Of all the metals that can be recycled, copper may be the most important. There are metals that are far rarer, used in applications that only a few materials can handle, but copper is ubiquitous and found in many industries. This includes the construction, plumbing, electronics, automotive, aerospace and naval industries. In general, though, it’s the kind of material that is needed everywhere, and modern civilization just wouldn’t be possible without it. Fortunately, it is a prime candidate for recycling, as it maintains its quality, even after multiple uses. Perhaps the most astounding fact regarding copper is this – about 80 percent of all copper that has ever been mined is still in use today.
With its excellent recyclability and widespread use, metal recovery experts are especially important in locating copper scrap before it makes it to the junkyard. There’s no reason for copper to end up in a landfill somewhere, even when it has to be removed from decommissioned aircraft or naval vessels. Experienced metal recovery experts have the equipment, expertise and manpower to work through tons of waste, and get to the valuable copper inside.
The Chemistry of Copper
Copper is in the same family, and is chemically similar to, silver and gold. Although it is not considered as precious and valuable as silver or gold, it shares many of the same desirable physical properties. Most notably, copper is an extremely potent electrical conductor, and is also useful in conducting thermal energy. However, this conductivity would mean little if the metal couldn’t be worked, and fortunately, it can.
Copper is extremely ductile, meaning it can be shaped into long, thin wiring. Although copper can be fabricated into all kinds of shapes, more than half of the world’s copper has been formed into copper wiring, and with the increasing reliance on computing networks to drive industry, it’s likely that copper wiring will continue to be a bedrock of modern civilization.
Overall, copper is a fairly inert metal. It doesn’t react with water, and though it does react with ambient oxygen to form a dark copper oxide, this oxide layer actually protects the metal from further damage. This combination of malleability and inertness has made copper a foundation metal for thousands of years.
Copper in Industry
Although copper is used in some jewelry, it is primarily intended for industrial use, where it serves several purposes. Some of those industrial applications include:
- Electronics – As stated already, copper is a superior electrical conductor and can easily be formed into long strands of wire. Wiring, of course, is essential for all consumer electronics, including appliances, televisions and computers. It is also essential for commercial networks, and particularly those found in corporate office settings. Some corporate networks rely on miles of copper wiring, making it a primary target for scrap metal experts.
- Automotive and Aerospace – Copper is a standard component of most electrical motors, providing the coiling responsible for generating the magnetic field. Copper and its alloys can also be found in radiators and heat exchangers, keeping heat levels low in demanding engine operations. Copper is also gaining traction as an option for brake tubes, primarily due to its ductility and corrosion resistance. In the aerospace industry, miles of copper wiring may be run through a single passenger plane, which is why metal recycling experts frequent boneyards for potential sources of the metal.
- Construction and Plumbing – Copper wiring is the primary application of the metal, but it is also utilized extensively in plumbing applications, which are obviously essential to the construction industry. Copper is ideal for shaping into pipes of any length and copper tubing can be connected without the need for lead soldering. And because copper is inert in the presence of water and generally corrosion resistant, it is unlikely to need dedicated maintenance while the building still stands. Copper is also integrated into roofing projects, as it can be formed into flashing and gutters with little effort. Its malleability means it can be fitted into watertight spaces, preventing water intrusion into the building.
- Architecture – Related to construction, copper’s role in architecture bears special mention. For centuries, it has been shaped into spires, domes, doors and roofs, partly because of its unique appearance, and partly because of its excellent durability. Even in the modern era, copper is still a standard material for building projects, and can be found in joints, cladding and radio shielding. It’s also incorporated into many fixtures due to its antimicrobial properties. Handrails, counters and bathroom fixtures are some of the standard interior applications of copper.
- Naval – Copper alloys are relied on in shipbuilding to provide an anti-biofouling layer on the vessel’s hull. Over time, mussels, barnacles and microorganisms will adhere to naval vessels, compromising the hull and increasing drag. This, in turn, places a greater load on the engine and produces a dip in fuel efficiency. Copper alloys interfere with bacterial reproduction, which halts the biofouling process altogether.
- Alloys – Copper can be alloyed with a variety of metals, and is most often found with nickel, tin (to produce bronze), aluminum and zinc (to produce brass). Copper provides the electrical conductivity, malleability and corrosion resistance, while other metals enhance the alloy’s strength, as copper is a soft metal in its pure form. Copper alloys are found in more demanding environments, like in automotive or aircraft engines.
Scrap copper can be rescued from all of the above sources, and is usually available when electronics, vehicles, vessels or buildings are commissioned or condemned. Because copper is 100 percent recyclable with no loss of structural quality, it can be repurposed into any form following the recycling process. The only other metal that retains its integrity following recycling is aluminum, so copper is a rarity in this regard.
But not all copper scrap is created equal. Its scrap value depends on its state, but even though scrappers often have to comb through tons of material to get at the copper, it is worth it.
Industrial scrappers typically access the scrap by purchasing lots and doing the grunt work of separating the copper from everything else. Lots often consist of decommissioned appliances and vehicles, broken electronics and bulk construction materials, like leftover roofing or plumbing supplies. Whole or divided aircraft are usually found at boneyards, and heavy equipment like construction machinery can be found at lay down yards. In all cases, the process is the same – the metal recovery expert employs manpower and machinery to process the material.
Some things to keep in mind when scrapping copper:
1. It can be tough to tell bare bright wire and #2 wire apart – Bare bright wire is the term given to copper wire that is free of any insulation or other material. It fetches the highest prices as it requires little processing before beginning the recycling process. Bare bright wire has a yellow-orange color and has a powerful sheen.
Some forms of #2 wire look like bare bright wire, but they aren’t going to bring back the same kind of return. The reason for this is because #2 wire is usually covered in a shellac or oil that protects the wire from wear and from discharge. While shellac wiring is nice to have for safety purposes, it places a greater burden on the recycler for processing purposes. Sometimes, the shellac will give the wire a stark red or pink color, and this will make it easy to spot. Other times, though, the wire may be just a bit darker and duller than bare bright. The difference is noticeable, but only if someone is looking for it specifically.
2. Recyclers prefer plumbing and roofing copper that is free of any other material – This includes attachments, which should be removed beforehand to improve the metal’s value. The difference between #1 roofing or tubing copper and lower grades of the same is easier to spot than it is with wiring. If the flashing or tubing is uncoated and unalloyed, and is free of corrosion, paint and tar, then it will earn a #1 grade. Even if the copper is just slightly burned from soldering, that will reduce the copper’s grade. Again, look for copper that is bright and yellow-orange in color.
Copper is one of the world’s most important metals, even if it isn’t exactly rare. Its incredible versatility and reliability make it an obvious pick for many applications, and with the help of scrap metal experts, it can be kept in the industrial sector, where it belongs.