INTL COPPER CONF: Effects of China copper scrap import clampdown ripple through supply chain

The restriction on imports of some copper scrap products to China has already caused the industry to make some process changes but many questions are still unanswered, a panel of scrap experts said at the Metal Bulletin Copper conference.

The number of licenses granted by the Chinese government for copper scrap imports dropped by 94% year on year to account for 136,685 tonnes in the first two rounds of issuance from 2,397,565 tonnes a year ago.

The Ministry of Environmental Protection (MEP) has set the threshold for impurities allowed in non-ferrous scrap imports including copper scrap at 1%.

The restrictions are in line with a drive from the Chinese government and the MEP to crack down on pollution and pollutants in the country and is already having an impact on the supply chain, panelists told delegates at conference in Madrid on Wednesday February 7.

“Significantly less scrap has been going into China,” consultant and scrap specialist Michael Lion said. “And we know that quite a lot of [scrap] processors who were operating in China have made some investments in Southeast Asia in other countries to process those materials that are more than likely not to be acceptable to come into China.”

This investment is tentative, however, Lion said. While processors are keen to take advantage of the new regulation, there is not yet confidence it will remain for the long term.

Similarly, a lack of clarity on the regulation means exporters are less likely to ship material to China and run the risk of overzealous implementation.

China was traditionally the world’s largest importer of various types of copper scrap, including wires and automotive scrap.

A consequent lack of demand from exporters such as the United States and Europe has translated to stockpiles piling up at processors.

“In American scrap there is two to three months of stock of cable scrap that needs to be processed, but… I don’t think it will take so long to [process] that,” Bernhard Uldrian, former chief operating officer of secondary cathode producer Montanwerke Brixlegg, said.

Metal Bulletin assessed discounts for No2 Birch/Cliff 94-96% copper scrap at 29-31 cents per lb in February, down from highs of 33-35 cents in October last year – an indication of firming demand while London Metal Exchange prices for copper rose over the same period.

Meanwhile, scrap exporters have been left with material they have not had to process for several years.

“For 20 years it was a no-brainer [to sell scrap into China] – order a container, load it with your copper cables,” EMR director Murat Bayram said.

In the meantime, the knowledge and infrastructure to process that scrap has suffered and must be redeveloped, he said.

“We see in Europe investment in granulations in motorcycle recycling but this all needs to be optimized,” he added.