Researchers at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI have come up with a rather unique model to track the global flow of copper through time or, as they say, “from cradle, to grave, to reincarnation.”
“The big question has always been: how much copper could have been recycled but wasn’t? There was no good way to answer this without a dynamic stock-and-flow model as the required data had not been collected,” explains Luis Tercero Espinoza, who led the research team at Fraunhofer ISI and supervises the institute’s research on materials and raw materials. “Until recently, there were many one-year snapshots of the copper cycle worldwide and in some regions. We now have the full picture.”
The dynamic model, built in close co-operation with the International Copper Association (ICA), starts in 1910 and tracks copper tonnage with respect to global mining, international trade, end-uses and recycling from that time to the present.
According to the study, roughly 440 million tonnes (Mt) of copper were in use (in buildings, machinery, computers, and others) worldwide in 2015. Well over 26 Mt went into service that year, while approximately 12 Mt of copper contained in discarded products became available for recycling.
It also shows that collection and recycling of discarded products, together with recycling of manufacturing scrap yielded well over 8 Mt of recycled metal.
“Copper recycling alone cannot satisfy demand for copper—there is simply not enough material to recycle,” says Espinoza. “Still, the contribution of recycling to global supply can be raised through improved collection and investment in the development and use of better separation technologies for discarded products.”
The research also points at China, the world’s largest copper consumer, as the market where the rate of copper use has increased rapidly. According to the data, China had over 80 million tonnes of copper stocks in-use during 2015. By comparison, the study shows copper stocks in-use for 1990 accounted for less than 10 million tonnes.
Going forward, however, the status of Chinese demand seems difficult to predict. Just this week, copper had the biggest one-day slump in almost three years on doubts about the strength of the nation’s demand for the metal, paired with an improving supply picture and a jump in warehouse stocks.