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The Environmental Importance of Copper Recycling

Copper is an essential trace element that is necessary for plant and animal health. Moderate excess exposure to copper is not associated with health risks.

As with other metals, there are significant environmental benefits to the recycling of copper. These include solid waste diversion, reduced energy requirements for processing, and natural resource conservation. For example, the energy requirements of recycled copper are as much as 85 to 90% less than the processing of new copper from virgin ore. In terms of conservation, copper is a non-renewable resource, although only 12% of known reserves have been consumed. Known U.S. reserves of copper are thought to total 1.6 billion metric tons, with production concentrated in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Montana. About 99% of domestic production is generated from 20 mines.

An emerging environmental challenge for copper is its use in the ever-increasing production of electrical products that still experience low recycling rates. This trend is changing for the better, however, through electronics recycling initiatives.

Ranking immediately behind Chile in copper production, the United States is largely self-sufficient in copper supply. The U.S. produces roughly 8% of the world’s copper generation. Almost half of U.S. copper output comes from recycled material, however. In 2010, U.S. recyclers processed 1.8 million metric tons of copper for domestic use and export, second only to aluminum among nonferrous metals, which saw 4.6 million tonnes recycled.

Slightly over one-half of recycled copper scrap is new scrap recovery including chips and machine turnings, with the rest being old post-consumer scraps such as electrical cable, old radiators, and plumbing tube.

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