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How can the metal recycling industry can help supply the increased copper needed for renewable energy technology?

Terry Garry, Director of Non-Ferrous at EMR

Jack Arksey

2022-06-29
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Copper is an incredibly important metal, without which our modern lives would be impossible.

Why? Not only do many essential electronic devices depend on copper to function, our plumbing systems also use copper to ensure we all have access to safe, clean water when we turn on our taps.

In addition, copper is now one of the metals driving the UK’s transition to renewable power.

When it comes to electronics, copper is the most conductive metal available to manufacturers, after far more expensive gold and silver. As the use of new technologies such as solar PV panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles grows, the need for copper in the UK is only set to increase.

Meanwhile, copper has replaced lead as the metal of choice for the plumbing industry, further driving demand for this useful metal.

Yet, there is a problem. According to the Copper Alliance, the copper industry is currently operating with just 40 years of copper reserves available. And while further resources do exist, the mining of virgin copper is increasingly difficult and out of step with international efforts to bring down carbon emissions and protect biodiversity.

Access to a supply of high-quality recycled copper is therefore essential.

Fortunately recycling copper is a long-established process and, at EMR, we’re able to utilise the skills and experience our teams have developed giving other metals – including steel and aluminium – a useful second life. Recycling metals such as copper also provides huge energy and carbon savings.

In fact, without the need to mine, transport and process virgin material, the Copper Alliance says recycled copper allows mills to save something like 85 percent of the overall energy cost of delivering a high-quality finished product to manufacturers.

Add to this the marketing benefits manufacturers gain by selling products using sustainable, recycled copper and it’s easy to see why demand has soared.

The challenge is that, currently, just 30 percent of the copper used globally comes from recycled sources. Metal recyclers such as EMR must therefore work in partnership with copper mills to expand the supply of new, higher quality grades of recycled copper, allowing the industry to increase the amount used in their supply chains.

We’re already having those conversations, working on ways our business can deliver a cleaner product with fewer contaminants. EMR uses a wide range of processes to clean and sort recycled copper – including shredding, granulating and complex wet and dry processing. This enables our teams to separate the 78 different commonly-used copper alloys before baling them to increase the density of the metal for transport and melting.

While this provides a cleaner recycled material for the copper mills to use, it also further improves the efficiency of the supply chain, reducing the energy required to transport and process the metal. This, too, has significant environmental benefits.

EMR isn’t stopping here, however. Through its sustainability strategy, our business is switching to renewable electricity and cutting fossil fuels out of our processes; with a science-backed goal of reaching net-zero by 2040. Every step on this journey will increase the sustainability of the recycled copper we produce.

Copper may not have the glamour of gold or silver but its role in our lives is arguably even more important. At EMR, we’re working hard to ensure that the widespread recycling of this useful metal contributes to the creation of a truly low carbon, circular economy.