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Visualizing the Opportunity Cost of Unrecycled Metals in the U.S.

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Visualizing the Opportunity Cost of Unrecycled Metals in the U.S.

The Opportunity Cost of Unrecycled Metals in the U.S.

Metals are an essential resource for modern society, used in everything from construction and transportation to technology and medical equipment. As the demand for these minerals continues to grow, so does the amount of waste generated by their production and consumption.

Recycling this metal waste is not just a win for sustainability; it also has huge economic benefits. In the visual above, we explore the ratio of recycled vs. unrecycled metals in the U.S. using 2020 Recycling Statistics by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Metal Recycling in the U.S.

Opportunity cost is a concept that refers to the benefits that are forgone when choosing one option over another. In the case of unrecycled metals, the opportunity cost is the potential economic and environmental benefits that could have been achieved through increasing metal recycling ratios.

Below are the recycling rates for select metals in the U.S. in 2020.

Metal% of supply recycled
Aluminum54
Chromium25
Copper36
Iron & Steel52
Lead77
Magnesium55
Nickel52
Tin36

The above recycled metals represented a dollar value of $26 billion in 2020. Their unrecycled counterparts, on the other hand, represented $28 billion.

Metals can either be recycled from scrap that results from the manufacturing process (known as “new scrap”) or scrap from post-consumer products (“old scrap.”) Regardless of the source, many of them, especially chromium, copper, and tin, have the potential to reap further sustainability and economic benefits by recycling a larger proportion of their scrap supplies.

The Case for Metal Recycling

When compared with the mining, processing and transport of new metals, recycling metals can provide a significantly less energy-intensive alternative, saving enough energy each year to power millions of homes in the U.S.

Recycling metals can also save natural resources, create more green jobs, and reduce a country’s dependency on mineral imports by supplementing its supply of raw materials.

Overall, the potential for metal recycling is vast, and taking steps to increase the amount of recycled metals in the U.S. can lead to even greater sustainability and economic benefits.

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The State of Copper Recycling in the U.S.

This graphic explores how recycling copper can help address the demand for the metal in the U.S.

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The-State-of-Copper-Recycling-in-North-America

The State of Copper Recycling in the U.S.

Copper is essential for a low-carbon economy due to its crucial role in renewable energy technologies.

As a result, many worry that a lack of the metal used in wires and batteries can hurt a transition to a green economy.

In this graphic, our sponsor, the Copper Development Association, explores how recycling can address the demand for copper.

Copper Scrap Recycled in the U.S.

In 2022, the total copper scrap recycled in the U.S. was approximately 830,000 tonnes, equivalent to 32% of the total U.S. copper supply for the same period. Around 670,000 tonnes (81%) originated from pre-consumer sources generated during manufacturing operations, while 160,000 tonnes (19%) came from post-consumer sources, such as obsolete products.

Brass and wire-rod mills accounted for the majority of the copper recycled from scrap (85%). Additionally, smelters, refiners, and ingot makers make 10% and chemical plants, foundries, and other manufacturers around 5%.

Copper from Scrap2022 Content (tonnes)
Brass and wire-rod mills650,000 t
Smelters and refiners40,000 t
Ingot makers39,500 t
Foundries, Other40,000 t

Despite the rising demand for copper, the U.S. predominantly exports its copper scrap.

In 2022, the U.S. exported half of the 1,569,000 tonnes of the copper content generated from scrap. This export trend persisted because, until recent years, the country lacked operating secondary copper smelters capable of processing complex scrap grades into furnace-ready raw materials.

However, reshoring this metal presents an opportunity for the country.

Tapping into the Urban Mine

North America currently has about 86 million tonnes (Mt) of copper in use, known as the Urban Mine. This copper will become available for recycling as aging infrastructure and products reach the end of their service lives:

  • Buildings: 45.4 Mt
  • Infrastructure: 16.1 Mt
  • Consumer Products: 11.2 Mt
  • Transport: 8.5 Mt
  • Industrial Uses: 4.8 Mt

Increased secondary smelting and refining capacity is a crucial building block for a more resilient and self-sufficient U.S. copper supply chain.

In response to the growing need for copper, the U.S. plans to add over 280,000 tonnes of secondary smelting and refining capacity in the next few years. This expansion will enable the country to process more complex scrap grades domestically.

Given that copper products can last for decades, creating a lag time before the material becomes available for recycling, primary production will continue to play an important role in meeting the increasing needs in the U.S.

The Copper Development Association (CDA) brings the value of copper and its alloys to society to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Visit www.copper.org to learn more about why copper is a critical mineral.

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Why Copper Is Critical for Data Centers

Copper consumption for data centers in North America is estimated to jump from 197,000 tonnes in 2020 to 238,000 tonnes in 2030.

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Copper’s Critical Role in Data Centers

Why Copper Is Critical for Data Centers

Data centers are computer server hubs that collect, store, and process large amounts of data, requiring extensive network infrastructure and electric power supply.

As the North American data center market grows, copper will be a key building block in this infrastructure.

This infographic from the Copper Development Association illustrates the critical role of copper in data center development.

Copper in Technology

Much has been said about the growing demand for critical minerals like copper, nickel, and lithium for clean technologies such as batteries, EVs, solar, and wind power.

Copper, however, has a more extensive role in technology as it is used in wires that connect power grids and data centers around the planet.

As one of the best conductors of electricity, copper maximizes efficiency in the transmission and distribution of electricity. Its thermal conductivity also helps build efficient heat exchangers, which are vital for cooling in data centers.

The inherent ductility and malleability of copper make it ideal for shaping into compact system components, like electrical connectors. In addition, copper can be fully recycled without losing any beneficial properties, providing an excellent solution in a growing green economy.

Data centers use copper across various electrical applications, including:

  • Power cables
  • Busbars
  • Electrical connectors
  • Heat exchangers and sinks
  • Power distribution strips

To put the demand into perspective, Microsoft’s $500 million data center in Chicago required 2,177 tonnes of copper for construction.

North America’s Growing Need for Copper

With the rise of cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT), the North American data center market is expanding.

North American data center infrastructure is expected to grow from a $33 billion business in 2020 to $70 billion in 2030 and $185 billion in 2040.

This, in turn, will amplify the demand for copper. Copper consumption for data centers is estimated to jump from 197,000 tonnes in 2020 to 238,000 tonnes in 2030 and 293,000 tonnes in 2040.

The Copper Development Association (CDA) brings the value of copper and its alloys to society to address the challenges of today and tomorrow. Visit www.copper.org to learn more about copper’s critical role in data centers.

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