During the past few years, the increased use of copper for innovative strategies combined with a strong growth in emerging economies, has resulted in significantly higher copper demand.
The recovery and recycling of copper helps to satisfy this demand and to build a sustainable future. But while scrap is a low cost avenue that provides economic and sustainability advantages, after decades of stability, the viability of the recycling stream is at risk. The primary driver is cross contamination between conventional scrap and new types of scrap from certain lead free alloys.
According to the Copper Development Association, Inc. (CDA) many copper and copper alloy semi-finished and finished products are made almost entirely from recycled material, and many more with a mix of new and recycled copper. In fact, copper holds as much as 90 percent of new copper value. The CDA is the not-for-profit, market development, engineering and information services arm of the copper industry, chartered to enhance and expand markets for copper and its alloys in North America
“Copper can be infinitely recycled without losing its properties. As such, the copper industry is highly dependent on the economic recycling of surplus products and material otherwise known as scrap,” said Thomas Passek, president of the CDA, headquartered in New York City. The CDA brings together the global copper industry to develop and defend markets for copper and to make a positive contribution to society’s sustainable development goals. “Using scrap as a low cost feedstock contributes to a sustainable planet and also keeps costs low for both producers and users of copper-based products that are vital to our way of life.”
However, as the CDA explains, if a significant portion of the scrap stream becomes unusable, producers will be forced to rely on higher scrap grades and virgin materials as feedstock which will increase the cost of the material. This will be passed down to distributors, manufacturers and end-users, which will degrade the competitive position of the entire value chain.
“Certain types of copper and copper alloy scrap need to be recycled separately to prevent the introduction of impurities to melting operations,” Passek said. For example, scrap from copper alloys containing lead should not be used as feedstock to produce copper alloys that do not contain lead.
“From a recycling perspective, separating different types of copper scrap can be challenging in practice as some scrap forms are difficult to distinguish without chemical analysis,” Passak said. “In some cases, recyclers may not be aware that certain types of scrap should be separated.”
To help address this, CDA formed an industry-working group to raise awareness and provide guidance to the value chain on best practices for scrap management. The proper segregation of various types of copper and copper alloy scrap is essential to protecting the long-term viability of the recycling stream.”
So how can recyclers handle the issues of cross contamination? Quite simply, through strictly segregating and recycling certain types of scrap in closed loop systems. This is far more difficult in practice as scrap flows are complex and there are limitations in even the most sophisticated sorting operations.
Luckily the current impurity levels are relatively low and manageable as plumbing components made from lead-free alloys have long service lives and will not be recycled en masse for 10+ years. But as this will delay the impact if no action is taken, the issue will accelerate when lead free components are inevitably recycled on a significant scale.
For secondary or end-of-life scrap that consist of brass and copper (e.g. water meters, valves, etc.), managing purity is more complicated for recyclers. According to the CDA, secondary scrap is difficult to segregate by alloy type as components have to be sorted by hand and leaded alloys are virtually impossible to distinguish from lead-free alloys on a visual basis.
Handheld spectrometers can identify alloy types, but sorting by individual part is difficult as scrap loads accumulate into larger batches. Product assemblies containing subcomponents made from different alloys also present challenges as internal components might not even be visible from the outside. As only trace amounts of impurities are needed to cause issues, the current solutions to effectively segregate secondary scrap are proving to be problematic to the industry.
According to the CDA, the recycling process for brass is less energy intensive as compared to aluminum and steel and yields a smaller carbon footprint. The ability to reuse brass from recycled materials is a tribute to an industry that is environmentally conscious regarding its use of natural resources. In fact, the entire economy of the brass industry is dependent on the economic recycling of any surplus products.
Indeed, but brass turnings can be reclaimed for 75-85 percent of the original value. The unmatched secondary value of brass scrap creates an advantageous net material cost for customers compared to alternative materials.
But like copper, the CDA is quick to point out that some lead-free alloys replace lead with other elements like bismuth, silicon and sulfur. According to the CDA, “the recycling of lead-free alloys with such additives is introducing new elements to the conventional scrap stream which act as deleterious impurities if mixed with the wrong alloy. Even at low concentrations, impurities can cause costly production and product quality issues for primary and secondary cathode producers, ingot makers, semi-finished product manufacturers, finished product manufacturers and end-users. Some impurities can irreversibly concentrate in the metal stream and cannot be removed with current refining technology. Thus, background levels of impurities could rise to problematic levels without proper management.”
Similarly, instigating a closed loop recycling system for brass can off-set the cross contamination of brass components with other materials. In addition, scrap processors can utilize a universal product marking system to help sort secondary scrap by alloy type. Many manufacturers already mark brass plumbing products with “NL” or “LF” to indicate “No-Lead” or “Lead-Free”. The CDA said a replacement marking could indicate lead-free and also identify the alloy class (e.g. binary, bismuth, silicon, etc.). Such a system would facilitate closed loop secondary scrap flows and mitigate the potential for cross-contamination. Product markings could also increase the efficiency of sorting operations and create markets for new scrap categories.
According to the International Copper Association (ICA), it is estimated that since 1900 two-thirds of the 550 million tons of copper produced are still in productive use. Of this, approximately 70 percent is used for electrical applications and 30 percent for nonelectrical applications.
ICA, the leading authority on copper end-use, commissioned a study (which was conducted by All China Marketing Research Co., Ltd.) to analyze potential demand in China under the country’s most recent FYP.
The good news is that, according to the study, projections show the potential for 15 percent growth in the Chinese copper market. Substantial growth opportunities are likely to occur based on a greater adoption of electric vehicles. It is expected that the number of electric vehicles is expected to grow more than 800 percent. This projection is significant for copper demand because a full-electric vehicle uses three to four times as much copper as its gas powered counterpart.
“The copper recycling market has been stagnant for a long period but will be growing, as China has been increasing their demand,” said Herrick Lau, chief executive officer of Crownia Holdings, a global specialty steel trader and distributor, which sells specialty steel products by virtue of the integration of Chinese strategic steel suppliers and global steel customers. “The Chinese government has no choice but to increase their loans to the private sector, which means funds will still be pumped into the real estate industry. This will bring about increasing demand for the recycled copper, brass and steel.”
According to Lau, there are three key factors that today’s recyclers need to pay attention to when it comes to brass and copper recycling trends. These include Trump’s trade policy towards China, as China is a big consumer in this area. Also pay attention to other suppliers in Southeast Asia, as they are selling more to China these days.
“Also recyclers should look into buys from South Asia, especially India,” Lau said. “As China is in the process of reducing is production capacity of steel, the country will demand more from the recycling industry. We are cautiously optimistic about the future growth in this industry.”
Published in the March 2017 Edition of American Recycler News