US recycling plant just the start for Aurubis, its CEO says

German copper producer Aurubis is on track to deliver its new recycling plant in Georgia, the United States, with the project just the starting point for the company’s foray outside Europe, the company’s chief executive officer said

In an interview, Roland Harings said groundbreaking at the site will begin in the summer, with the plant to have an initial capacity of 90,000 tonnes of input material recycling capabilities for all materials, including electronic waste.

Currently, this material in the United States is being exported or sent to landfill instead of being recycled, Harings noted.

“The recycling plant is just the starting point. It was a big step for Aurubis to invest outside Europe,” he told Fastmarkets during the annual CESCO industry week.

“We’re investing €300 million and using just 20% of the industrial land at the site in the first phase. We’re there to stay,” he added.

The move comes as recycling assumes an increasingly important role in the energy transition and as corporates focus on reducing emissions and creating a more circular economy.

A focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) by Aurubis’ own investors is “coming with huge momentum,” Harings said, particularly in Europe but increasingly so in North America. “ESG is on the agenda, and it’s changing quickly.”

The company has meanwhile initiated discussions on ESG with its partners in the supply chain to ensure they are operating in a sustainable manner, and has a comprehensive business partner screening, Harings noted.

Aurubis has linked its financing to the company’s rating from the sustainability rating platform EcoVadis. Currently, Aurubis has Platinum status, with 73 of 100 points, meaning it belongs to the top 1% of companies in the global non-ferrous metals industry.

The company has committed to reducing its direct and indirect carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, as well as net-zero targets well before by 2050. It also plans to reduce its scope 3 emissions by 24% by 2030; Harings said he expects to exceed this goal given the push by miners to meet their own targets.

Various projects to reduce carbon emissions have already been initiated, such as testing the use of hydrogen in copper production and constructing a photovoltaic plant with 10 MW total output at its site in Pirdop, Bulgaria.

Aurubis’ copper cathodes already have a significantly lower CO2 footprint than the global industry average, something confirmed by the company’s A-rating from the CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project. According to current calculations, the existing processes that Aurubis employs already emit less than half of the CO2 per tonne of copper compared with the global average of all competitors.

Green premium, energy

But access to clean, competitive energy sources is still a problem for the industry, Harings said.

“The big problem is always the boundary of conditions we’re operating in. Do we have enough competitive green energy? We’re in a global competition, producing metals, and I’m not naive – I doubt we’re going to get a premium for green copper long-term,” he told Fastmarkets.

“It will be important to have competitive, green, renewable energy and then we can fast track and meet targets to become a carbon neutral producer well before 2050. Over time, it will become more and more standard to produce low-carbon copper, and then at a later stage, carbon-free copper. We need to move the whole economy towards carbon neutrality,” he said.

Ensuring ESG standards are met is something that people joining and working at Aurubis, particularly younger employees, have prioritized, giving them “a sense of purpose,” Harings said. “This has had huge momentum.”

For its part, Aurubis has developed a project that would see the company using hydrogen as a key energy source.

One of the process steps in copper is to remove the oxygen, traditionally done by natural gas, which emits carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor. Aurubis has conducted industrial-scale trials at its Hamburg anode furnace and successfully replaced CO2 emissions by using hydrogen, leaving just water vapor at the end.

“We see the metallurgy works, we can do this at scale, and now we need affordable, competitive hydrogen so the ball is in the government’s court. The concept is there; now we need to get the conditions right,” Harings said.

Hydrogen can be used across other industries including steel and aluminium, Harings noted.

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