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Copper, aluminum recycling opportunities emerge as metals demand grows: BIR


Recycling levels to be boosted by emissions regulations

Copper, aluminum demand seen growing significantly

Some 5 million mt/year of secondary copper needs recycling

  • Author
  • Diana Kinch
  • Editor
  • Richard Rubin
  • Commodity
  • Electric Power Energy Transition Metals

Market opportunities are emerging for copper and aluminum product recycling, due to growing demand for copper and aluminum metal overall, according to speakers at the International Recycling Bureau (BIR) conference in Barcelona this week.

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Of the 14 million mt of secondary copper generated annually on a global basis, only 9 million mt/year are currently recycled, Inka Guixa, of Spanish copper processor La Farga, told delegates during the non-ferrous metals panel at the event.

"The 5 million mt [that are not recovered] need to be better incorporated into the value chain," Guixa said. This needs to be done via a higher level of secondary copper recovery and process and product innovation, she said.

Recycling levels are expected to be boosted by regulations curbing carbon emissions as overall demand for base metals grows.

"Copper demand will increase," Guixa said, noting that energy transition is currently the biggest driver of copper demand.

Renewable energy is nine times more copper intensive than thermal power, while electric vehicles are three times more copper intensive than internal combustion engine cars, according to Guixa. Electrification and digitalization should by 2030 require 31% more copper than today, she noted, citing data from trader Trafigura and Italy-based energy company Enel.

Eventually more copper at the end of its life-cycle will be available and will need to be reintroduced into the value chain, she indicated.

"Secondary copper has a huge business opportunity to meet copper demand," Guixa said.

London Metal Exchange Grade A cash copper closed at $9,459.50/mt May 24, down $40/mt on day.

Aluminum 'closing the loop'

In the aluminum recycling area, there are both challenges and opportunities, Tom Eng, senior vice-president of European recycler Tomra Sorting GmbH, told delegates.

European Union demand for aluminum is set to grow by an estimated 40% between 2018 and 2050, driven by transport, construction and packaging and that will be challenging for aluminum producers, Eng said. There is also an accompanying plethora of environmental legislation, he noted.

However, the growth in demand will be predominantly covered by recycled aluminum as there is limited primary production capacity and because the circular economy is pushing legislations for CO2 reduction and incentivizing recycled content, he said.

New technologies are emerging for sorting aluminum scrap, for instance x-ray transmission (XRT), which sorts metals based on atomic density, and laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy, which detects elemental composition, sorts scrap into different alloys and alloy groups, and increases scrap quality by further reducing alloying elements.

Companies already introducing so-called "green aluminum" alloys into the market include Hydro, with its Circal 100R product, Creal (Circular Recycled Aluminium), Recall and Silval, he said.

"Aluminium is already quite a green industry," he said. "We're closing the loop in aluminium."

Regionalization could also be key in reducing energy and transport costs in the sector, he noted.

Dhawal Shah, of US-based Metco Ventures, noted that energy costs can now represent up to 75% of recycling companies' total operating costs in some regions.

The LME high-grade aluminum cash price closed at $2,880.50/mt May 24, down $81.75/mt on day.