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How Do I Recycle Copper?

written by: knsinger•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 4/14/2009

Copper is an abundant metal used in everything from air conditioning units to household wires. An excellent conductor of electricity, the need for copper wires has lead to vast mines that are destroying the environment. But this destruction may not be necessary if more people recycle copper.

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    Copper and Our Modern World

    Copper is a relatively abundant metal found in the earth's crust, and as such most humans and animals consume a little bit of copper that has been absorbed into their food supply each day. The two milligrams or so per day that most people consume is not harmful – in fact, the human body needs a trace amount of copper to stay healthy. Copper itself is present naturally in the environment, therefore it is not so bad and in fact can be beneficial.

    Copper is used for many things, but it is especially effective as a conductor of electricity, and makes up most of the wires used in consumer products in the west. In fact, with the exception of silver (which of course is far more expensive to come by) copper is the best conductor of electricity known to man. From air conditioning units to home wiring and power grids, copper is everywhere. And all this copper must come from somewhere.

    And just where does this copper come from?

    This is the crux of the problem when it comes to copper. To satisfy the nearly insatiable demand for copper, created mostly by western, developed nations, mining companies are devastating the natural environments where copper is found. From rain forests in Indonesia to coastal regions in Chile, mining companies are extracting the metal as fast as they can, with little interest in how the environment is impacted. While recycling copper may not stop the pollution being produced by these mining companies it will certainly reduce the need for new copper to be mined.

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    How to Recyce Copper

    Copper is very easy to recycle. Like aluminum, the soft, flexible metal can be recycled without wasting hardly any of the original metal. Virtually anything made from copper can be recycled; even the Colossus of Rhodes, that huge, amazing statue that guarded the entrance of Rhodes' harbor in ancient times, was made of copper and was said to have been completely recycled. Today, there is not a trace of the statue left... or perhaps there is. It is entirely possible that someone's air conditioning unit or refrigerator today is one-part Colossus! In fact, it is estimated that 80% of all the copper ever mined has been recycled and used for something else.

    Not only is recycling copper easy to do from a technical point of view, it is also the financially expedient choice because many recycling centers will pay top-dollar for copper scrap. Copper is in such high demand that the scrap price right now is about $3 per pound. To find a company that will buy scrap copper, just open the phone book and start scanning the pages – finding companies to buy scrap copper is not hard.

    Getting paid for recycled copper, in fact, is almost a little too easy. Some states are struggling with crime associated with theft of copper pipes, wires, and other scrap from construction sites. In other words, when working on a construction project with copper, keep it within sight during the day, and under lock and key at night! Scrap metal buyers aren't likely to ask where the “scrap” copper came from, so copper theft is all too common.

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    Where to Find Copper

    For the environmentally-conscious or for those looking to make a little money through recycling copper, finding sources of the metal is not hard. For example, most appliances use copper wires in their power cords. An old blender at a garage sale, for instance, may not work and sell for only a quarter, but the copper wire in its power cord will be worth far more. To get the highest price for the copper, strip away any coatings on it, such as the protective coating on copper wires. Stripping the coating off the wire is time consuming but otherwise relatively easy to do. A little investment of time yields a higher return on the copper wire – the difference in what scrap yards will pay for coated copper wire, compared to what they will pay for stripped wire, is significant.

    For the innovative, old appliances, electronics, and wires laying around the house that contain copper can be recycled rather than just pitched. Recycling copper turns out to be a good thing to do for the environment, but also a good way to increase the size of one's wallet.

    Sources and Further Reading

    Ontario Ministry of the Environment. “Copper in the Environment: Fact Sheet.”

    International Copper Association. “Copper Info: Recycling.”

    Hartman, Thom. “Copper Mining, Pollution, and the Miracle of Awakening.” “How to Recycle Scrap Copper.”