Stainless steel is a cornerstone of today’s society – it’s used almost everywhere in our daily lives. In addition to utilizing stainless steel in the construction of buildings and infrastructure, you can use it in the production of cars, spoons, washing machines and in surgery knives, to list a few.
However, like many industries, steel faces the great challenge of becoming more sustainable. Currently, steel production as a whole is responsible for around 7% of CO2 emissions globally, and each ton produced is associated with around 1.85 tons of CO2 emissions on average.
In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, steel manufacturing creates waste and air pollution and contributes to continued reliance on fossil raw materials. As the demand for the material increases, so will its environmental footprint – unless the industry can create and adopt more sustainable practices.
According to Stefan Erdmann, Chief Technology Officer & Group Sustainability at Outokumpu, environmental concern is one of two main factors driving the trend towards sustainability for stainless steel producers. The other, Erdmann says, is economic necessity. Demand for more sustainable products is on the rise, and it is the responsibility of business leaders to make decisions that will contribute to not only the profitability of their companies, but also the longevity. Customers, employees, and investors are increasingly attracted to companies that employ sustainable solutions. Likewise, governments and regulators are increasingly requiring them.
In short, stainless steel producers, such as Outokumpu, must take action today in order to secure the future of their business, their employees, and the planet. Their main goal in this regard should be decarbonization, which can take place based on interconnected factors such as circularity, technology, and collaboration.
It is also vitally important to understand the differences between carbon steel and stainless steel – which are often considered as 1:1 alternatives. Stainless steel, thanks to its unique properties such as durability, low-maintenance and resistance to corrosion, is not only the strongest, but also the most economically sustainable choice.
Circularity and technology
In sustainability contexts, the term circular describes systems in which resources are reused for the same or similar applications over and over, maximizing their value and minimizing waste creation. In stainless steel production, a high degree of circularity can be achieved through using recycled raw materials – made easier by the fact that stainless steel can be recycled endlessly with no loss of quality. Outokumpu, for example, produces stainless steel mostly by using more than 90% recycled material. However, with the global average only around 44%, there is a huge potential for recycling to have a major impact in the industry.
Another opportunity to introduce greater circularity in stainless steel production exists in the form of biocoke naturally sequestered by soil, trees, and other plants. Biocoke is a renewable resource and can be traded in the form of wastes and residues – for instance, from timber and paper mills. Currently, the majority of direct emissions created by stainless steel production originate from the carbon content of our raw materials and from the use of fuels as well as from the use of coke in producing ferrochrome, one of the essential raw materials for stainless steels. However, it is possible for fossil coke to be replaced with biocoke, which can vastly reduce emissions.
“Focusing on circularity as a whole doesn’t only help us reduce our emissions,” says Erdmann, “it also gives our customers the opportunity to make progress on their sustainability goals.”
Technology is part of what makes circularity feasible, but it also plays a wider role in decarbonization. For example, artificial intelligence applications can be put to use in production processes, supporting human decisions through data science, eliminating the impact of human error and through that greatly increasing efficiency, and reducing waste. More importantly, technology makes it possible to collect and analyze emissions data, which serves to increase awareness, drive demand for sustainable products, and provide a foundation for industry-wide benchmarks.
Emerging ecosystems & bold ambitions
In order to fulfill the potential that technology and circularity have to offer, stainless steel producers will have to forge innovative partnerships, creating new, multi-stakeholder ecosystems in the process. Without partnerships, Erdmann points out, executing strategies that involve things like introducing biocoke or reclaiming additional stainless steel scrap, are virtually impossible. As the industry increasingly turns to cutting-edge processes and materials, partnerships are needed to bridge knowledge gaps and break open siloes of expertise.
“Frankly, we ourselves don’t have all of the necessary knowledge when it comes to things like biocoke, biofuels etc.,” Erdmann says. “Additionally, it’s extremely helpful to collaborate not only with big institutions that bring resources to the table – say, Microsoft or MIT – but also with small companies that have lots of agility and entrepreneurial vision.”
When it comes to establishing these partnerships, humility and courage alike are needed at the organizational level. “Innovation capability,” Erdmann adds, “doesn’t fall from trees.” Instead, it takes hard work, long term vision, and willingness to pioneer new strategies – even if it involves thinner margins in the short term.
“We have a huge role to play by taking bold steps towards stainless steel production with the lowest possible carbon footprint.”
Embracing new identities
The stainless steel industry has long been a happily simple one: procure raw materials, manufacture steel, and sell it to customers. Today’s global challenges, however, call for producers to adopt new identities, and to contribute significantly to the expanding economy of sustainable and circular solutions.
“Our job is no longer to just produce steel,” Erdmann states. “Our job is to harness all of our capabilities and resources to serve everyone in a better way, and to build a better future for our company and our planet.”
Stainless steel companies that embrace the need for decarbonization today will be more resilient and better prepared for the future, when the need for carbon neutrality is overtaken by the need for carbon negativity, or when other sustainable development goals – such as promoting biodiversity or eliminating poverty – move to the forefront.
“Decarbonizing the stainless steel industry is feasible and Outokumpu is committed to be the forerunner in sustainable stainless steel. Steel companies have a huge role to play in climate change by taking bold steps towards a steel production with the lowest possible carbon footprint. By re-using materials again and again we can build a world that can last forever. Our planet doesn’t need new things – it needs first of all things that are re-used and things that last.”
This article is part of Outokumpu's circular economy content program where we dig deeper into the themes such as decarbonization, recycling and innovations. Join us at acceleratecircularity.com