Copper recycling and sustainability Back Ford
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Recycling through history
Copper and bronze axe heads
Copper and bronze axe heads used in Europe during the Bronze Age (courtesy Codelco).

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin which is harder and stronger than copper. Bronze is easier to cast than copper and in ancient times useful objects such as axes, knife blades, swords and helmets were produced as well as decorative items such as bells, buckles, drinking vessels and statuettes. The earliest bronzes are dated 4000 BC.

Bronze is so important that periods in history were named The Bronze Age. It is likely that bronze was discovered independently in many areas of the world so that there is not one Bronze Age which applies to all areas. The earliest Bronze Age may be 3500-2000 BC in what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq, and 2100 to 700 BC in Britain. In these early days Cornwall was highly industrialised and was a most important area for mining tin and copper and soon became a major exporter of these metals with well established trade routes to Mediterranean countries. No tin or copper is mined now in Cornwall (or anywhere else in the UK). Only a few ruins and many deep holes in the countryside remain.

Big Ben
'Big Ben'. - the famous Westminster bell, housed in the Clock Tower - is made entirely from recycled bronze

Bronze is very suitable for making bells and bell founding and the making of large bells was one of the earliest metal industries in Britain. In fact the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London is listed as Britain's oldest manufacturing company, being established in 1570 (during the reign of Elizabeth I) and being in continuing business since that date. The most famous bell made in Whitechapel is Big Ben, Westminster, which was cast in 1858 weighing 13.76 tonnes. The manufacture of Big Ben used recycled bronze obtained from an earlier bell (not made at Whitechapel) which had cracked on testing. The original quoted price of 2,401 for Big Ben was offset by an allowance of 1,289 for the scrap bell making a final cost of only 572. This is an early example of the value of recycling and sustainability.

The technology of bell founding was extended to cast bronze cannon as long ago as the 14th century. These bronze guns often allow the identification of archaeological sites. As bronze corrodes only very slowly, these guns often retain the maker's name or the owner's name and the date. Henry VIII had a flag ship called 'The Mary Rose' which sank during a naval review in 1545. It has yielded many bronze and brass cannon which confirm the identity of the wreck.

Bronze medals and medallions can look like coins but are not used as currency. The first English service medal was the Armada medal awarded in 1588 by Elizabeth I.

Bronze plaques on buildings commemorate famous people and events. Bronze is chosen because it is easy to cast, reproduces fine detail and resists corrosion.

Private Johnson Beharry of the 1st Battalion the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment
The Victoria Cross - the highest military award for valour - is made from recycled bronze.

The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration for valour. It was instituted in 1856 by Queen Victoria. Medals were originally made from bronze recycled from two Chinese-made cannon captured from the Russians at Sebastopol during the Crimean War (1854-56). The gunmetal casting contained 10% tin.

1. What aspect of the production of Big Ben shows the sustainable nature of copper?
2. What do Big Ben and the Victoria Cross medal have in common?
3. Which metals were mined in Cornwall as early as 2100BC?

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