As the need for copper increases, cable manufacturers recycle more

MONTREAL– In an industrial suburb of Montreal, copper plates move along a conveyor belt suspended four floors above the floor of a foundry – a metal factory – until they fall into a lava-hot furnace. Next come pieces of discarded copper wire.

Liquid copper comes out of the furnace, ignited with green fire. It goes to a second furnace and from there flows a river of orange copper, which is used to make copper bars, the raw material for copper wire.

This Nexans mill has been making copper rod from ore for almost a century. But now more and more copper is also being made from used copper, with the bars containing around 14% recycled metal. It is hoped for 20%.

“We say to our customers: your waste today, your waste today is your energy tomorrow, so bring your waste back,” says Christopher Guérin, CEO of Nexans.

Manufacturers across the industry have been reusing and recycling some degree of copper for years. Now they are stepping up these efforts as the need for the metal increases is expected to nearly double by 2035.

This is partly due to the fact that we have moved away from fossil fuels to reduce global warming greenhouse gas emissions. There is a growing movement to power buildings, vehicles and manufacturing operations with clean electricity, to “electrify everything” – using more copper.

Building construction, mobile phones and data centers account for the other half of the increase in demand.

Every ton of copper recycled means about 200 tons of rock that doesn't need to be mined, although the amount depends on how rich the ore is. This is important because mining can cause erosion, pollute soil and water, threaten local biodiversity and pollute the air. Copper is a particularly good candidate for reuse because it can be recycled indefinitely without losing its value or performance, Guérin said.

Every day, up to 10 trucks deliver bare wire, cable and copper scrap to the Nexans factory. Some comes from customers, some from scrap dealers. The purity must be high if it is to be used to conduct electricity. Nexans, one of the largest wire and cable manufacturers in the world, uses more than 2,600 times the weight of the Statue of Liberty in copper annually.

People may have a closer bond with this metal and this mill than they realize – copper connects them to the world, says Daniel Yergin, an energy expert and vice chairman of the analytics firm S.&P Global.

“We now depend on electricity for everything,” he said. “None of it works without copper.”

Aluminum is also used in electrical wiring, but its production requires a lot of energy. Some aluminum smelters, where machines separate metal from ore, have cut production or closed as electricity prices have risen, increasing demand for copper.

According to the International Copper Association, roughly two-thirds of all copper produced in the last century is still used, mainly for electricity grids, home appliances and communications. When these expire their lifespan, they form a huge stockpile that can be recycled in the future, the ICA said.

Colin Williams, program coordinator for the USGS Mineral Resources Program, said companies need to recycle more of the copper already available, taking advantage of what is essentially the “urban mine.”

“It increases the supply available,” he said. “…It reduces the energy and environmental impacts associated with new mining by allowing us to reuse material we have already extracted. It is an important step.”

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The Associated Press' climate and environmental reporting receives funding from several private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find APs standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas AP.org.

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