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The Process of Recycling Copper

August 21, 2016

Copper and copper alloys have been widely recycled for the last few hundred years. Historically, when virgin copper ore wasn’t available, copper objects were melted down and then re-cast as new. Interestingly, during many war times, copper and copper alloys were very often recycled, simply out of dire need. Since then, recycled copper has continued to be a major source of copper metal around the world (it accounts for almost half of all the copper produced annually).

The process of recycling copper starts with the purchase of copper scrap from scrap yards, scrap processors, and recycling brokers. Needless to say, this is a worldwide, international business. The best quality scrap copper (No. 1) is clean, uncoated and unalloyed. The next is No. 2 scrap copper - it might be oxidized, coated, or plated, and will require additional processing. Because of this, No. 2 scrap copper will garner a lower price in the marketplace than the No. 1 quality.

Today, copper recycling is highly mechanized and automated – but the basics remain. The scrap materials have to be inspected and graded for quality, and oftentimes analyzed chemically. Mixed scrap is collected and stored for future use, while No. 1 copper scrap is dealt with immediately. This high quality material is melted and sometimes purified, after which time it’s cast into cakes and/or ingots for further handling. No. 2 scrap usually requires more processing and refinement.

Copper alloys (metals that have copper as the principal ingredient) are also widely recycled. But alloy scrap requires more work – it has to be separated and the alloys and impurities must be identified. This is all achievable, but it’s work, and more work means more expense. Once the metal composition is confirmed, alloy recycling can commence. This is done by melting common batches of metal scrap together (and sometimes in combination with virgin ore material).

Copper recycling has advanced exponentially with the latest technologies. But there are some manufacturing scenarios where trace impurities in recycled copper pose problems. This is where newly mined virgin ore may be required. Otherwise, scrap copper can be very highly refined; re-smelted; and re-manufactured into countless products. Overall, international copper and copper alloy industries rely heavily on reliable and consistent scrap copper that can be used and reused.

When it comes to copper prices, the advantage in the industry goes to those with the expertise and efficiencies to buy and sell competitively. The best operations are fully computerized, with the latest in technology, and with state-of-the-art equipment to stay ahead. As it is, efficiency is the key: copper inventories must be diverse and accessible; transportation capabilities must be superior; and above all, market supply of scrap copper must be reliable and consistent.

Copper recycling has proven itself over the years. In North America alone, scrap copper provides almost 50% of the total copper consumed in manufacturing and industry. In short, the value of scrap copper is undisputable – and No. 1 copper scrap still commands over 90% of the market.

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