Ever since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 prohibited the burning or incineration of wire and cable as a way to separate the metal from the insulation and coating that surrounds it, recyclers and technology providers have been devising and improving separation systems to replace that method.
The wire processing sector that has developed in the subsequent decades has been sometimes lucrative and sometimes challenging for nonferrous recyclers who have invested in wire chopping technology.
As of 2014, recyclers in this sector say they are pleased with many aspects of the processing equipment they use, adding that they rely on efficient processing systems to be able to operate with a positive profit margin.
Nonetheless, additional challenges remain that could be addressed through technological innovation.
As pure as can be
By the time wire and cable is processed by operators who specialize in the practice, the end consumers of the product have come to expect a clean secondary commodity that would not be recognizable to the outside observer as scrap metal.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI), Washington, has several grades of chopped wire listed in its “2014 Scrap Specifications Circular,” including:
Clove – No. 1 copper wire nodules consisting of “bare, uncoated, unalloyed copper wire scrap nodules, chopped or shredded, free of tin, lead, zinc, aluminum, iron, other metallic impurities, insulation and other foreign contamination” with a minimum copper content of 99 percent.
Cobra – No. 2 copper wire nodules consisting of “unalloyed copper wire scrap nodules, chopped or shredded” with a minimum 97-percent-copper content.
Cocoa – Copper wire nodules of unalloyed chopped or shredded material with a minimum 99-percent-copper content.
Tall – Electrical conductor aluminum nodules of “clean chopped or shredded [material] free of insulation and nonmetallic items.” The grade must contain at least 99.45-percent-aluminum content.
Considering how wire and cable can enter a wire processing facility—potentially baled and possibly mixed—these seemingly difficult standards are nonetheless met and exceeded each day by wire and cable processors.
Nonetheless, operators of wire chopping lines say they are keeping their eyes and ears open for new and improved technology on the market. “There is always a better way or improvements with the current technology as necessity and inventive minds evolve,” says Melvin Lipsitz of M. Lipsitz & Co., Waco, Texas.
Jeffrey Mallin of Mallin Bros. Co. Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, says the sorting or preprocessing of insulated copper wire (ICW) in particular still lends itself to further improvements. “U.S. dealers today don’t send a totally clean ICW package that choppers can make No. 1 copper out of,” says Mallin. “There are brass fittings, wire nuts and tinned wire included in the loads, which makes it very, very difficult to create a good clean bare chop.”
Cutting back on kilowatts
Competing with Chinese consumers has drastically narrowed profit margins, U.S. wire and cable processors say. Therefore, managing wire chopping facilities has become a matter of seeking cost savings, with energy costs near the top of the list.
Electric motors power much of the size reduction and sorting equipment on a wire chopping line, so investigating how to trim the electric bill has been on the “to do” list of most wire processors. “Energy-efficient motors, which motor manufacturers have created, would be the only energy efficiencies we have seen,” says Jeffrey Mallin of Mallin Bros. Co. Inc., Kansas City, Missouri. “I don’t see any other means to that end.”
In Waco, Texas, wire processor Melvin Lipsitz of M. Lipsitz & Co. has been paying similar attention to motors. “Electric motors [now] have higher energy coefficients than in the past, and the design of the equipment has been tweaked for higher production, which reduces costs.”
Steven Safran of Chicago-based Safran Metals took a different approach, going beyond motors to undertake thorough rewiring at the facility that hosts his 35-year-old production line. “We essentially rewired from scratch and cut our electrical usage big-time,” says Safran. “Saving on the demand charges has helped reduce my electric bills in a significant way.”
Whether improving sorting methods on the chopping line or in advance of it, Mallin says he is not yet convinced he has found the next investment to make. “I have seen the optical sorters—i.e., color separation—which might be a good next step for copper and aluminum separation, but the technology or machinery I saw in production was not efficient, and the finished product was not refined or pure in any form,” he comments.
Steven Safran of Safran Metals in Chicago, who like Mallin has been processing wire and cable for more than three decades, says he continues to believe the best way to produce a pure metal chop is by being selective with the material introduced into the chopping line.
“We’ve certainly made upgrades to our line, but some of the technology being used and even sold today was there 40 or 50 years ago,” says Safran.
“A key phrase in my mind is ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ It really doesn’t pay to process lower-grade material, and you just don’t see that many choppers running it through profitably in the U.S.,” he adds.
The wire processing sector has seen its share of companies that have backed away from the activity (or even been forced to close their doors), but it also gains new entrants seemingly just as regularly.
Wire processors in the U.S. generally agree that the boom in demand for red metal scrap in China in the past two decades has made their lives more difficult, as China’s hunger for scrap has included a tremendous appetite for baled wire and cable. As Safran indicated, the circumstance caused many wire choppers to stop competing for lower-grade materials and also has squeezed margins overall.
As the wire chopping sector began experiencing attrition in the new millennium, some equipment providers saw an opportunity in marketing small processing systems to U.S. recyclers who were looking for an alternative to seeing all of their wire and cable scrap brokered to China.
The existence of these new competitors has been noticeable to Mallin. “The small chopping lines are getting more and more popular,” he comments.
To what extent these smaller systems will provide long-term competition is an open question to some recyclers. “Some of them lack the efficiencies and sometimes quality that is necessary for consumers,” Mallin says. “Also, the larger line manufacturers are continually working on [improvements in] volume production.”
Another industry veteran says he believes strongly that being competitive in the wire chopping sector in the U.S. involves a healthy amount of experience, discipline and attention to detail. “I know a number of people who have bought these smaller lines, and they wish they had never bought them. They don’t realize what’s really involved in operating them,” he states.
Nonetheless, among the buyers of these smaller systems are likely to emerge some new long-term competitors who will survive the learning curve and be part of the wire chopping sector for years to come.
While buying a system that is too small may end up being the wrong decision for some recyclers, Safran says some of his now-vanished former competitors made the opposite mistake. “I believe some of my competitors let the line run them,” he comments. “There are wire choppers who have fallen because they invested too much money in it and felt compelled to overpay for material to keep feeding an unprofitable chopping line.”
Adieu to residue?
One of the technological advances that would provide a boost to wire processors does not involve metals recovery but rather creating end markets for the plastic jackets and coatings of wire and cable.
There have been and still are some smaller volume end markets for the material, but for chopping lines “that render cross-linked polyethylene, [there] has been no real good recycling home” for the material, says Lipsitz.
Some makers of plastic composite products, such as IntegriCo (http://integrico.com) of Temple, Texas, have expressed an interest in accepting clean, processed wire and cable jackets for use in their products. (IntegriCo specializes in manufacturing railroad crossties.)
Rainer Koehnlechner of German equipment maker Hamos GmbH, represented in the U.S. by Copper Recovery (www.copperrecovery.com), Huntington Beach, California, says several markets for the material have been developed in Europe. “In Germany or England, for example, some 100,000 traffic sign pedestals are produced each year from cable waste by several companies,” Koehnlechner says.
Safran says his company occasionally finds an end market that will accept some of the shredded jacket material at no charge (rather than Safran Metals having to pay to dispose of it), but a long-term solution remains elusive. “For someone who can really develop that market, I think there is a multimillion-dollar market there for the recycled plastics,” he comments.
The author is editor of Recycling Today and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.