Nonferrous metals, including aluminum, copper, lead, nickel, tin, zinc and others, are among the few materials that do not degrade or lose their chemical or physical properties in the recycling process. As a result, nonferrous metals have the capacity to be recycled an infinite number of times.
While in terms of volume, nonferrous scrap made up less than 10% of the total quantity of material recycled in the United States last year, by value ISRI estimates that nonferrous metal scrap — including precious metal scrap — accounted for more than half of total U.S. scrap recycling industry earnings in 2012. More than 9 million metric tons of nonferrous scrap was processed in the United States last year from a wide array of consumer, commercial and industrial sources: everything from copper and precious metal circuitry in electronic devices, to soft-drink containers, automobile batteries and radiators, aluminum siding, airplane parts and more.
Nonferrous scrap is then consumed by secondary smelters, refiners, ingot makers, foundries and other industrial consumers in the U.S. and in more than 90 countries worldwide. These consumers rely on nonferrous scrap as a competitive, environmentally friendly and energy-efficient input to make brand new products, continuing the nonferrous metal life cycle. The BIR estimates that almost 40% of the world’s demand for copper is met using recycled material, while more than 80% of the zinc available for recycling is eventually recycled.
View historical data on U.S. production of primary and secondary (from old and new scrap) copper and aluminum.
Nonferrous Scrap Example: Copper and Copper Alloys
There are literally hundreds of different types of copper and copper alloys that use tin, lead, zinc and other metals to form metal alloys. These metals can be subdivided into several main categories including:
- High-copper alloys
- Copper Nickels
- Copper-nickel-zinc alloys
- Leaded coppers
- Special alloys
Scrap processors have become experts at identifying different types of copper and copper alloy products in order to better ascertain their worth. ISRI specifications with names like Berry, Birch/Cliff, Druid, Honey, Ocean and Pales cover a wide range of red metal products such as bare and insulated wire, light copper, refinery brass, red brass, yellow brass, brass ammunition, clippings, radiators, tubes and more. As new products and alloys enter the recycling stream, ISRI specifications are continually being updated to reflect today’s marketplace. For the full listing of ISRI nonferrous specifications, please visit www.isri.org/specs.
Precious metals such as gold, silver and platinum have long been valued as stores of wealth and for use in producing coinage, jewelry and decorative arts. Today, precious metals are used in a wide range of applications including electronic and communications equipment, spacecraft, and jet aircraft engines and can be found in everything from cell phones to catalytic converters.
Given the relative scarcity and high per-unit values of precious metals, they continue to be recycled at a high rate of recovery, and the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that 240 tons of new and old gold scrap were recycling in 2012 in the U.S., more than the total reported domestic consumption of gold. In addition, Census Bureau data indicate that nearly 14,000 mt of precious metal scrap were exported from the U.S. in 2012 valued at $5.5 billion. See below for the recent trend in U.S. secondary production (production from new and old scrap) of gold and silver since 2008 according to the USGS: