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Why ship mixed metals abroad?

It is fair to say that the UK metals market is a fairly subdued place at the moment, and it is prompting the more forward-thinking companies to look at alternative ways of shifting stock, growing their customer base and, ultimately, increasing profit margins.

A good example of this is the marked increase Tomra Sorting has seen since the beginning of the year in the number of companies enquiring about separating brass and copper from their mixed non-ferrous metals product. 

These companies include small operators which run auto shredders, WEEE processors shredding small domestic appliances and third-party traders that buy residual metals for further processing. In total, there are 20-30 of these types of companies based across the UK.

Rather than being driven by trying to increase the value of their material – this is a driver, but in most cases a secondary one – such businesses are primarily looking at separation as a means of gaining a more robust trading position in the marketplace and widening their customer base.

Traditionally, smaller scale metals recyclers would perhaps have only one or two customers, based outside Europe, to whom they sell a mixed non-ferrous fraction. This is fine to a point, but, in some cases, the recyclers are effectively being held to ransom by having limited customers and therefore selling material at non-premium prices.  

Some of these recyclers are beginning to realise that by separating out the high-value copper and brass fractions from the mixed non-ferrous metals stream, they can increase their customer base to around 15, quickly turn around their material rather than stockpiling it and, perhaps most importantly, operate within the UK rather than having to send material overseas.

Separating copper and brass from metals is achievable by manual separation, to a certain extent, but this is an inconsistent, incredibly labour-intensive and therefore costly method.

An alternative process that offers consistency and requires only minimal manpower is to use sensor-based sorting technology. This makes it possible to firstly separate out a mixed copper and brass fraction from mixed nonferrous metals, and then to further separate this into highquality, high-purity mono-fractions of copper and brass. 

Tomra Sorting’s Titech Combisense can do this by combining line colour camera technology with an integrated metal detector. Data collected from both these sources is used to enable the targeting of even the most difficult fractions in terms of composition, grain size and mix. Such high-purity mono-fractions can then be traded more readily within Europe instead of being shipped further afield for more manual sorting.

To put the financial opportunities into context, typically one tonne of mixed non-ferrous product will contain perhaps 10% of copper and brass. With copper priced at around three times the value per tonne as mixed non-ferrous material, it is easy to see why the recovery of these valuable metals puts these recyclers in a much stronger commercial position.

In response to the enquiries Tomra is receiving about copper and brass separation, it has been working with customers to set up industrial-scale tests to ensure that its products meet performance expectations.

Tests are carried out in Tomra’s state-of-the-art test facility in Germany. This not only alleviates any risks for customers, but also provides them with the reassurance that the technology will work in a robust way when installed.

With no upturn in the UK metals market expected any time soon, Tomra anticipates more such enquiries from recyclers looking to maximise the previously untapped value to be found in their mixed metals product.

Brian Gist is a sales engineer at Tomra Sorting Recycling

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