Copper recycling and sustainability Back Ford
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Benefits of recycling
Click on the graphic to see an animation of how new copper tube is made from recycled material.

Have you ever thought about how much rubbish you throw away and what happens to it? Most rubbish is taken to holes in the ground (landfill) and covered with earth. The landfill sites are running out and the alternative, which is building incineration plants, is unpopular with local residents.

Legislation by the EU in the form of a landfill tax, due to be levied in 2010, is forcing local authorities to act on recycling since they (and that means us) will have to pay up to 200 for every tonne of rubbish buried that exceeds a set maximum limit.

The three Rs are the key points to remember:

  • Reduce the amount of waste
  • Reuse as much as possible
  • Recycle when objects are no longer needed

There is much information available for dealing with paper, glass, drinks cans and plastics, but relatively little on copper and articles which contain copper. It is important that copper/copper alloys are recycled and the following gives an overview of how this can be done.

Photo of scrap copper
Scrap copper pipes and flattened hot water cylinders, ready to be recycled and turned into new copper tube.

Copper recycling and reuse

  • Reduce: Copper products are hard wearing and last for a long time and will often still function long after they have been superseded by newer models.
  • Reuse: Goods such as mobile phones, washing machines and cookers, which are still in working order, can be passed on to others for reuse.
  • Recycling: Copper containing waste such as WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment), electrical cables, old taps, copper plumbing pipes and scrap from copper/copper alloy production and manufacturing is collected, dismantled and sorted. This is followed by melting, casting and the manufacture of new copper products.

In Europe, 41% of our demand for copper is met from recycling.

Photo of copper scraps
Process scrap - the waste leftover when production is complete - swarf, turnings, end pieces - are remelted and enter the production process again.

Benefits of recycling copper

The economic and environmental benefits of recycling copper are given below and illustrate the sustainable nature of copper:
Environment
During mining and refining (purification) of copper, dust and waste gases such as sulphur dioxide are produced which may have a harmful effect on the environment. Although these harmful effects are minimised by copper producers (sulphur dioxide is captured and used to make sulphuric acid), with recycling there are little, if any, harmful gases emitted.
Landfill costs
Copper and copper alloy objects which are not recycled might otherwise be dumped in holes in the ground - this is called landfill. These holes are rapidly being filled up and, as they become scarcer, landfill becomes a very expensive option for waste disposal (of any material).
Energy saving
In order to extract copper from copper ore the energy required is approximately 100GJ/tonne. Recycling copper uses much less energy, about 10GJ/tonne, that's only 10% of the energy needed for extraction. This energy saving leads to the conservation of valuable reserves of oil, gas or coal and reduces the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
Conservation of copper ore
To date only about 12% of known copper resources have been mined. However copper ore is a finite resource and it makes sense to conserve ore by recycling.
Economics
It is cheaper to recycle old copper than to mine and extract new copper. Recycled copper is worth up to 90% of the cost of the original copper. Recycling helps to keep the cost of copper products down.

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