Copper saves resources
Recycling conserves resources, reduces environmental impact and saves energy by eliminating the energy required for mining, processing and smelting. Copper is probably the most recycled material in the world. For generations, the collection and trade of scrap and used materials for copper and copper alloys has been well organised. The reason is the excellent suitability of copper materials for reuse.
Decisive for the evaluation of the production of metals from return materials and scrap is, in addition to the energy savings, the quality to be achieved during recycling. If this is not achieved, then the advantages in terms of energy savings are questionable, as the energy requirements of dissimilar materials are compared. For example, in contrast to copper, with some other metals and with plastics it is not easily possible to produce products with the same quality as those made from virgin metals. With copper, on the other hand, it is possible to produce products that do not differ in any way from those made from primary metals without any loss of quality. The decisive advantage of recycling copper materials is precisely that copper does not suffer any loss of quality even when recycled several times, regardless of whether metallic or non-metallic, low-copper or high-copper input materials are recycled.
The classic recycling rate is calculated from the quantity produced per year from secondary materials in relation to the annual production. For copper, this definition results in a recycling rate of about 50 %. However, this figure says little about the reuse of a material. This is because the definition does not take into account that end-of-life material comes from durable economic goods that were produced at a time when the annual copper production was considerably lower. And when calculating the recycling rate, secondary copper production is related to today’s much higher production. This classic recycling rate is misleading in that it does not express the true degree of reuse of end-of-life copper materials.
What is a "real recycling rate"?
A "true recycling rate" for copper is obtained by basing this on the useful life of the products until reuse and relating the amount of copper reused to the total production at the beginning of the useful life. Copper and copper alloys have a long useful life because of their excellent durability, as the following examples show:
|Small electric motors||10 to 12 years|
|Vehicles||15 to 18 years (vehicle service life)|
|Cables||30 to 40 years|
|Buildings||60 to 80 years|
If an average useful life of 35 years is taken as a basis, this results in a “real” recycling rate, related to the total copper production 35 years ago, of almost 80 %. The “real” recycling rate better describes the almost complete recycling of secondary copper than the recycling rate of 50 %. For the recovery of copper in the recycling of end-of-life vehicles, a recycling rate of about 90 % is expected. The development of suitable reprocessing methods for the difficult-to-handle electronic scrap will increase this rate in the future. The recycling rate expresses that about 50 % of the total copper demand can be covered by scrap and return materials. Since Germany has virtually no copper deposits of its own, the return materials represent an important resource for covering copper demand.
Recycling conserves resources
In the meantime, about 50% of the copper used in Europe comes from recycling. In Germany, more than 45 % of the copper produced in this country comes from recycled material. This is a record and makes it clear that the current copper demand is increasingly being met from recycling. This “win-win” situation helps to meet the steadily growing demand for this metal while at the same time reducing the environmental impact associated with copper production. Moreover, increased recycling further secures copper availability for future generations.
Recycling copper is a very effective way to return the valuable material to the production cycle. In fact, copper production from secondary materials only requires a maximum of 20 percent of the energy needed to extract primary copper from ore and concentrates. Globally, this saves 100 million MWh of electrical energy and reduces Co2 emissions by 40 million tonnes annually. In principle, copper can be recycled again and again in its applications without any loss of quality.
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