How to Sort Scrap Metal

Scrap metal is generated by the disposal of items that are no longer serviceable or wanted and by manufacturing processes that leave excess metal during the fabrication of the desired metal part. Scrap metal is not biodegradable, and is therefore well suited to recycling.

Separate the metals for much better prices for the higher value scrap metals. The scrap can be sold to metal recycling operations, since they can be melted down by foundries and used to fabricate new parts. Use these tips to learn how to sort scrap metal.


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    Take out car batteries. They will be accepted by scrap recycling companies as whole assemblies.
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    Pick out car catalytic converters. They will be accepted by scrap recycling companies as whole assemblies.
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    Separate ferrous from non ferrous metals. Iron, steel and other ferrous metals are magnetic. If they are small enough and the magnet is large enough, they can be lifted out with a magnet. Larger ferrous pieces are identified by noting that a magnet will stick to these pieces. All ferrous metals will be accepted as 1 type of item by scrap recycling companies.
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    Find non-magnetic, stainless steel. Stainless steel -- alloyed (mixed) in smelting with chromium -- has a dull shine and is heavier than chrome-/or nickel-plated steel. It may be slightly magnetic in some alloys. Note: If "stainless steel" has magnetic attraction, it must be added to the iron pieces, rather than among the stainless steel pieces.
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    Sort out copper pieces. Copper is lightweight and reddish in color. Copper may become greenish over time due to corrosion. Copper comes in 3 grades.
    • Gather all electrical wiring. This wiring is considered light copper. Strip, using wire strippers (burning-off insulation is illegal, see "Warnings" section). Discard the stripped insulation. Some metal recyclers accept wire with the insulation on, including Christmas lights, at a much lower price.
    • Segregate copper tubing (considered medium copper). Remove any brass fittings from the tubing. Scrap recycling companies likely will offer only the lower price of brass if the copper tubing still has brass fittings attached, because of labor of handling and removing the brass (in buildings, air conditioner piping may be copper).
    • Put aside copper tanks, such as special, water heater tanks. These tanks are considered heavy copper. Remove any attached insulation, covers and fittings from the tank (ordinary water heater tanks are zinc galvanized and "glass/ceramic lined").
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    Separate out aluminum. Aluminum is a lightweight metal with a dull silver color. Soda cans and lightweight lawn furniture are considered light aluminum. Remove all plastic fittings from pieces of lawn furniture. All other aluminum is considered heavy aluminum. Aluminum can be further sorted into "clean" and "coated" as some recyclers pay more for aluminum which is not painted or otherwise pre-finished.
    • Remove aluminum, automobile parts such as engine overhead-cam-/and valve-covers, intake manifold and thermostat housing (some bright trim may be aluminum).
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    Sort out lead. Lead is soft and heavy, and has a dull gray color. Lead is often used for piping, scuba diving weights and fishing plumbs.
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    Separate out brass. Brass is yellow. It is often used for bathroom fixtures, door knobs and as trim hardware.
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    Pick out bronze. Bronze is reddish yellow. Bronze is often used for hose fittings and couplings. Remove any hose from the bronze coupling.
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    Electric motor parts can be recycled. The field windings (parts with copper wire wound around) should be separated out from the iron and steel for the best price (armatures are very difficult to separate and might be cut/chiseled out).


  • Air conditioner (A/C) unit scrapping may be controlled by state laws, such as proof of ownership (unless, perhaps, you have only one unit in a load), and for reclaiming freon in sealed refrigeration systems (to be evacuated and captured by certified technicians).
    • Remove some aluminum or stainless A/C parts called "reefers", meaning refrigeration condenser and/or evaporator, if convenient and legally qualified to do so.
  • Car batteries contain caustic acid. Car batteries must be handled carefully if there are signs of leakage.
  • Magnesium, although rare, is used in flares and can be visually mistaken for aluminum. Magnesium is brittle and will snap if sharply bent. Magnesium is easily ignited, and the resulting hot flame cannot be extinguished with water.
  • Burning insulation off of copper wire is a biological hazard. If caught burning copper wire, a hefty fine and penalties will be imposed.

Things You'll Need

  • Magnet
  • Wire strippers

Article Info

Categories: Metalwork and Wire Projects