Did you know that nearly 1/5 of the world’s refined copper supply comes from recycled goods?
It’s wild, but some of the copper products we use today could have been mined decades ago, if not longer. This is because copper has close to a 90% recovery rate. That means most of what you decide to drop off at your local scrapyard can be stripped, melted down, and converted into new copper rods for production.
As the need for copper keeps rising, the case for better recycling becomes stronger. Currently, the world consumes about 25 million metric tons of copper. By 2050, we’ll be consuming more than double that amount – somewhere around 53 million metric tons, according to S&P Global.
The need for more copper will quickly strain the supply chain unless we figure out how to mine more copper ore or make recycling more appealing.
Unfortunately, it takes roughly 16 years to open a new mine, and mining technology has not improved drastically. Recycling might be the savior we’re looking for today and in the future.
There isn’t one particular reason why copper demand is rising at a rate we haven’t seen before.
Instead, a perfect storm is developing based on need, technological advancement, and current maintenance. Growing copper demand may cause a severe shortage in a few years without better recycling efforts.
Take a second and look around you. Unless you’re standing in a cornfield, chances are good you’re surrounded by machines requiring copper wire to send signals, power equipment, and keep the lights on.
Technology, in general, is taking a Moore’s Law approach to advancement. Every year we see faster, better smartphones, larger TVs with higher resolutions, and more efficient electric vehicles. We’re seeing exponential technological growth, but it takes a lot of copper to keep up.
EVs will drive copper demand. Unlike standard combustion engine vehicles, EVs require about 2.5 times more copper. Companies like Ford and GM are already jumping into the fray, pledging to move their fleets to full electrics in the coming decades, but that pledge means more copper.
At the same time, developing countries are improving their infrastructures, advancing to some of the latest technology and adopting a slew of renewable energies. Wind turbines and solar panels are great, but they need copper wiring and other components to effectively transport electricity from the generators to the grid.
With much of the focus on new and emerging technology, we can’t forget what we’ve already built. There are millions of miles of electrical transmission lines across the United States and globally, and those wires will need replacing at some point.
In the 1950s, the average time to open a mine was only about four years. It takes about four times longer today, spanning 16 years from discovery to operations. Even if approvals were handed out today, the mine wouldn’t open until well into the decade.
With new operations off the table, recycling has a window to make massive gains and fill developing holes in global demand. It’s estimated that there will be a global copper shortage starting toward the middle of the 2030s, though better recycling methods could bridge the app as new mines are brought online.
Recycling copper wire is an effective way of keeping current supplies circulating. About 90% of bare bright copper wire brought in for recycling is recovered, meaning that the vast majority can be melted down and turned into products like electrical wiring. Currently, recycled copper only accounts for 17% of the world’s refined supplies, despite being less expensive and demanding than processing raw copper ore.
When scrap copper is brought to a facility for repurposing, the first thing that happens is it is separated into different types.
Insulated copper wire, for example, is sent to a chopping line, where it is broken into small pieces and the insulation removed. After the plastic or rubber has been removed from the scrap copper wire, the chopped-up bits are screened and run through a density separator. The copper pieces are then remelted and formed into new copper rods for wire production – plastics or rubbers are also processed for possible reuse.
Bare copper follows a different path but with a similar outcome. The materials are checked out for any possible contaminants. If any contaminants are found, they’re quickly removed before getting remelted and processed into rods. Once turned into rods, the recycled copper is drawn into new wire for use.
It might seem like any scrap metal would make for good recycling fodder, but not all scraps are created equally.
Bare copper is the top choice for most refiners because it doesn’t require much manipulation to process. To tell if the wire or tubing has a coating on it, check to see if it’s shiny. If it is, the copper is bare.
Other copper materials that can be recycled include rigid and flexible tubing and insulated copper wiring used for home, retail, manufacturing, and industrial applications.
In every case, the price you receive for your copper scraps is constantly changing due to overall supply and demand. When copper is scarce, copper prices increase; likewise, the opposite happens when copper demand is low.
If you’re going to scrap your copper wiring, the first thing to do is group it by type and grade.
The price you’ll get for your copper wire depends on several factors, including its type and how much work it will take to process. The more material the recycler has to remove from your wire, the less you’ll receive for it.
Before scrapping it, make sure the wire is “clean.” Clean wire doesn’t have any insulation on it. If you’re recycling other materials, like piping, make sure it doesn’t have any fittings and isn’t mixed with other metals. The good news is that you can remove fittings and anything else that isn’t pure copper to increase its value.
Stripping your wire with a razor blade or specialized stripping machine will increase what you’ll get for your haul, but you have to consider the time, effort, and costs associated with doing it. If the time spent doing this is worth the extra money you’ll receive, then go for it. Otherwise, it might be worth taking less and saving yourself time.
Burning the insulation off copper wire is not only an unsafe, potentially dangerous idea, but it’s also illegal in most states.
When you burn insulated copper wire, you’re burning rubber or plastic. When those materials burn, they release toxic chemicals into the air that could hurt you and the environment.
Some scrapyards won’t accept copper wire that has been burned because it could hurt their reputations. It also goes against the entire concept of recycling, which is designed to make the planet a better place.
Although it’s only one piece of the greater copper supply puzzle, recycling has the potential to reduce future strains on the supply.
Data from S&P Global suggests the world will face a copper shortage throughout most of the 2030s, but recycling, combined with better mining technology and increased production, could curb some of the shortfall. If mining growth doesn’t increase and recycling rates do not rise above 17% of total refined production, a shortfall that could be as low as 1.5 MMt has the potential to be as bad as 10 MMt.
Recent funding announcements are addressing the issue, opening the door for more research, better technological improvements, and an increased focus on how to get more copper recirculating.
Now it’s up to us to make the most of our scraps to help fill the void.