Stainless steel – the Centenarian Environmentalist…
Stainless steel is 100% recyclable. It is the ideal material for a multitude of applications. Indeed, from the very outset, all stainless steel products that leave the factory already have their own history attached to them. ‘New’ stainless steel products typically contain recycled content of around 60%. That laboratory sink or stainless steel splashback may have enjoyed a previous life as a water pipe or catering canopy.
As it nears its centenary year, this highly recyclable material is proving to be more popular than ever, with a growing demand for consumer goods forged out of this corrosion-free alloy. Indeed, it is now one of the oldest kids on the block; since its discovery in Sheffield in 1913, a further 18 metals have been discovered by mankind. In addition, there’s the small matter of two world wars that have been fought, not to mention the arrival of nuclear fission. While there are many superlatives that can be used to describe this high quality metal – shiny, lustrous, durable, elegant, impervious – ‘new’ is not one of them. So why is it that this centenarian metal has found a new lease of life, and is now being utilised in everything from stainless steel worktops to stainless steel shower trays? Modern, minimalist homes are increasingly being kitted out with stainless steel fixtures and fittings throughout. Stainless steel fabrication is booming. When exactly did steel become so essential and so, well, sexy? To answer that question, it is necessary to first consider the state of 21st-century consumer culture.
Our throw-away society – where does stainless steel fit in…
We live in a disposable society. Consumer goods which were traditionally meant to last for years are now designed to be used once and then binned. Disposable mobile phones, chucked out when the credit’s run out. Disposable tents, £15 from your local supermarket. Take it to your music festival of choice, trash it and leave it for someone else to clean up. Six-packs of socks, £2 from the discount fashion emporium. Wear them once then chuck ’em out; what’s the point in doing the laundry when you can simply buy a new set?
Nothing lasts forever, but nowadays it would appear that nothing lasts, period. The disposable nature of consumer goods would appear to fit with the mood of the times. Since the rise of the internet generation, attention spans can now be measured in seconds rather than minutes or hours. There’s a reason why YouTube videos are capped at 15 minutes and Facebook updates at 420 characters. We like the world condensed into bite-sized chunks for our amusement; that way, as soon as we get bored, we can simply move on to the next one, and the next one, leaving a trail of discarded phones, cars and kitchen appliances on our wake.
Convenient as the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ policy may be, it’s not quite so beneficial to the entity we affectionately refer to as Mother Earth. In recent years, the rise of environmentalism has made the plight of the planet everyone’s concern. Whether willingly involved, or begrudgingly cajoled, there is no avoiding the environmentalist agenda; it’s everywhere, from recycling bins in the supermarket car park, to cashiers inside the store, guilt-tripping you into foregoing your plastic bag. Thus, paradoxically, at a time when half of mankind is discarding more junk than ever, the other half is intent on recycling, reusing and reducing our carbon footprint. Is it possible to be a consumer while still being mindful of the planet’s welfare? Is it possible to bin our unwanted junk without feeling compelled to pay penitence for our sins against the planet? Yes, is the short answer. But – and there’s always a but – it really depends on what happens to that detritus when you’re done with it. Waste matter that ends up as landfill is no use to anyone; digging a hole and burying humanity’s rubbish will only obfuscate the problem for as long as it takes for the noxious gases to be released into the atmosphere and the heavy metals to seep into the soil. As our planet’s precious resources are steadily diminished, it is imperative that as much waste as possible is recycled. It is for this reason that stainless steel has suddenly found itself at the forefront of the environmental agenda.
Stainless Steel Products tick all the recycling boxes…
Recycling isn’t just a one-off process however: it is a never-ending cycle that sees one man’s junk turned into another’s treasure, until that man’s treasure finally fades and is then relegated to the guest bedroom, and then the attic, until one day it is taken to the appropriate recycling receptacle to be turned into treasure for the next generation.
Stainless steel may be wholly recyclable, but the period between its exiting the electric arc furnace and returning to be melted down is likely to be decades. Given the metal’s imperviousness to corrosion, it is generally recycled, not due to degradation, but because it is no longer required for the purpose it was designed for. Tastes and trends change rapidly; one man’s trendy stainless steel kitchen may be another’s industrial hell. Aesthetic interpretations aside however, the future of this versatile material would appear to be assured. As natural resources such as oil become scarcer and less cost-effective, manufacturers will begin seeking alternatives to plastics and PVC. Given the all-round versatility of steel, coupled with its environmental credentials, the future of manufacturing would appear to hinge upon forging steel alloy with 11% chromium. From this heady concoction, this multi-faceted metal is born.
For consumers requiring disposable tents and cheap disposable socks, metal is not much use. For most other applications however – domestic and commercial – it can hold its own, while ticking all the right boxes: durable, easily-cleanable, aesthetically-pleasing and, of course, environmentally-friendly. Stainless steel doesn’t do too badly for an inert metal that’s knocking 100.