Reflecting on the key events for our industry in 2021, I am reminded of a riveting Formula 1 race: a wet track, corners hard to negotiate, steep declines and sharp inclines, a couple of crashes, safety cars bringing only temporary order, and the season ending with an historic photo finish. In the same way, the non-ferrous market kept us on the edge of our seats throughout the year, inducing tremendous excitement but also high levels of anxiety.
Extreme volatility emanated regularly from events which were often unforeseen or unforeseeable. The big moves were frequently masked by a rash of theories, leading to contradictions and chaos. In the end, our industry not only survived this turbulent period but most companies ended up achieving better performances and boosting their profits. I salute our industry for displaying such a spirit of resilience, courage and hope; our ability to adapt to conditions and to convert challenges into opportunities has been a true silver lining in the dark COVID cloud.
So let us run through those major events of 2021 that affected us all most keenly. Perhaps most notably for an industry that is so heavily dependent on international trade, massive disruption to global scrap flows was created by a combination of the mayhem afflicting sea freight rates, logjams at many major ports and shortages of containers as well as other equipment. Amid this carnage, the world’s top 10 shipping lines continued to reap windfall profits, estimated at a combined US$ 115 billion to US$ 120 billion in 2021. Should we be surprised?
Keeping to the theme of international trading, several Asian countries took what can only be described as retrograde steps in 2021 by creating their own, more stringent frameworks for scrap imports. Having started with further updates of China’s National Sword policy, this was followed by countries like Indonesia and Malaysia implementing new laws that were of a similar tone and tenor.
And then in November last year, the European Commission finally came forward with its proposed new guidelines for waste shipments which, most importantly for our sector, also cover exports of scrap materials. If these guidelines are adopted in their current form, it will mean even more restrictions on shipments from Europe to non OECD countries. With overtones of creating an economic nationalism for raw materials under the guise of pushing a circular economy agenda, the guidelines would appear to choke the spirit of free global trade for our clean and “green” scrap.
India has also started work on creating new standards for metal scrap which will apply to all domestic and international transactions. Given that the country is a key market for many of the world’s “green” raw materials, we must watch this space closely in 2022.
Turning to some of last year’s other highlights, we saw the return of voracious consumer demand – to the extent of surpassing pre-COVID levels in many instances. Most metal-consuming industries – including automotive, white goods, construction, packaging and engineering – registered growth despite the ongoing swathe of pandemic-related uncertainties.
Among other monumental developments in 2021, prices on the London Metal Exchange recorded historic highs with backwardations in most metals, pointing up high demand for “spot” materials. Intra-day volatility touched 5% at times.
Meanwhile, geopolitical issues sent energy prices into the stratosphere and caused major disruption to supply and distribution networks. At the same time, supply cutbacks in China affecting vital alloying elements such as silicon, manganese and magnesium and a global shortage of semiconductors brought further chaos to already-stressed metal production lines.
The best word to define events in 2021 is “unprecedented”, with every development coming heavily masked such that it was hard to know the reality behind it. But as an industry, we stayed in the game and scored when there was an opportunity.
Visibility with regard to 2022 remains low as I write this report in the early weeks of the year: the Omicron variant continues to spread its tentacles and the fragility of the markets is palpable. But I do believe that our experiences in 2021 have made us wiser and stronger. We have further refined our existing powers to adapt and to respond even more effectively to ever-changing circumstances. And so it is with a sense of optimism and positivity that I wish you all continued success in 2022.
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.
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).
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:
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:
The vast majority of recycled lead is used in batteries. Other applications include:
Zinc is present in everyday life in the form of coins. However, it also has other important uses:
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: