China turns to cast-off copper in battle to feed hungry smelters

Copper scrap prepared for recycling at copper smelter. (Stock image)

China has ramped up imports of copper scrap as smelters seek alternative raw materials to offset tight supplies of mined ore.

The world’s biggest refined copper producer took in nearly 1 million tons of scrap in 2024’s first five months, putting imports on pace for the strongest year since 2018. Using more scrap is one way for smelters to churn out record volumes of the metal even amid an unprecedented pinch in the ore market.

Across markets, waste metal that’s recouped from the likes of factory waste, demolished buildings and unwanted cars is an important alternative to supply from mines. Scrap is highly price sensitive, typically entering the market as merchants cash in on high prices. Copper futures reached a record above $11,000 a ton last month.

Still, there are already signs of moderating scrap demand. China’s imports for May eased 12% to 198,349 tons from April, which had the highest monthly total since 2018, according to customs figures.


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