Non-Ferrous Metals


The most commonly used non-ferrous metals are aluminium, copper, lead, zinc, nickel, titanium, cobalt, chromium and precious metals. Millions of tonnes of nonferrous scrap are recovered annually and used by smelters, refiners, ingot makers, foundries, and other manufacturers. Secondary materials are essential to the industry’s survival because even new metals often require the combined use of recycled materials.

New metals made using recycled material
Aluminium > 33% Copper > 40%
Lead > 35% Zinc > 30%

Aluminium, which is the most abundant metal in the earth’s crust, is not surprisingly one of the most recycled materials today, after steel and paper. It is also the only packaging material that completely covers the cost of its own collection and processing at recycling centres. Recovering aluminium for recycling is not only economically viable, but energy efficient and ecologically sound.

Due to the limited availability of these metals, the unrestricted flow of non-ferrous scrap from country to country according to industrial and consumer demand is crucial. BIR has consistently campaigned for the free movement of secondary raw materials to avoid shortages in certain geographical areas and surpluses in others. Import barriers could limit the supply to the manufacturing industry in some countries.

Figuring out recycling rates

Many metal recycling rates have risen in recent years. See recent "MB" Steve Karpel summary based on the UNEP Resource Panel reports.

Recycling Processes

The metal recycling industry has an efficient structure with numerous small companies purchasing scrap material and feeding this to highly effective larger international businesses.

Non-ferrous metal recycling involves some, or all of the following steps:

Feeding recovered copper wire into a conveyor belt for recyclingFeeding recovered copper wire into
a conveyor belt for recycling

Baled zinc prepared for transpot to a refineryBaled zinc prepared for transpot to a refinery

  • Sorting: In order to be recycled appropriately, different types of non-ferrous metals need to be separated from each other, as well as from other recyclables such as paper and plastic.
  • Baling: Non-ferrous materials are compacted into large blocks to facilitate handling and transportation.
  • Shearing: Hydraulic machinery capable of exerting enormous pressure is used to cut metals into manageable sizes.
  • Media separation: Shredders incorporate rotating magnetic drums to separate non-ferrous from ferrous metals. Further separation is achieved using electrical currents, high-pressure air flow and liquid floating systems. Further processing may be needed.
  • Melting: The recovered materials are melted down in a furnace, poured into casters and shaped into ingots. These ingots are either used in the foundry industry or they can be transformed into flat sheets and other wrought products such as tubing, which are then used to manufacture new products.


All metals can be recycled with minimal or no loss of their original physical properties. They are such versatile materials that the possible applications for each metal and their combinations are endless.


Aluminium has (great recycling potential) and is often re-used for the same application for which it was originally manufactured. Its strength, flexibility and light weight, make it ideal for:

  • Building & construction: Window frames, building structures, roofs, etc.
  • Transportation: Airplanes, trains, boats, cars and trucks. It is also used in smaller vehicles like bicycles, motorbikes and other mobility devices such as wheelchairs.
  • Packaging: Aluminium is used mostly in the form of cans and foil.
  • Electricity: Since 1945, aluminium has replaced copper in high-voltage transmission lines.
  • Cooking and tableware.


After silver, copper has the best electrical conductivity of all the elements. It is also very good thermal conductor and is readily alloyed with other metals such as lead, tin and zinc for foundry applications to produce, among other goods, products for the transmission of water such as valves.

Other common applications for recovered copper include:

  • Electrical applications: Wires, circuits, switches and electromagnets.
  • Piping: Plumbing fittings and also in refrigeration, air conditioning and water supply systems.
  • Roofing and insulation.
  • Household items: cookware, doorknobs, and cutlery.


Most of recycled lead is used in batteries, but the are many other applications for this metal:

  • Car batteries: Lead is still used extensively in the plates that work as electrodes.
  • Colouring: Although less common today, it is used in ceramic and glass glazing.
  • Radiation protection: Lead offers protection against X-rays.


Zinc is present in everyday life in the form of coins. However, it also has other important uses:

  • Galvanisation: Zinc is commonly applied as a coating to protect iron and steel from corrosion in a process known as galvanisation.
  • Batteries: As an anode component material in batteries.
  • Brass: Created by alloying zinc and copper.


Apart from precious metals, tin is one of the most expensive non-ferrous metals. Hence, recycling from secondary materials is very important.
Its applications are very varied:

  • Cans: by covering steel sheet with a thin layer of tin one obtains tinplate, the raw material to make cans
  • Car production: tin increases the resistance of the motor block, piston rings and clutch plates;
  • Springs of any kind become tougher through the addition of tin
  • Glass: tin oxide coatings of glass surfaces to make them more resistant

Recycling Facts

  • Almost 40% of the world’s demand for copper is met using recycled material.
  • At present, approximately 30% of global zinc production comes from secondary zinc.
  • Over 80% of the zinc available for recycling is eventually recycled.


  • Of an estimated total of 700 million tonnes of aluminium produced since commercial manufacturing began in the 1880s, about 75% of this is still being used as secondary raw material today.
  • One tonne of recycled aluminium saves up to 8 tonnes of bauxite, 14,000 kWh of energy, 40 barrels (6300 litres) of oil, 238 million Btu's of energy and 7.6 cubic metres of landfill.
  • The energy saved by recycling one tonne of aluminium is more than enough to power a US household for a whole year (The average US household uses about 10,000 kWh year).
  • Recycling aluminium uses 95% less energy than producing aluminium using raw materials.
  • Recycling one aluminium can saves enough energy to power a 100-watt bulb for almost four hours.
  • A used aluminium can is recycled and back on the grocery shelf in as little as 60 days.
  • For every single can manufactured using virgin ore, the same amount of energy used will produce 20 recycled cans.
  • The aluminium drink can is the world's most recycled container - more than 63% of all cans are recycled worldwide.


Copper’s recycling value is so high that premium-grade scrap holds at least 95% of the value of the primary metal from newly mined ore.

Recycling copper saves up to 85% of the energy used in primary production.

In order to extract copper from copper ore, the energy required is approximately 95 million Btu/tonne. Recycling copper uses much less energy, about 10 million Btu/tonne.

By using copper scrap, we reduce CO2 emissions by 65%


The average car contains up to 10 kg of zinc in its galvanised body panels. When they are discarded, these panels can be readily made into new parts of identical quality.

Total recovery of zinc within the non-ferrous metals industry amounts to 2.9 million tonnes, of which 1.5 million are new scrap or process residues and 1.4 million are old scrap.

Secondary zinc production uses 76% less energy than primary.

Nearly 70% of zinc from end- of-life products,, is recycled. Old zinc scrap consists primarily of die cast parts, brass objects, end-of-life vehicles, household appliances, old air conditioning ducts, obsolete highway barriers, and street lighting.


50% of the lead produced and used each year throughout the world has been used before in other products.

Today, about 80% of lead is used in acid batteries, all of which is recoverable and recyclable. Some countries boast a 100% recycling rate  and most are capable of the same result.

Using secondary lead instead of ore reduces CO2 emissions by 99%


Globat tin production amounts to 350,000 tonnes of which 50,000 tonnes is produced from scrap and other secondary sources.
Primary production of tin requires 99% more energy than secondary production

Our Experts

For further information on technical issues, contact our experts working in the Non-Ferrous Commodity Division:

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