Can You Recycle Rusted Metal?

Recycling is an environmentally friendly way to reduce waste, and it can be an excellent way for people to get rid of items or materials that they no longer want in their homes. However, if you have scrap metal that you’ve had for a while, it might have a little rust on it. Is it still okay to recycle? 

You can recycle rusted metal since the recycling process purifies it. However, rusted metal weighs less than non-rusted metal, so the scrap will be worth less than pure metal at a scrap metal yard.

If you have questions about recycling metals, scrap yards, and how to prevent rust so you can make as much money as possible from your scrap metal, keep reading! I’ll address these questions and more, so you’ll be an expert recycler by the end.

Recycling rusted metal.

Is Rusted Metal Recyclable?

Rusted metal is recyclable, but rusted scraps tend to be worth less than newer metal with no rust damage. The metal recycling process purifies and cleans metals, removing rust and other impurities.

Even if your metal scraps have rust, you should still pursue recycling. Recycling scrap metals means fewer environmental risks. That scrap might have chemicals that could negatively impact soil and water, and recycling metal is less expensive than mining in search of new metals.

Furthermore, mining has harsh environmental impacts that should be avoided, including sinkhole formation, soil and water contamination, destruction of habitat, and hazardous byproducts.

To understand why you can recycle rusted metal, let’s take a look at the recycling process:

  1. Collection. This part of the process just involves acquiring the metals that will be recycled. These metals can be random scraps, electronics, appliances, or construction materials.
  2. Separation. This process involves sorting the metals into their different types. At a large recycling center, a machine sorts the metal automatically using magnets and sensors.
  3. Processing. All the metals are then squeezed and condensed, so they don’t take up a lot of space.
  4. Shredding. Metals are torn into small pieces so the machines can melt them easier. Breaking down the metal reduces the emissions during burning, making recycling a more environmentally-friendly process. 
  5. Melting. The metal scraps are put into a giant furnace and melted down according to the particular metal’s properties. The melting process can take as long as a few hours for some metals. The result is molten metal.
  6. Purification. This process ensures that the product is free of impurities. There are different methods of doing this, such as electrolysis.
  7. Cooling and Solidification. After purification, the metal cools down and becomes a solid metal again. Metals are shaped into pieces called ingots, making them more easily formed into bars or sheets.

Rust is removed from metals during the purification process. Because of this step, it is entirely possible to recycle rusted metal.

If your metal just has a small spot of rust, I’d recommend trying to remove the rust before bringing it into a scrapyard so they’ll give you a better price for it.

Why Does Metal Rust?

Metal rusts because some of them oxidize. When you expose metals that contain iron to water and oxygen, a combustion reaction occurs that forms rust.

Metals that don’t contain iron, such as aluminum, don’t rust because rusting is a process that reduces only iron-containing metals into their unrefined state.

Oxidation refers to the process when a chemical reaction occurs. The iron loses an electron during this process, making it less stable. Iron and oxygen have opposite charges, so in the presence of water, they combine, and oxidation occurs, with the iron atom losing three electrons.

This reaction forms Fe203, ferric oxide, otherwise known as “rust.” You can remove rust in small chunks, but it is impractical to attempt to remove large amounts of rust. If you are going to try to remove a bit of rust from a metal scrap you wish to recycle, here are some ideas for how:

  • Use undiluted white vinegar. Submerge the scrap in the vinegar, or spray it if it is too large. Use an old toothbrush to scrub the rusted area, then rinse and dry. I recommend the AVO 1 Gallon Pure Natural Distilled White Vinegar if you need some white vinegar. It is 100% manufactured in the United States and is non-toxic and chemical-free.  
  • Mix baking soda and lemon juice to form a paste and apply the paste to the rust. After around thirty minutes of the paste covering the rust, scrub it with an old toothbrush. Rinse and dry.
  • Use a potato. It might sound crazy, but it works! Cut a potato in half and sprinkle some baking soda on the cut side. Then, rub this part of the potato over the rust.
  • Use an abrasive buff wheel. Attach an abrasive buff wheel to a rotary tool and move the abrasive across the metal to remove the rust.
  • Try a sander. If you have a sander, you can try sanding the rust away. Then, after the rust is gone, you can use the sander to smooth down the metal again. If you don’t have a sander, I recommend the DEWALT Random Orbit Sander because the counterweight design reduces vibration, so it’s more comfortable to use. The dust-sealed switch protects against dust ingestion, which is especially critical when sanding rust.

How to Prevent Rust

It is best to avoid rusting altogether, if possible, so here are some ways that you can prevent your metals from rusting before you can get them to a scrapyard:

  • Paint the metal. Paint forms a barrier between the oxygen and iron in the metal, which means that rust can’t form. You’ll need to use high-quality paint, though, because you haven’t solved the problem if it chips. 
  • Plate the metal. Plating involves covering the ferrous metal with a non-ferrous metal that doesn’t rust.
  • Protect your metal from outside elements. Keeping the metal outside isn’t a good idea if you’re collecting metal to take to the scrapyard.
  • Apply oil. Oil helps slow rust down because it prevents moisture from reaching the iron.
  • Apply a preventative coating. Some products can prevent rust, such as this POR-15 Rust Preventative Coating. I like this coating because it dries faster when moisture is present, and once it cures, it has an indestructible finish, unlike paint.

If you take steps to prevent rust before taking your metals to the scrapyard, you’ll ensure you get top dollar at the scrapyard.  

What Metals Can I Recycle?

You can recycle almost every metal, including steel, iron, aluminum, nickel, and copper. However, you cannot recycle metals containing asbestos or any metal on public property, such as a street sign.

Here are some common metals that you can bring to a scrapyard:

  • Aluminum. Scrapyards don’t pay a lot for aluminum, but it can be worth your effort if you bring a large bag. Aluminum has a quick turnaround time, as it only takes a few months for aluminum to be used again after recycling. Recycling also saves 80% of the energy used to make it.
  • Copper. Copper is one of the most valuable metals in the scrapyard, so if you happen to come by some, you’re in luck!
  • Brass. If you have any old keys, light fixtures, door handles, or other items made of brass, these items can add up quickly because it is a dense metal.
  • Steel. You won’t make much money from your steel, but recycling is still responsible. Steel is very recyclable, and reusing it helps cut down on mining and production costs (including the costs to the environment).

Tips for Recycling Metal

If you are planning on bringing some scrap to a scrapyard in the hope of earning a few extra bucks, here are some tips for how to make the most you can:

  • Separate your metals by type. Some metals are worth more than others, and if you bring a scrapyard a bucket of many different metals, they’ll offer you the lowest-priced metal. If you separate them, they’ll have to change their offer based on what kind of metal you’re offering.
  • Try to find non-ferrous metals. Ferrous metals are metals that contain iron. Non-ferrous metals, such as aluminum, copper, and brass, are worth more at scrap yards.
  • Seek out extra metal. Some people are willing to give away old electronics, appliances, or other items as long as you get them off their hands. So, if you have a large enough vehicle, acquiring these items and scrapping the metal from them is a great way to get more money.
  • Try to find as much copper as possible. Copper is one of the most valuable metals for recycling, so the more copper you can find, the better.

Recycling metals can be a good side hustle depending on how much time and dedication you’re willing to commit to, but it’s easy to make a few extra bucks if you have spare time!


Next time you find a scrap of metal that you don’t need and see some rust, don’t fear! You can still recycle it. The recycling process removes the rust, so you can still recycle it and make some money off of it!

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