Economics of the Copper Scrap Market
Recycled copper scrap contributes significantly to copper supply and plays a behind-the-scenes role in balancing the copper market.
Copper is one of the most important materials in our everyday life, and copper scrap material represents a strategic source of the crucial base metal.
Copper is widely used in building construction, electrical grids, electronic products, transportation equipment and home appliances. Rising demand for renewable energy, electric vehicles and high-tech products bodes well for copper, as it has the highest conductivity of any metal apart from silver, making it an ideal material for the emerging green economy.
Recycled copper scrap contributes significantly to copper supply and plays a behind-the-scenes role in balancing the copper market. “Copper’s recycling value is so great that premium-grade scrap normally has at least 95 (percent) of the value of the primary metal from newly mined ore,” states a report from the Copper Development Association.
What’s more, scrap has been referred to as “the world’s largest copper mine,” and perhaps the most responsive as well, given producers’ ability to source more or less depending on prices. Read on to learn about this material and its impact on the global copper market.
What is copper scrap?
As with many metals, copper is 100 percent recyclable, and for the most part retains its wide variety of beneficial properties when it is reused. Copper scrap material — also known as secondary copper — can be divided into two main categories: new scrap and old scrap.
New scrap is copper metal discarded in fabrication and manufacturing processes, and is typically considered higher-grade material than old scrap. Old scrap refers to copper wire, copper tubing, roofing copper or copper pipe from post-consumer products that can be converted to refined metal and alloys.
During the recycling process, these secondary copper materials are smelted in furnaces and then further processed and refined. Electrical applications require high-grade copper, and while newly mined copper is often preferred for this purpose, premium-quality new scrap material can be used as well. Recycled copper for use in non-electrical applications, such as plumbing tubes or roofing sheets, is often old scrap.
Scrap metal recycling benefits the environment in many ways, such as by reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill waste. Putting this into perspective, the International Copper Study Group notes that one computer contains around 1.5 kilograms (3.3 pounds) of copper, while a typical home can contain as much as 100 kilograms (220 pounds).
According to the group, recycling copper requires 85 percent less energy than primary copper production at the mine level. On a global level, copper recycling reduces electrical energy use by 100 million MWh and keeps 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on an annual basis.
The copper scrap market’s key players
Copper scrap meets about 30 percent of total global copper demand, as per the International Copper Association. Percentages vary — in the US, copper scrap contributes about 35 percent of the nation’s copper supply, while in Europe recycled copper accounts for about 50 percent of all copper use.
China, which makes up around half of global demand for copper, is also the world’s largest refiner of copper from scrap material. Secondary copper production in China has averaged more than 1.5 million tonnes per year for the last decade, equal to about 30 percent of the nation’s total copper consumption.
Much of that secondary copper comes from imports, largely from the US. In 2018, China reportedly imported 352,000 tonnes of high-purity copper scrap material from the United States.
However, as part of its fight against environmental pollution, China has placed restrictions on scrap metal imports, including copper. As a result, its imports from the US dropped to just 89,000 tonnes in 2019, and other countries like Japan have also been able to ship less material to China.
The restrictions were introduced as a prelude to an outright ban on imports of what China calls “foreign garbage” that is expected to go into effect in 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of clarity from the country’s government have created confusion about the path forward.
Explaining the situation, Bloomberg states that China’s restrictions on copper scrap imports have “forced the country’s highly lucrative processing industry to move overseas.” And unfortunately that has happened as demand for copper in China has been renewed and as the coronavirus outbreak has disrupted both primary and secondary copper supply lines at a global level.
“Copper scrap trading was particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis which has led to a shortage of scrap metal,” according to Research and Markets. Jonathan Barnes, senior copper analyst at Roskill, estimates that the global trading in copper scrap fell by around 30 percent in the first half of 2020.
For now, the COVID-19-induced supply gap, along with intense pressure from the nation’s copper scrap recyclers, has led China to exempt high-grade copper scrap imports from the waste ban, reclassifying them as “resources” rather than “waste.” The Chinese government has also “suspended for one year a punitive 25 (percent) import tax on U.S. copper scrap as part of the Phase I trade deal,” reported Reuters.
Outlook for the copper scrap market
Copper is a key material in many industries, and undersupply issues in the global copper market are nothing new — in fact, calls for peak copper have been made for more than a decade.
Where there’s demand and a lack of supply, there’s a need for scrap copper. This material will continue to play an important role in the overall copper market, especially in times when primary copper mines experience disruption, or when they are simply not producing enough of the metal to feed demand.
This is an updated version of an article first published by the Investing News Network in 2011.
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Securities Disclosure: I, Melissa Pistilli, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.