Make – Use – Reuse: Copper’s Role in the Circular Economy

May 10, 2018

A resilient and sustainable world is not easily created. As a global community, we must constantly innovate and collaborate to ensure a bright future for all.

As we build greener buildings and communities that turn into smart cities, it is important to consider the pathway we take to get there. The old model of industrial economies focused on a linear path – materials are extracted, used, and disposed. We must move to a sustainable and circular economy that reduces waste at every step and returns end-of-life materials to a usable state.

Throughout its infinite life cycle, copper’s contributions to the resilience, sustainability, and efficiency of a variety of products and industries make it a vibrant example of the circular economy and the guiding principle to make, use, and reuse.

MAKE

Copper continues to grow in demand as an integral part of many new and innovative technologies. Solar panels, electric car charging stations, smart phone circuitry, and other products aimed at increasing sustainability all rely on copper’s highly conductive characteristics. Global copper demand is anticipated to increase by 43 percent in the next two decades, according to a 2015 McKinsey report.

As we all work to create a more sustainable world, it is important to be cognizant of the environmental impact of this growth. Across the globe, copper mines have invested over $20 billion to improve the environmental performance of their operations and reduce their carbon footprint.

USE

Copper’s qualities are dynamic, allowing it to be used in innovative ways across multiple industries. Its high electrical conductivity makes it the metal of choice for wiring and circuitry of your cell phone and the appliances you use every day. It carries the current from batteries to trains, cars, and trucks, powering everything from lights and navigation systems to entire electric vehicles. Copper’s efficient movement of electricity ultimately helps reduce the amount of carbon released over the lifetime of electrical systems, resulting in as much as 7,500 fewer tons of carbon emitted compared to systems with less than one ton of copper.

Beyond its highly-valued conductive nature, copper is the choice material for green and healthy buildings. There are over 128 possible uses for copper in construction, from wiring, lighting, roofing, and plumbing, all of which help contractors make modern buildings that last due to copper’s durable qualities and low maintenance requirements.

Copper also plays a key role in revamping American water infrastructure, replacing hundreds of thousands of outdated lead pipes in cities across the U.S., including Flint, MI, Madison, WI, and Washington, DC. Not only does this improve drinking water safety, it provides a long-term economic benefit for communities that replace their water service lines with copper due to the longevity of the metal.

REUSE

Copper can be recycled infinitely without losing any of its qualities, with reports estimating that two-thirds of the 550 million tons of copper produced since 1900 are still in productive use today, with no discernable property differences between primary (mined) and secondary (recycled) copper. Over one-third of the global demand for copper is currently being met through recycling.

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Copper’s circular lifecycle and resilient qualities, in addition to the industry’s focus on mitigating its environmental impact, has made it a shining component of the circular economy. Copper has withstood the test of time – an older, dependable and proven material that continues to innovate and evolve with society. End to end, copper continues to make supply chains, buildings, and communities more efficient, safe, and sustainable for generations to come.

[Editor's Note: Copper Development Association's Andrea Vaccari was a featured speaker at the Chamber Foundation's 2018 Sustainability and Circular Economy Summit. Andrea spoke on a panel alongside UPS, Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, and TOM BIHN INC. discussing how to effectively communicate across your supply chain. Click here to learn more.]