We sometimes hear people say that there’s no need for new copper mines, that all we need to do is recycle more.
Copper already is one of the most recycled metals on earth. It’s also one of the most popular, ranking only behind iron and aluminum in global consumption. Copper is critical for anything electronic because it’s a superior conductor of electricity; it’s ideal for medical tools and other applications because it kills microbes almost on contact; and it’s a versatile metal for plumbing and other uses because of its resistance to corrosion, malleability and other attractive qualities.
It makes sense to recycle copper because, unlike almost every other metal, copper can be recycled and reused over and over again without any loss of performance. Recycling also is a big energy saver, requiring only about 15 percent of the energy that’s needed to mine it. That in turn means reduced amounts of CO2 released into the environment.
Even so, it’s estimated that only about 35 percent of the copper in use in the world today is from recycled stock. Even if 100 percent of the copper currently available is recycled, it would not be enough to sustain the growing world population and the industrialization of emerging economies such as China, Brazil and India. Expanding existing copper mines and developing new mines like our proposed PolyMet project, along with robust recycling, are necessary to meet the growth.
Consider that in 1990, global mines produced about 9 million metric tons of copper. Output grew to more than 16 million tons by 2010 as demand for the metal reached new highs, in part because of the large quantities needed for green energy technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars. Mine output is expected to exceed more than 18 million metric tons in 2017.
The PolyMet copper-nickel-precious metals mine is expected to produce 72 million pounds of copper annually, helping to meet the growing demand for this essential metal.
And if history holds true, that copper likely will be recycled.