The Essential Role Metal Recycling Played In World War 2

Metals are one of the widest recycled and recyclable materials across the world. 


Your baked bean can, if washed out and recycled, can appear back on your supermarkets shelf in a matter of weeks as a soup can! According to the not-for-profit Europe-wide “Every Can Counts” programme, 2023 was a record-breaking year for can recycling in the UK, seeing over 10.7 billion cans recycled in the UK (put them end to end and they would reach the moon and back!). That’s just food and drink cans alone!

Things have of course changed over the years. Going back to the Second World War, anyone reading War history books, or even reading the humble autobiography of a personality who grew up during those years, will see that recycling was absolutely vital to the War effort.

It was in July 1940, some ten months after the start of the Second World War, that the first wartime Minister of Supply, Herbert Morrison called on all UK citizens to salvage what might otherwise have been considered as waste and to save paper, bones and…scrap metal. This was in response to the German U-Boat (submarine) cordon that was causing chaos with merchant shipping in and out of the UK.

This completely changed the mindset of people who had previously been used to throwing away used items. Collection points were established for anything that could be considered as reusable, and while “recycling” was then not a recognised term by the population at large, the separation of different waste products into usable and rubbish quickly became second nature. There were special collection points for metal, and even in some cities, visiting “salvage vans”, and people turned up with aluminium pots and pans, metal cans, and other household objects made from metal.

In April 1941, on the back of the success with the call for aluminium, the Ministry of Supply put out a notice that they were seeking a particular type of metal that could be found in garden railings for use in shipping fitments. Hyde Park saw the removal of three miles of railings (according to reports, weighing in at over 1,000 tons), and by March 1942, in London alone, some 45,000 properties a week were providing 5,000 tons of iron railings and gates. Even the ones outside Buckingham Palace were procured for use.

Towards the end of the war, when the metal-collection campaign came to an end, it is said that more than one million tons of railings had been gathered form around the country, with some six million tons of salvage collected during the War effort. 

Unfortunately, not having an effective recycling system in place as is the case nowadays, it is rumoured that many hundreds of tons of scrap metal was simply dumped in places such as the Thames Estuary, the Irish Sea and the Solent. It was said (although no proof was provided) that there was so much metal dumped off the coast at Sheerness that it affected ships’ compasses, requiring a pilot to see ships safely in and out of port. Similarly, there was never any documentation as to what happened to the hundreds of tons of scrap metal that just “disappeared”.

Yes, in the past, the motivator for metal recycling was economical, but now, the focal point is centred more towards the environment. One of the primary reasons metal recycling is so important today is certainly related to environmental targets, with the UK seeking to ensure it doesn’t just meet, but can exceed those targets. However, with current economic conditions and the necessity for the Government to prioritise other social services over, for example waste and recycling, it becomes increasingly difficult for the authorities to meet those recycling commitments.

Another very important reason to maintain a high rate of metal recycling – and do keep in mind that most metals can be recycled – is for reasons of sustainability. Not only does metal recycling make both environmental and economic sense, but it helps preserve natural raw materials, their costs of mining and extraction, reduces the emissions produced by turning those raw materials into metals and saves on the energy required to do it all.

It goes without saying that the UK is no longer in the position it was during the Second World War where it needed garden railings and metal roofing to turn into Spitfires or Churchill tanks, or domestic pots and pans that could be turned into items such as helmets, bayonets and food/drink containers for the forces to help us with our war efforts. 

However, it remains vital to the UK that we maintain the excellent momentum that has been built up over the years for recycling both used and scrap metal. Metal recyclers, including Enicor, are at the forefront of the UK’s efforts in this regard.

Not only is the extraction of very valuable materials such as aluminium, iron and steel highly viable from an economic perspective, but the value to both the UK environment and raw material sustainability cannot be overstated. For example, the decommissioning services Enicor offers in the sea and subsea structure industry, not only means that the metals from industrial sea structures can be rescued, recycled and repurposed, but waste is eliminated, as is the need for consigning valuable materials to UK landfill. 

An added bonus for this recycling is that these recycled materials from the UK can be exported and not only help towards sustainability outside the UK, but the UK becomes an exporter in the process, adding to the UK economy’s balance of payments! Companies and organisations using these services in turn become more sustainable, thus contributing to the environment in the process. 

According to the World Steel Sustainability Indicators Report 2023, one tonne of “fresh” steel can emit up to 2.3 tonnes of CO2 during its production. However, every tonne of scrap takes only 0.8 tonnes of CO2 to produce the same weight of steel. Also, the CO2 emitted from the production of aluminium, copper and iron (as well as other products containing metal) also saves on the levels of CO2 produced. The figures speak for themselves.

Enicor’s experience in the recycling industry means we are expertly placed to balance supply and demand for recycled materials and also provide closed-loop recycling services if required.

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