Current challenges in copper recycling: Aligning insights from material flow analysis with technological research developments and industry issues in Europe and North America
This paper examines the copper recycling chain - from scrap generation through to metallurgical recovery - in search for current challenges and technological opportunities for improvement. We provide an analysis of global copper flows, showing largely constant amounts of recycled copper and a rise in importance of the complex end of-life (EoL) scrap compared to the less challenging manufacturing scrap. Source separation of EoL scrap as an answer to waste complexity is examined but dismissed as not viable. A literature review on developments in sorting and separation technology revealed new promising possibilities through sensor-based technologies. However, examples for their use for tasks specific to copper recycling are rare and far from market-ready. Metallurgical recovery of copper has not experienced major developments in the last years. In particular, there is no easy solution for the removal of lead when remelting copper alloys. Interviews with experts from the copper recycling industry revealed that the handling and processing of copper scrap differs widely between companies but also between Europe and North America. While extensive scrap testing and load optimization is common practice for the copper industry in Europe, a discussion on the responsibility for scrap composition and consequently for the burden of scrap analysis is underway between scrap dealers and copper recyclers in North America. Scrap availability and optimization of the recycling chain as a whole are also important topics. A more coordinated optimization approach between actors along the recycling chain could potentially reduce overall costs and increase recovery of copper and its alloys.