Supply, demand and trade patterns dominate as topics when metal recyclers and traders take the stage for presentations or panel discussions at events organized by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), Washington.

In the late 1990s, at one of the earliest ISRI Commodity Roundtable events I attended, one of the speakers at the Copper Roundtable instead reviewed the disappearance of the secondary copper smelting and refining sector in the United States.

Don Lewon, the CEO of Salt Lake City-based Utah Metal Works, presented a timeline of legislative and regulatory actions and their direct impact on the dwindling of copper-scrap-melting secondary red metal production in the U.S.

In the following years, little seems to have changed to reverse that trend. Within two or three years of Lewon’s presentation, the last large secondary smelter—operated by Chemetco in Illinois—closed its doors in 2001.

Further consolidation (and output decline) this century has occurred in the brass mill sector, and the red metal ingot sector continues to lose players, with Pennsylvania’s Colonial Metals idling production June 1.

At the Copper Spotlight session at ISRI2018 in April, however, during a panel discussion, talk turned to whether the time might be right for reinvestment in secondary copper production in the U.S.

ISRI Director of Commodities Joe Pickard said that when it comes to a new secondary copper refinery in the U.S., “costs and regulatory burdens are quite high,” but because those regulations are in place and “you’ve got law and order” in the U.S., investors may be attracted to the notion.

Ed Meir, an analyst with INTL FCStone, New York, said “regulatory oversight had been lagging” in China, but its government appears to be closing that gap.

Panelist Tim Strelitz, president of surviving red metals ingot producer California Metal-X Inc., Los Angeles, said the way to close the technology gap is with one or more investments in new facilities. “I think a secondary copper smelter is absolutely vital to the good and welfare of the U.S.”

Strelitz tied the collapse of secondary copper refining in the U.S. in part to a national trade policy approved by a Congress “that was paid off by large companies in our country to move manufacturing offshore [to] give American consumers a couple of bucks off a T-shirt.” He also said that the Chemetco facility could still be operating if not for questionable decisions that doomed it to become a Superfund site.

Regarding a new U.S. secondary copper smelter, Strelitz concluded, “There is no reason why it can’t be done if somebody wants to make good money.”

"Further consolidation (and output decline) this century has occurred in the brass mill sector, and the red metal ingot sector continues to lose players, with Pennsylvania’s Colonial Metals idling production June 1.”