Copper Producers Hope for ‘Urban Mine’

05:45 June 11, 2024

Copper Producers Hope for ‘Urban Mine’

Manufacturers have been reusing and recycling copper for many years. Now they are increasing their efforts because some experts predict that the need for the metal will nearly double by 2035.

The demand for copper might partly come from a move away from fossil fuels.

There is a movement to power buildings, vehicles and manufacturing operations with clean electricity. Some people hope to “electrify everything.” But doing so would require more copper.

The other half of the reported increased demand comes from constructing buildings and making cell phones and data centers.

A company that recycles copper

In an industrial area near Montreal, there is a factory owned by the French company Nexans that recycles copper. Nexans is one of the world’s largest wire and cable manufacturers.

In the factory, sheets of copper move along a special product mover four stories above the floor of the factory. The sheets then drop into a hot furnace. Next come pieces of copper wire.

Out of the furnace comes liquid copper. It travels to a second furnace and from there, melted copper flows out. The liquid is then shaped into long, thin pieces called rods. These are the raw materials for copper wire.

The Nexans mill has made copper rod from rock, called ore, for nearly one hundred years. Now it processes an increasing amount of used copper. Fourteen percent of some of the rods are recycled metal. The company hopes to increase that to 20 percent.

“We say to our customers: Your waste of today, your scrap of today is your energy of tomorrow, so bring back your scrap,” said Nexans chief Christopher Guérin.

Every ton of copper that is recycled means that up to 200 tons of ore will not need to be mined. That is important because mining can harm the environment, causing pollution in the soil, water or air. Copper is an especially good candidate for reuse, because it can be recycled endlessly without losing its value or performance, Guérin said.

Each day, up to 10 trucks drop off wire, cable and copper scrap at the Nexans mill. Nexans uses more than 2,600 times the weight of New York City’s Statue of Liberty in copper each year.

Some of the materials come from customers, some from scrap dealers. The purity must be high if it is to be used to carry electricity.

Daniel Yergin is with the financial information company S&P Global. He said people may have a closer connection to this metal and this mill than they realize. Copper connects people to the world, Yergin said.

“We depend on electricity for everything now,” he said. “None of it works without copper.”

Aluminum is also used for electrical wiring in some cases. But it takes a lot of energy to produce. Some aluminum factories, where machines separate metal from ore, have cut production or closed because electricity prices are so high. These cuts and closures have added to the demand for copper.


The International Copper Association (ICA) says about two-thirds of all the copper produced in the last 100 years is still in use. It is used in electrical systems, communications and home appliances. When equipment and machines get past their useful life, they represent a large supply that can be recycled in the future, the trade group said.

Colin Williams of the USGS Mineral Resources Program said companies should recycle more of the copper that is already out there. By recycling, companies can make use of what is, effectively, an “urban mine.”

“It increases the supply available,” Williams said. He added that recycling "...reduces the energy and environmental impacts associated with new mining by being able to reuse material we’ve already mined. It’s an important step.”

I’m John Russell.

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