and the circular economy
Coming full circle
Aurubis processes about 700,000 t of recycling materials every year, and the trend is increasing. The company is the world’s largest copper recycler. The input material portfolio is diverse. It extends from production waste such as clean wire scrap, stamping waste, and copper cable, to what are referred to as end-of-life recycling raw materials. These include old gutters, pipes, electronic scrap, and used electrical appliances.
The Aurubis sites in Lünen (Germany) and Olen (Belgium) specialize in recycling these materials. They convert the recycling raw materials, which generally contain copper, into high-purity copper and other valuable metals. Though the primary smelters utilize copper concentrate as their main feed material, they also use copper scrap because it’s ideal for process cooling.
Aurubis sources most of its scrap from specialized trading companies and businesses focused on collecting and treating recycling raw materials. Additionally, more and more copper product customers are becoming direct suppliers as Aurubis takes back production waste from their processing operations. Closing the loop has many other benefits, however.
Interview with Marion Finney
Ms. Finney, you have worked with the topic of recycling in different positions for over 20 years. What makes the circular economy so exciting?
Marion Finney (MF): There are a handful of reasons. First, we now recycle so much material that more than every third copper cathode is made completely of recycled material. We do this by flexibly sourcing different recycling raw materials from the value chains of copper and other non-ferrous metals, contributing to a responsible approach to global resources.
We of course focus our energy on recycling copper and supplying our facilities. Furthermore, we learn a great deal about product requirements and the recycling materials of the future in our collaboration with our product customers. We stay in continuous dialogue, creating a mutual understanding among different actors in the value chain.
“We unite our expertise with that of our business partners, achieving new, forward-looking solutions and collaboration opportunities in the process.”
What are these kinds of cycles like in practice?
MF: A simple example: We offer the customers that we supply with copper products the option to return their production waste to us, most of which contains copper. We monetize this waste by redelivering the copper content in the form of new copper products. A sustainable business concept for both sides! Indeed, the tonnage of material we recover using this method is now in the five-digit range. Our partners include renowned companies like ABB based in Switzerland.
As part of our Sustainability Strategy, we have established the objective of working together with our industrial partners more to develop individual concepts for preventing waste from their production processes or recycling it better. These concepts could be logistical or technical solutions. We are in an ideal position to come up with these kinds of solutions, not least because of our expertise in multi-metal recycling.
Can you be more specific?
MF: We will discuss recycling issues with our product customers more intensively in the future. This includes working together on a common understanding of how easily recyclable end products should look. This is referred to as “design for recycling.” Both the processing industry and end product manufacturers are exceedingly interested in seeing products at the end of their life cycle being recycled responsibly, in a way that conserves resources. We can even certify this.
Do you have an example of the closing-the-loop approach beyond copper?
MF: Absolutely. There are exciting projects for other metals as well. All of the business and contract concepts we’ve already described are referred to as closed loops.
One example of a zinc-bearing product comes from our recycling process in Lünen. For our collaboration with Grillo-Werke AG in Duisburg, we even received the Responsible Care prize from the German Chemical Industry Association in 2017.
A zinc-bearing substance we call KRS oxide is formed at our plant and is processed into zinc sulfate at a Grillo plant about 60 km away. The process forms a residue containing copper, tin, and lead that Aurubis takes back. We then use it in our recycling facilities to recover the metals it contains. Thanks to a long-term contract, this collaboration provides a measure of security in both companies’ planning process on the one hand and contributes to securing jobs in Lünen and Duisburg on the other. We are thus acting sustainably on multiple levels with this project.