The value of copper in copper bearing products at the end of their respective lives supports the economic viability of the recycling industry supply chain
The recycling of copper not only conserves a valuable natural resource, but also requires up to six times less energy than winning the metal from ore. Copper scrap generated during production has a high purity (usually > 99.5%), is easy to collect and re-melt directly, and therefore gets fully recycled. However, it takes considerably more effort (and cost) to collect, segregate and pre-process copper from products at the end of their respective lives, before scrap can be delivered to the smelter. The value of copper as well as that of other trace elements carried by it and recoverable during copper recycling (such as platinum, palladium, gold, silver, arsenic, selenium, tellurium, nickel, cobalt, tin, zinc etc.) supports the economic viability of the supply chain involved in this process.
End of life copper scrap is principally generated by power systems / industry (cables, transformers, motors, switchgear), construction (wires, tubes, decorative products), transportation (e.g. catenaries, wiring harnesses), domestic appliances and electronic waste. The copper content in these products varies considerably from a few percent to 99.5%. So does the collection effort for the scrap dealer which is lower for high volume sources such as the demolition of old buildings, and higher for dispersed products such as recovering small appliances from municipal waste. Thereafter, copper containing scrap is manually and mechanically sorted according to type and sold to the pre-treatment industry. The purchase and sale by the scrap dealer takes place at prices linked to the current LME price of copper and varies with copper content. The margins earned in this process are adequate to cover the effort of collecting the smallest products, thus ensuring a high degree of collection.
Pre-treatment comprises disassembly of copper bearing scrap from larger aggregates, its separation from other materials such as insulation, sorting and classification according to copper content, bundling, compacting etc. and is carried out by a combination of manual, mechanical, chemical and pyro- and hydro-metallurgical processes.
Thereafter, the pre-treated copper scrap is supplied to secondary smelters and refiners for production of the metal for reuse. The economic performance at this stage is influenced by the high value metals that are the by-products of copper production in addition to the value of copper itself.
Thus, the value of copper supports the economic viability of the recycling industry and enables the reuse of copper even from dispersed and small copper bearing products.
- The Value Chain of Copper – from Mining to Application. Webinar by Bernd langner dd Dec 14: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eryFKDU0gBo (accessed December 2023)
- Current challenges in copper recycling: aligning insights from material flow analysis with technological research developments and industry issues in Europe and North America, June 2021 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921344921000690 (accessed December 2023)
Last update: December 8, 2023