Before we can determine whether stainless steel is a sustainable material, we should first define what we mean by sustainability in relation to what is known as the triple bottomline: People, Planet and Profit.
The material, in its use or in its production process, respects the human being, especially in terms of health and safety. A sustainable material does not harm the people working to produce it, or the people who handle it during its use, recycling and ultimate disposal. Stainless steel is not harmful to people during either its production or use. A protective layer forms naturally on all stainless steels because of the inclusion of chromium. The passive layer protects the steel from corrosion - ensuring a long life. As long as the correct grade of stainless is selected for an application, the steel remains inert and harmless to the people who handle it and the environment. These characteristics have made stainless steel the primary material in medical, food processing, household and catering applications.
The emission footprints of the material, especially those related to carbon, water and air, are minimised. Reuse and recyclability are at high levels. The material has low maintenance costs and a long life, both key indicators that the impact of the material on the planet is at the lowest levels possible. Stainless steels are easily recycled to produce more stainless steels and this process can be carried on indefinitely. It is estimated that about 80% of stainless steels are recycled at the end of their life. As stainless steel has a high intrinsic value, it is collected and recycled without any economic incentives from the public purse.
The industries producing the material show long-term sustainability and growth, provide excellent reliability and quality for their customers, and ensure a solid and reliable supplychain to the end consumer.
Choosing stainless steel for an application ensures that it will have low maintenance costs, a long life and be easy to recycle at the end of that life. This makes stainless an economical choice in consumer durables (such as refrigerators and washing machines) and in capital goods applications (such as transportation, chemical and process applications). Stainless steels also have better mechanical properties than most metals. Its fire and corrosion resistance make stainless a good choice in transportation, building or public works such as railways, subways, tunnels and bridges. These properties, together with stainless steels’ mechanical behaviour, are of prime importance in these applications to ensure human beings are protected and maintenance costs are kept low. Stainless also has an aesthetically pleasing appearance, making it the material of choice in demanding architectural and design projects. Taking into account its recyclability, reuse, long life, low maintenance and product safety, the emissions from the production and use of stainless steels are minimal when compared to any other alternative material. A detailed and precise analysis of the sustainability of stainless steel makes the choice of stainless a logical one. This might explain why, as society and governments are becoming more conscious of environmental and economic factors, the growth in the use of stainless steel has been the highest of any material in the world.