“We are Switzerland’s biggest recycling operation”
Switzerland’s biggest recycling company is part of one of the oldest industrial sectors in the world: Stahl Gerlafingen produces over 600,000 tonnes of recycling steel from scrap metal every year. This material cycle is one that makes an important contribution to the green economy.
Yvonne von Hunnius, 11.08.2015
For some people, Zurich’s port crane was the country’s favourite scrap heap and for others it was nothing more than a pile of dead steel in the heart of Zurich. In January 2015 it began its new incarnation. In all probability, it now provides the structural stability needed for a building in Switzerland. The crane was dismantled into 75 tonnes of scrap steel and then recycled in Gerlafingen. The Chief Operating Officer of the Stahl Gerlafingen steelworks, Daniel Aebli, says: “This kind of scrap steel can become recycled steel any number of times without any losses in terms of quality.” Aebli stands beside the enormous blast furnace, in which the port crane was melted down at a temperature of over 1600 degrees a few months ago before being cast in new forms and rolled. Treasures are processed here that hardly anyone knows about. Every year 350 kilograms of steel per capita are reused in Switzerland and only 190 kilograms are scrapped: in this way, the country is building a gigantic steel repository for itself, which provides an abundant source of material under the heading of “urban mining”.
A visit to the steelworks reveals the nature of the actual work involved here. The blast furnace in Gerlafingen is not in use today and a handful of men are replacing the refractory bricks on the edge of the furnace. This routine replacement operation costs the steel works CHF 50,000 per week. The steelworks is a big wheel that has been turning in the commune of Gerlafingen in the canton of Solothurn for over 200 years. Works manager Aebli waits for a break in the operation of the machines and explains: “We are the biggest recycling operation in Switzerland and process 800,00 tonnes of scrap per year. We operate a circular economy and, in this way, contribute to the green economy.” The company has specialised in the recycling of steel for almost 100 years.
Established as the Ludwig von Roll’sche Eisenwerke, today, Stahl Gerlafingen is the second biggest steelworks of the Italian Beltrame Group. Reinforcing steel and steel profiles are produced mainly for the construction and mechanical engineering sectors in the reinforcing mat factory and ring center. In 2014, 662,000 tonnes of steel left the works. So what exactly is green about this? Compared with primary steel production, 70 percent less energy is required for recycling and 85 percent less CO2 is generated. Each tonne of steel and iron scrap used avoids the mining of 1.5 tonnes of iron ore. Around 1.5 million tonnes of scrap are generated in Switzerland annually and most of it ends up in the two Swiss steelworks – Stahl Gerlafingen and Swiss Steel in Emmenbrücke near Lucerne.
Nevertheless, an obvious question arises: heavy industry in the middle of the high price country of Switzerland – does that make sense? “Most definitely,” says Daniel Aebli. “At almost one million tonnes of reinforcing steel per year, demand is higher in Switzerland than in France. Moreover, Switzerland has higher volumes of better quality scrap steel. “Business is good, particularly in the area of reinforcing steel. Compact rings and wire rods are produced seven days per week at the four-shift plant. While Stahl Gerlafingen still exported 44 percent of its products in 2008, after the financial crisis it was able to rely on the domestic building boom and reduce its exports to 20 percent.
To survive the competition, the company places enormous emphasis on efficiency and quality. This starts with the close contact maintained with the scrap dealers and the consistent quality control of the scrap. This is a decisive factor as: “the better the scrap, the better the recycled steel,” says Christoph Zeltner, Director of Quality and Environment at Stahl Gerlafingen. When trading partners are local, it not only simplifies the quality control processes but also reduces costs: the average distance between Stahl Gerlafingen, its suppliers and customers is 90 kilometres. Although reinforcing steel is locally produced and supplied for the most part, this is quite an achievement.
Ultimately, however, the steel is not the only concern. The aim is to generate no waste and recycle everything. When the system is fed with scrap steel, 5,000 tonnes of zinc are also recovered annually and supplied to further-processing companies. At 90,000 tonnes per year, in terms of by-products, slag accounts for the lion’s share. The stony material is used in civil engineering applications, among other things.
Energy efficiency is a crucial element in the fine-tuning of steel production. The industry’s energy consumption is breathtaking: in 2014, the steelworks required 369 gigawatt hours of electricity alone. This corresponds to the annual energy requirement of around 110,000 Zurich households. Thus the engineers are constantly trying to reduce energy consumption. According to a current analysis, a long series of measures are in the pipeline which could reduce the works’ total energy requirement by around nine percent. CO2 intensity was already reduced by almost 20 percent in the 2004 and 2008 period.
Investments have been and continue to be made in Gerlafingen and this should provide long-term security for the works, including in turbulent times. However, its competitors are located in the euro region and, for this reason, around 25 of the 400 jobs at the works were cut in February. Some processes are now being carried out centrally through the Beltrame Group. Christoph Zeltner comments: “The cuts almost only affected management. In the works itself, we are so efficient that almost every specialist worker is in exactly the right place.”