Non-Ferrous metals

Extract BIR Annual Report 2020

Three or so years ago, China was established as the go-to outlet for many non-ferrous scrap exporters. Traders had become accustomed to the country’s distinctive systems and had been successful in nurturing strong and mutually-beneficial links with the country’s customer base. 

All was to change, however, with its government’s announcement that imports of “solid waste” – a sweeping category that unfortunately captured our own raw materials – would be banned with effect from December 31 2020. 

Last year, China approved import quotas for 882,697 tons of copper scrap and 821,519 tons of aluminium scrap. In 2017, by comparison, China’s copper scrap imports had amounted to 3.56 million tons or 64% of its supply, while its overseas purchases of aluminium scrap were close to 2.2 million tons. 

The step-by-step, quota-based reduction in imports over two to three years provided our industry with valuable time to explore alternatives. Also, it gave an opportunity to organizations like BIR and particularly our member association in China, the CMRA, to maintain a dialogue with government officials and seek outcomes that would enable scrap metals to reach China’s still-hungry consumers.

Last year, thankfully, brought good news. The Chinese authorities announced a reclassification permitting the importation of materials for recycling if they met certain specified standards. Copper, brass and cast aluminium alloys have provided the template for this new system. 

The reclassification process confirms China’s ongoing requirement for secondary raw material imports to supplement domestically-generated metal units. In addition, it shows China’s eagerness to promote its own recycling industry, for which the country’s latest Five-Year Plan for 2021 to 2025 specifically targets steady growth and increased efficiency. And on a positive note for traders around the world, the Plan also makes clear China’s desire to continue to strengthen co-operation with foreign countries, enterprises and international industry associations.

Overlaying developments in China and all other key events for our sector last year was, of course, the COVID pandemic. Even though recycling was rightly designated an essential, strategic industry in many parts of the world, our day-to-day activities were still turned upside down by the rapid spread of the virus and the response measures put in place. Lockdowns of varying levels of severity downshifted world economies into first gear and made business life even more challenging than before.

As we heard at the BIR Non-Ferrous Metals Division’s eForum in June, more than 40 million US citizens had lost their jobs in just 10 weeks. Unemployment rates in some countries soared as high as 25% and, unfortunately, many of our own companies were forced to take the painful decision to lay off valued members of their workforce. Another impact of the lockdowns was to stem the flow of material into yards; for example, estimates of metal scrap availability in May were just 50% of the norm for Italy and Spain. And in India, the suspension of normal life meant that, for the first time ever, zero automotive sales were recorded in April.
But even at that June eForum, the resilience of human activity was already beginning to show through. Our guest speaker Eugen Weinberg of Commerzbank pointed to the recent spike in China’s business activity index while demand for scrap in Asia was showing distinct signs of recovery. By the time of our webinar in October, we learned that Asia’s recyclers were operating at quite high production levels because of particularly strong demand from China. Astonishingly, given the effects of COVID, it was suggested that the Chinese economy would still record growth in 2020. In India too, the secondary non-ferrous metals sector had rebounded despite ongoing concerns over COVID infection rates. 

To date, the business resurgence in Asia – especially South East Asia, India and Pakistan – has provided the main spark for a rally in the non-ferrous metals markets, led by copper whose LME cash price had fallen close to US$ 4600 per tonne by late March but ended 2020 at upwards of US$ 8000. With a number of highly-effective vaccines now emerging and with vaccination programmes receiving priority status in many countries, we have some justification for hoping that the recovery will spread far wider in 2021 and that this year will be far brighter than its predecessor.

“The reclassification process confirms China’s ongoing requirement for secondary raw material imports to supplement domestically-generated metal units. ”

David Chiao

Uni-All Group Ltd (USA)


The most commonly used non-ferrous metals are aluminium, copper, lead, zinc, nickel, titanium, cobalt, chromium and precious metals. Millions of tonnes of non-ferrous scrap are recovered annually and used by smelters, refiners, ingot makers, foundries and other manufacturers. Secondary materials are essential to the industry’s survival because even new metals often require the combined use of recycled materials.

According to several estimates, the recycled non-ferrous metals market as a whole was worth more than US$ 90 billion in 2018.

New metals made using recycled material


Aluminium, which is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, is one of the most recycled materials. Recovering aluminium for recycling is not only economically viable, but energy efficient and ecologically sound.

Owing to the limited availability of non-ferrous metals, the unrestricted flow of scrap from country to country according to industrial and consumer demand is crucial. BIR has consistently campaigned for the free movement of secondary raw materials to avoid shortages in certain geographical areas and surpluses in others. Import barriers could limit the supply to the manufacturing industry in some countries.

BIR’s major study entitled “Review of Global Non-Ferrous Scrap Flows” focuses on copper and aluminium. Owing to the industrial importance of both metals, there are very few countries in the world which do not trade in aluminium scrap or in copper/copper alloy scrap. The research reveals that scrap usage for copper - both for secondary refined copper production and direct use of scrap - increased worldwide by 41% from 5.9 million tonnes in 2000 to 8.3 million tonnes in 2015 (worth around US$ 46 billion at that time). Production of aluminium from scrap increased by 86% from 8.4 million tonnes in 2000 to 15.6 million tonnes in 2015 (worth around US$ 26 billion at that time).


Global Non-Ferrous Scrap Flows 2000-2015

Global Non-Ferrous Scrap Flows 2000-2015

pdf English 2000-2011

pdf English 2000-2015





The metal recycling industry has an efficient structure with numerous small companies purchasing scrap material and feeding this to highly-effective larger international businesses.

Non-ferrous metal recycling involves some, or all, of the following steps:

Sorting and dismantling: In order to be recycled appropriately, different types of non-ferrous metals need to be separated from each other, as well as from other recyclables such as paper and plastic.

Baling: Non-ferrous materials are compacted into large blocks to facilitate handling and transportation

Shearing: Hydraulic machinery capable of exerting enormous pressure is used to cut metals into manageable sizes

Shredding: Shredders incorporate rotating magnetic drums to separate non-ferrous from ferrous metals.

Further separation: This is achieved using electrical currents, high-pressure air flows and liquid flotation/media separation systems. More processing may be needed.

Melting: The recovered materials are melted down in a furnace, poured into casters and shaped into ingots. These ingots are either used in the foundry industry or they can be transformed into flat sheets and other wrought products such as tubing, which are then used to manufacture new products.




    Aluminium has enormous recycling potential and is often reused for the same application for which it was originally manufactured. Its strength, flexibility and light weight make it ideal for:

    • Building & construction: Window frames, building structures, roofs, etc.
    • Transportation: Aluminium is used in aircraft, trains, boats, cars and trucks, as well as in smaller vehicles such as bicycles, motorbikes and other mobility devices such as wheelchairs.
    • Packaging: Aluminium is used mostly in the form of cans and foil.
    • Electricity: Since 1945, aluminium has replaced copper in high-voltage transmission lines.
    • Cooking and tableware.

    • One tonne of recycled aluminium saves up to 8 tonnes of bauxite, 14,000 kWh of energy, 40 barrels (6300 litres) of oil and 7.6 cubic metres of landfill space.
    • Recycling aluminium uses up to 95% less energy than producing aluminium using virgin raw materials.
    • Recycling one aluminium can saves enough energy to power a 100-watt bulb for almost four hours.
    • The aluminium drinks can is the world’s most recycled container, with recycling rates approaching 100% in some countries.


  • Applications

    After silver, copper has the best electrical conductivity of all the elements. It is also a very good thermal conductor and is readily alloyed with other metals like lead, tin and zinc for foundry applications to produce, among other goods, products for the transmission of water such as valves.

    Other common applications for recovered copper include:

    • Electrical applications: Wires, circuits, switches and electromagnets.
    • Piping: Plumbing fittings and also refrigeration, air-conditioning and water supply systems.
    • Roofing and insulation.
    • Household items: cookware, doorknobs and cutlery.
  • Recycling facts

    • Copper’s recycling value is so high that premium-grade scrap holds at least 95% of the value of the primary metal from newly-mined ore.
    • Recycling copper saves up to 85% of the energy used in primary production.
    • By using copper scrap instead of adopting the primary route, CO2 emissions are reduced by around 65%.


  • Applications

    The vast majority of recycled lead is used in batteries. Other applications include:

    • Roofing.
    • As a barrier to radiation in, for example, hospitals, dentists’ surgeries, laboratories and nuclear installations.
  • Recycling facts

    • 50% of the lead produced and used each year throughout the world has been used before in other products.
    • 80% of modern lead usage is in the production of batteries - of which more than 99% are recycled, according to the International Lead Association.
    • Using secondary lead instead of ore reduces CO2 emissions by 99%.


  • Applications

    Zinc is present in everyday life in the form of coins. However, it also has other important uses:

    • Galvanization: Zinc is commonly applied as a coating to protect iron and steel from corrosion.
    • Batteries: As an anode component material.
    • Brass: Created by alloying zinc and copper.
  • Recycling facts

    • 60% of total zinc production is still in use while the global end-of-life recycling rate for zinc is around 45%, according to the International Zinc Association.
    • Secondary zinc production uses 76% less energy than primary.
    • Old zinc scrap consists primarily of die-cast parts, brass objects, end-of-life vehicles, household appliances, old air-conditioning ducts, obsolete highway barriers and street lighting.


  • Applications

    Apart from precious metals, tin is one of the most expensive non-ferrous metals. Hence, recycling from secondary materials is very important. Its varied applications include:

    • Cans: Used to make some cans, tinplate is obtained by covering steel sheet with a thin layer of tin.
    • Car production: Tin increases the resistance of the motor block, piston rings and clutch plates.
    • Springs of any kind become tougher through the addition of tin.
  • Recycling facts

    • Primary production of tin requires 99% more energy than secondary production.
    • Refined tin use in 2018 was 372,000 tonnes, according to an estimate from the International Tin Association. Solder accounted for almost half the total, with other uses including chemicals, tinplate, lead-acid batteries and copper alloys. The use of recycled tin as a proportion of total tin use was calculated to be around 32%.

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