Steel is the Sustainability Story We Need to Discuss

If you’ve been paying attention to how automotive companies talk about sustainability, you have likely noticed an uptick in the chatter around what has become a ubiquitous subject in the automotive industry.

More and more, automotive companies are making certain choices based around sustainability because it’s good for the planet and good for their bottom line.

Take Ford Motor Company and General Motors, for instance. Both have signed on with MIGreenPower, which will help them procure wind energy through the program. This is designed specifically for Michigan corporations who want access to more renewable energy, and it helps the automakers take one more step toward their sustainability goals.

It makes sense, then, that steel companies are also working in tandem to make their products more sustainable. It’s a trend that shows no signs of going away any time soon, and, as we’ve already mentioned, can be a boon to the bottom line.

Furthermore, steel generates the lowest amount of production phase greenhouse gas emissions compared to alternative materials, making it an environmentally sound choice for automakers.

According to a recent study by the Steel Recycling Institute, domestically produced aluminum results in four to five times greater greenhouse gas emissions than steel by weight. Imported aluminum is eight to nine times greater.

There’s also a limit to the types of new products that can be produced from aluminum recycled at the end of its useful life. Aluminum is limited in which grades can be recycled to other grades. Aluminum cans are typically only recycled into other aluminum cans. If you want to alter the grade, you will reduce the quality of the aluminum, thus rendering it less useful. 

Steel, on the other hand, can be recycled into a wider variety of grades that can be used to lightweight vehicles with similar weight savings as aluminum, while retaining the proper grade needed to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy and safety requirements. Furthermore, more steel by weight is recycled than aluminum, plastics and paper combined, making it one of the most recycled materials by percentage.

“The resulting difference in fuel economy over the lifetime of the vehicle can’t make up for the difference in material production, energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions,” said Keith Lindemulder, environmental business development, Nucor. “The lighter footprint steel has over aluminum makes steel the clear choice over the entire lifecycle of the automobile.”

Nucor is a company committed to acting as sustainably because that’s what its customers demand.

Taking care of the customer is literally written in Nucor’s mission statement, which means Nucor maintains a commitment to ensure the materials the customer puts into vehicles match their goals, both from a sustainability perspective and quality perspective.

“Just like a car or truck isn’t made from just one material, there is more than one way to lower the environmental impact and improve the sustainability of the vehicle,” said Lindemulder. “We work closely with our customers to develop new and innovative products that match their environmental commitment.”

Nucor also sees the value in sustainable steel for the company, not just its customers. And the pledge to act more conscious of the world around them leads to actions that prove they are walking the talk.

For Nucor, it starts with energy conservation.

From upgrading to LED lighting in their production facilities, to air compressor upkeep, focusing on energy efficiency is good for the bottom line. But it also helps to shift the narrative that making steel is a dirty business.

Quite the opposite, actually, and Nucor’s work in the energy conservation space proves it.

Their facility in Lathrop, California, for instance, pulls some of its power from solar, making it partly energy-independent. The power pulled from the solar array gets sold back to the grid, and Nucor uses the electricity it needs to power the manufacturing plant and administrative offices. The rest gets distributed to local consumers. Nucor is also implementing similar systems at some of their other mills, as part of its company-wide focus on sustainability.

Solar is among the cleanest and most reliable sources of renewable energy, but it’s not the only green investment Nucor is making. The company has also invested in process water systems that recycle water by cascading between multiple production processes and water treatment processes. This reduces total water consumption because the same water is used multiple times throughout the steel-making process.

“We continue to invest in modern, energy efficient equipment to help drive our sustainability efforts,” said Lindemulder. “This ensures we improve our environmental performance while also driving the bottom line.”

Automotive companies will usually maintain business relationships with the most effective and efficient suppliers for their needs, and it is a bonus when those companies have similar ideas regarding sustainability.

Like we mentioned above, OEMs have committed to meeting sustainability goals. They are public and locked in, so there is incentive to reach their goals.

Let’s face it: it’s more positive for OEMs to announce they’ve surpassed goals than if they have to backtrack or claim to be at a standstill.

With that in mind, the steel industry is well positioned to become an important part of the sustainability discussion, and, in the process, help its automotive customers meet their goals.

The sign of a great partnership is when both parties pull their weight.

When it comes to steel makers and OEMs, a more sustainable future is definitely in the cards.

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