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Copper and Sustainability

Recyclability is one property which helps to establish the 'green' credentials of a material, that is how 'environmentally friendly' it is. Demand for copper, along with other materials, is growing as countries throughout the world continue to develop industrially with a consequent requirement for more raw materials.

To help conserve the world's raw materials, there is a growing emphasis on recycling, however, for a more meaningful 'green' rating, a material's sustainability needs to be considered. The widely accepted description of sustainability is the concept of meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Copper can contribute to sustainable development in three areas:

Environment
Copper is a finite resource, mined from ore deposits formed in the ground millions of years ago. However, very little copper is used up, since it can be endlessly recycled without loss of properties; it is conserved for future generations. When copper is mined and refined to 99.9% purity, gases such as SO2 and dust are released. Although these are collected by the metal producers to protect the environment, with recycling there are virtually no emissions. Recycling copper (as for other materials) reduces landfill costs. Copper forms a very small percentage of the materials found dumped on landfill sites; it is too valuable to throw away. Recycling uses 15% of the energy that would be used to mine and produce the same copper. So recycling helps to conserve the world’s supply of fossil fuels and reduces CO2 emissions.

Copper has the best electrical conductivity of all the non-precious metals and is therefore the material of choice for power generation, transfer and use. In electric motors and other components, optimising copper improves efficiency by reducing wasteful heat loss. This means less energy demand per unit of output which means fewer greenhouse-gas emissions that are associated with climate change. According to Professor Ronnie Belmans, President of the International Electricity Union, “the judicious use of 1 tonne of copper in the energy sector makes it possible to reduce CO2 emissions by 200 tonnes per year on average”.

See Energy Efficiency

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electronics rely on copper

Economic Growth
Copper is essential to technology, enabling peak performance from advanced microprocessors and other miniature components that drive the digital economy of today and tomorrow. Recycled copper is worth up to 90% of the cost of original copper. It is impossible to detect the difference between new and recycled copper, both of which are used to produce high value, long lasting products by companies who require no subsidies. Clearly recycling provides an economic benefit.

See Recycling

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Social Considerations
Copper is well known for its antibacterial properties. A strong case has been presented for a role for copper and copper alloys in the control of transmission of foodborne and hospital-borne pathogens, such as E.coli O157, Campylobacter, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and the difficult-to-treat Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This case is based on copper’s intrinsic ability to quickly inactivate these dangerous microbes at both refrigerated temperature (4°C) and at room temperature (20°C). For centuries, copper pipes and vessels have been used to convey clean drinking water. Copper limits the growth of water-borne pathogens such as Legionella pneumophila.

See Antimicrobial

antimicrobial brass door handles on at the entrance to a ward

Copper is an essential micro-nutrient for all living tissues and is vital for normal growth and well-being of plants and animals. Copper-containing soil treatments and feeds have a critical function in agriculture to correct copper-deficient soils and livestock to improve the yield of vital foodstuffs.

See Farming

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humans, animals and plants need copper to thrive

Modern social and business life would be impossible without electricity, available instantly at the point of use. Electricity conducted by copper encounters much less resistance compared to any other commonly used metal; its electrical conductivity is 60% higher than aluminium.

Copper is a key material for generation of renewable energy - the generator in a 5MW wind turbine needs 3.4 tonnes of copper to convert the energy of the wind to electricity.

See DG & Renewables

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copper is a key material for renewable energy (courtesy Eon)

Sustainable Building

Click on the image to take a tour to see how copper is used in sustainable buildings, internally and externally.

(Best viewed full screen.)

Test your knowledge of copper by taking the quiz.

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copper for sustainable buildings animation
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