This is the latest attempt by the Chinese scrap industry to protect massive copper resources contained in scrap from a potential outright ban of scrap imports by 2021.

The proposal, compiled by Chinese Nonferrous Metals Industry Association’s (CMRA) recycling metal branch, will determine the fate of copper scrap entering the country. China imported 2.6 million tonnes of copper scrap last year.

CMRA has already submitted several drafts of the proposal to different Chinese governmental departments, including customs, State Administration for Market Regulation and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment (MEE) of the People’s Republic of China. The proposal is pending amendments and feedback from different departments, Fastmarkets understands.

The MEE oversees the Solid Waste and Chemicals Management Centre, which is a key execution unit for managing scrap inflow and determines the impurities threshold of scrap cargoes.

Copper scrap a ‘misnomer’
A key point in the proposal is to rebrand high-quality copper scrap, which can be fed directly into furnaces, three industry sources confirmed with Fastmarkets.

High-quality scrap does not require additional dismantling and is of lower pollution risk compared with category 7 scrap imports, which were prohibited at the beginning of this year.

High-quality copper scrap falls within category 6 in China’s regulation, but it is unclear whether all category 6 copper scrap will be eligible for renaming.

“‘Scrap’ has long been a misnomer, the word ‘scrap’ must disappear. It has been renamed ‘recyclable copper raw materials’ in the proposal,” an industry source said.

If successful, the renaming process will mean some copper scrap products could still enter the country after the end of 2020 – the date when the world’s largest scrap importer plans to cut all waste imports ranging metals, plastic and papers.

Which materials will be allowed in?
Currently, permitted copper scrap imports to China are all category 6 scrap, roughly half of which are No 2 copper scrap, comprising 94-96% copper content.

No 2 copper scrap has to be re-smelted, typically prior to refinery use. Some popular No 2 products such as birch and cliff are estimated to make up over half of the country’s copper scrap imports, according to industry sources.

No 1 copper scrap, which contains over 99% copper and can be directly used by refineries, makes up around an eighth of copper scrap imports while brass scrap accounts for almost one third of the total.

Types of products that are eligible to be renamed as “recyclable copper raw materials” are yet to be finalized because government departments hold different opinions.

“It’s still uncertain that what type of copper scrap will be included in the finalized proposal. If only No 1 copper scrap will be renamed and allowed in, it means the vast majority of the current copper scrap imports won’t be able to get in anymore,” a second industry source said.

A third industry source held a different view, saying: “It is very likely that brass with over 1% impurities will be excluded, I don’t see any problem for the No 1 and No 2 at all.”

Fears of further restriction over impurities threshold
Another key question lies in the impurities threshold of cargoes renamed “recyclable copper raw materials”.

China has already imposed an internationally stringent standard for the amount of impurities allowed in scrap cargoes - the rate for non-ferrous scrap imports is set at 1%. 

The proposal has raised the possibility of lowering the threshold further to 0.7-0.8% to justify the removal of the label of “scrap”, the second industry source said.

The market is not surprised by such a proposal because China previously suggested a radical impurity tolerance of 0.30% for non-ferrous scrap imports in September 2017. At the time, it was rejected by international organizations such as the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries as “not possible”.

The draft of the detailed proposal could be finalized as early as this summer.

The Chinese government will also start issuing scrap import licenses in the summer, which aim to curb inflows to non-eligible scrap processors.

Fastmarkets earlier reported that imports of ferrous and non-ferrous scrap into China will be halted completely for the first two weeks of July, if not longer, due to the administrative procedures required for the government to issue import licenses.

The expected disruption has led to lackluster spot interest in copper scrap from Chinese buyers. The discount for No 2 copper scrap is currently at 34-38 cents per lb as of the end of May, down slightly from 37-42 cents per lb but up from 24-30 cents per lb at the start of they year.