Optimising the supply of mineral raw materials: Copper recycling ensures the supply of key industries and makes an important contribution to achieving the European climate targets
The phase-out of fossil technologies and the transformation to a decarbonised society will lead to an increased demand for raw materials such as copper in the medium term. The German government plans to strengthen recycling as the second pillar of the mineral raw material supply by developing options for action in order to continue to supply the economy with important metals such as copper. However, in addition to initiatives such as the Dialogplattform Recyclingrohstoffe ( Dialogue Platform on Recycling Raw Materials) set up by the German government, there are already numerous companies in the copper industry that not only work sustainably and have adapted their standards accordingly, but also do not use the primary raw material copper at all or only to a small extent by using recycling raw materials in copper production, thus ensuring in an exemplary manner that not only is production more CO2-efficient, but that resources are also conserved.
One example of the sustainable production of copper is the Austrian Montanwerke Brixlegg AG. “With the lowest CO2 footprint, 100 percent recycled raw materials and 100 percent renewable energy for our electricity needs, we produce the world’s most climate-friendly copper with the lowest CO2 emissions. In this way, we are not only doing pioneering work for today’s needs, but are already creating the conditions for the climate neutrality of the future as the first in the value chain.” is how board member Uwe Schmidt describes the special features of his company. 100 percent of the copper produced at Brixlegg comes from secondary materials, i.e. recycled copper, which comes from collected or processed recycling raw materials.”
Copper demand will increase
A path that is exemplary and is also reflected in the raw materials strategy of the federal government as an essential pillar. For in addition to securing raw materials through domestic mining and imports, among other things, the expansion of the circular economy through increased recycling, especially in the area of urban mining, is also on the list of the most important instruments for strengthening the security of supply of raw materials. In order to define corresponding possibilities, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection has commissioned the Dialogue Platform on Recycling Raw Materials, which aims to improve the secure and sustainable supply of German industry with metals and industrial minerals from secondary raw material sources. A sub-working group of the dialogue platform, which is supervised by the Kupferverband (German copper institute) and the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI, is working intensively on the topic of copper.
“The demand for copper will grow in the coming years, especially due to its role as an enabler of the mobility and energy transition,” says Michael Sander, Managing Director of the Kupferverband on the importance of the raw material. “In Europe alone, an estimated additional 1.25 million tonnes of copper will be needed to implement the energy transition in 2030, rising to more than 1.5 million tonnes in 2040 – an increase of 35 percent over today. There is also a correspondingly strong desire for more secondary raw materials for industry.”
Breaking down recycling barriers
In this context, the long service life of copper products in the context of the recycling strategy represents a natural limitation to the availability of copper scrap, as the interim report of the sub-working group on copper of the dialogue platform now clearly shows. Antonia Loibl from Fraunhofer ISI comments: “Copper is a metal that can basically be recycled indefinitely without any loss of quality. The energy-efficient melting of copper scrap in combination with the refining of copper into new copper of the highest quality is a huge plus point. However, the demand for copper cannot be covered in the medium and long term by secondary raw materials alone. Innovation and investment towards making mining as sustainable as possible must therefore not be forgotten, while at the same time we work to utilise the existing recycling potential as fully as possible.”
Currently, the recycling share in copper cathode production in Germany is around 40 per cent and thus significantly above the global average. Nevertheless, according to the interim report of the dialogue platform, rates of increase are still possible here. In particular, areas of regulation, recycling technology and processes, as well as data collection and the digitalisation of material flows were defined as parameters in need of improvement. Further optimisation aspects are seen in the expansion of infrastructure and logistics, but also in funding incentives for the expansion of recycling capacities and collection points in Germany.
“Securing the supply of raw materials such as copper cannot be viewed one-dimensionally,” Loibl and Sander say of the preliminary results of their working circle. “Especially the discussion with industry, such as Montanwerke Brixlegg, proves that many ways can contribute to a solution in the raw material issue. However, for a promising approach for the future, many existing barriers, especially for the reycycling industry, still need to be discussed – and not only at national but also at European level.”