A lot has already been said about how difficult 2023 is going to be. The International Monetary Fund anticipates a third of the world’s economies will be in recession, at the same time as intensifying rifts between major countries/blocs are inflicting widescale damage like never before. And perhaps most worryingly for the long term, record-breaking heatwaves across much of Europe last summer were followed by unprecedented cold temperatures recently in the USA, thereby highlighting the environmental chaos in which we are living.
As the Financial Times wrote recently, the world is undergoing a “polycrisis” – a collective term for a simultaneous and interlocking rise in economic, geopolitical and environmental disorder.
While there are reasons to be dour about the prospects for this current year, there have been plenty of examples throughout recent history where unexpectedly positive outcomes have emerged from all the difficult situations and the doomsday chatter. So in making optimism our best friend for now, let us hope that we quickly find the silver lining behind those grey clouds.
The world came together in November last year for the COP27 climate change summit in Egypt, where demands for greater sustainability featured prominently. As we have long appreciated within this industry, recycling is a direct and perhaps the most effective responder to this call for a more sustainable way of life. With metals mining contributing as much as 10% to global greenhouse gas emissions, our industry is a forerunner in decarbonization and in transitioning to “green” metals.
But there are many grey areas and inconsistencies. Countries’ differing perceptions and interpretations with regard to raw materials management have led to widely varying forms of policy interference, the end result of which is that we are distanced even further from our environmental goals.
The EU’s proposed new waste shipment regulation remains the most significant development and could gravely impact scrap exports, potentially changing the course of our industry and of its material flows. Other countries too have imposed – or are contemplating – restrictions on scrap trading in order to address a variety of issues, ranging from preventing theft and controlling inflation to giving domestic consumers preferential access to our secondary raw materials.
At the behest of primary metal producers, India is currently working on implementing standards on scrap which will act as non-tariff barriers to curtail imports.
Considering that the EU alone satisfies around 30% of India’s appetite for metal scrap because insufficient supply is available domestically, this move is likely to cause major disruption within the industry and, above all, is in direct contradiction to India’s own circularity and sustainability goals.
Regrettably with so much evidence from around the world, we at the BIR’s Non-Ferrous Metals Division would expect policy-related distortions and confrontations to remain central to our business.
Heading into 2023, some promising green shoots are visible too. Perhaps best highlighting the positive long-term demand outlook, we are seeing investments – notably in the Middle East and North America – in the building of new capacities for production of recycled aluminium for extrusion, automotive and packaging applications. China’s reopening following its prolonged period of tight COVID-related restrictions could prove to be bumpy at first but will eventually bring a recovery and revamping of consumption and production levels. The world needs a China on its feet, even if it doesn’t come close to replicating the numbers seen in the heady days earlier in this Millennium.
For its part, India has been churning out 6.5% GDP growth, bringing its US$ 5 trillion economy dream within striking range. Good performances by core industries such as building/construction, automotive and white goods augur well for its secondary metal producers. There has also been strong forward momentum in the Middle East where new infrastructure investments are pushing metal consumption to unprecedented levels. With over US$ 200 billion spent on the football World Cup in Qatar and with the construction of a US$ 500 billion futuristic city under way in Saudi Arabia, there will be opportunities for our industry to push for yet more growth.
Finally, as President of the BIR Non-Ferrous Metals Division, I cannot offer enough thanks for the support of my 17 colleagues on our board, who are relentless in contributing their knowledge, ideas and effort. Guided by the saying that “team work is dream work”, we all remain 100% committed to serving this sector to the best of our abilities.
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).
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.
APPLICATIONS & RECYCLING FACTS
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: