Is Recycling Copper Good for the Environment?

Copper wire typically uses newly mined ore.
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Copper has been recycled for thousands of years -- the Copper Development Association suggests copper used in a penny in your pocket could have come from a source as old as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. In the United States, the same amount of copper is recycled as what comes from newly mined ore. Recycling copper reduces risks to the environment, including carbon dioxide emissions from extraction and damaging habitats surrounding mines.

Mining Waste and Energy

Mining of copper produces dust and waste gases like sulfur dioxide, which contributes to air pollution. While miners minimize this pollution by trapping sulfur dioxide gas and using it to make sulfuric acid, the process of recycling copper rarely contributes to gas emissions that can pollute the environment. Additionally, extracting copper from ore requires more energy than recycling copper, which uses only about 10 percent of the energy necessary for extraction.

Gas Emissions

Because recycling copper requires less energy than extracting copper from ore, there are fewer gas emissions into the atmosphere, and recycling allows for conservation of valuable resources like coal and oil. Copper alloys might release fumes when melted. Beryllium, for example, is sometimes used in alloys with copper; while beryllium is not dangerous in its solid state, its gaseous state is a known health hazard. Fume extraction equipment can reduce the amount of hazardous gases entering the atmosphere.

Conservation of Copper

Only about 12 percent of known copper sources have been mined, but since copper is a nonrenewable resource, recycling contributes to conservation. Copper is 100 percent recyclable, and recycled copper retains up to 90 percent of the original copper’s cost. Mining new copper can damage the land surrounding the mine. Because recycling copper reduces the need to mine for new copper, it lessens the impact to the environment.

Landfill Concerns

Without recycling, valuable copper scrap would end up in landfills, which are becoming too full to accommodate more waste. The demand for space in landfills is high, making the cost of dumping waste very expensive. Additionally, buried metals like copper could contribute to environmental harm, including contamination of ground water resources. Recycling copper keeps it from ending up in landfills and causing environmental damage.

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