goal set for the long run.

In China, sustainability in the steel industry is of growing concern. Steel mills are committed to medium- and long-term carbon planning, in order to better prepare emission reports and monitoring plans that aim to better develop their pre-existing carbon trading system. China has also developed a Green Development Vision and Low Carbon Operation goal, with the implementation of a strict Environmental Protection Law that the steel industry has to adhere to, with goals to transform the industry into a more circular, ecofriendly one.

As the production of steel continues to grow, it is crucial—and heartening—to see that more countries around the world are taking steps to curb the wide-ranging consequences of climate change as much as possible, by increasing the recycling rate or cutting harmful emissions produced from the manufacturing of steel in recent years.

Increasing concerted efforts to drive sustainability within the steel industry can also be seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Steel mills in Thailand are better managing their air, water and waste pollution levels, and are setting their eyes on further mitigating greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible through greater adoption of cleaner energy sources such as solar. The Thai Office of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy and Planning (ONEP) has also made it mandatory for steel production companies to submit updated Environmental Impact Assessment reports, as well as environmental impact mitigation data, to ensure the steel industry remains as transparent as possible in achieving their set sustainability targets.

Although sustainable practices are becoming more common around the world, these efforts should never be seen as just a “phase”. Moving forward, as much as sustainability initiatives in the steel industry come into the mainstream compared to the past, there is a lot more than can be done from a sustainability perspective.

Steel mills globally have the necessary resources to become more sustainable; the industry must strive to improve its sustainability practices to produce green steel for a greener future.

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Chief Operating Officer of NatSteel Holdings Pte Ltd

Ms Tan Man Ee is presently the chief operating officer of NatSteel Holdings Pte Ltd. She is responsible for the business performance of both local and overseas businesses. Her experience spans across various business units within NatSteel. Starting off as an engineer before assuming leadership positions in supply chain management and downstream business, she currently has more than 30 years of experience in building and civil engineering construction, sales and marketing, operations and supply chain management.

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