Going Heavy Metal With Industrial Copper Recycling

Photo by Steve Jurvetson

Shanghai Copper by Steve Jurvetson

Copper has a long and impressive history. In ancient Egypt, it was revered as a sacred metal with special powers to bring immortality. Copper was also the metal most often refined and made into tools and weapons.

In both North and South America, copper was surface-mined by Native peoples for thousands of years.

During the colonial period, virtually all U.S. copper was reclaimed and recycled because Great Britain wouldn’t allow the colonies to smelt their own ore. Manufacturers had to ship it to England for processing.

Since the Revolutionary War, approximately one half of copper products manufactured in the U.S. came from reclaimed copper. Between the Revolutionary War and World War I, Michigan supplied from 75 to 95 percent of the U.S.’s copper ore.

Copper recycling is so effective that out of the estimated 700 billion tons of copper mined throughout human history.

Most of that copper is still in circulation today, in useful and diverse objects such as electrical equipment, motors and corrosive-resistant rooftops. Heat sinks and heat exchangers use copper as a result of its superior heat dissipation capacity to aluminum.

Copper has also been used for healing wounds since the ’60s, and is now all the rage with dermatologists, who claim it’s an effective anti-aging treatment. Seems like the ancient Egyptians weren’t so far off after all.

FIVE LEVELS OF HEAVY METAL

Copper recycling may be an old process, but it’s come a long way since humans pounded out their first copper tools over smelting fires. The quality of copper scrap varies, and so they are sorted into five categories.

Each category has its own reclaiming process. Each commands a different price based on it’s quality, quantity, source, and number grade.

The purest and most valuable category is Number 1 copper scrap. Scrap must be clean, uncoated, unplated, and unalloyed to fall into the No. 1 category. Leftover solids, punchings, and clippings are No. 1 scrap; so are clean pipes and tubing. Clean commutator segments and bus bars are also usually No. 1. Copper wire may be No. 1 if it’s thicker than 1/16 of an inch and free of burns and corrosion.

Number 2 copper scrap includes all No. 1 types if they’re coated, plated, or mildly oxidized. No. 2 scrap cannot be alloyed, ashed, mixed with debris, or have large amounts of solder. Coated and uncoated wire 1/16 of an inch or thinner may be No. 2 if it’s not brittle, burnt, highly corroded, scaled, or predominantly fine gauge.

Number 3 copper scrap is clean, soldered copper pipe without alloyed fittings. If your pipe has soldered joints, it’s probably No. 3.

The fourth category of copper scrap is light scrap. This is post-consumer, unalloyed scrap besides pipe, such as boilers and kettles, sheets, spouts and gutters, foil, and unburned fine gauge wire. It must not be highly corroded or oxidized.

The fifth category is alloyed or unknown scrap. This is the least valuable because it usually needs the most processing to reclaim the least copper. This scrap has to be smelted and analyzed to determine its content.

If you’re recycling alloys and unknowns, you must keep them in clean, separate units apart from your four categories of pure copper scrap.

THIS MORTAL COIL

One more thing. The term “new scrap” means you’re sending it for recycling unused — for example, pipes, fittings, and dye-cast parts leftover from a construction project. “Old scrap” has already completed a useful life. This is scrap such as wiring and pipe leftover from demolition, and used air conditioners, motors, generators, and automotive parts.


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