,Copper scrap ready for sorting in Malaysia. - The Star file pic
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LONDON: China's imports of copper scrap surged over the first two months of 2021, jumping by 60% year-on-year to 191,720 tonnes.
A new import regime reclassifying scrap as a "resource" came into effect last November, removing high-grade copper recyclables from the list of "solid wastes" that are now banned.
China has historically been the world's largest buyer of copper scrap but imports seemed in danger of disappearing altogether as the country's customs department steadily tightened purity thresholds for metallic waste over 2018-2020.
The new customs codes should see import volumes recover, reducing the country's need for copper in refined form this year.
Volumes will also recover because copper's remarkable one-year rally will stimulate movement of the global scrap pool.
Just how much scrap flows down the supply chain in response to higher prices will determine the timing and degree of tightness in the global refined copper market.Copper scrap in Malaysia - File pic
BUSINESS AS USUAL?
China's copper scrap imports have averaged 103,000 bulk tonnes per month in the last three months, up from 76,000 tonnes in the three-month period before November's customs code changes.
Delays to the new system - it was supposed to be rolled out in July last year - and ongoing teething problems are likely to restrain imports over the short term. So too will the combination of disruption to the shipping sector over the past year and the specific issues around container traffic to China.
That said, the new import tolerances are broader than many expected and China's metals recycling body has just authorised another 26 foreign suppliers to supply copper scrap to the country.
That suggests that imports should continue accelerating over the course of this year, but the international scrap trade is unlikely to simply snap back to where it was before China started closing the door in 2018.
Outright volumes won't return to the previous peaks in the early part of the last decade, when China imported over four million tonnes of copper scrap each year.
Much of that volume was inflated by lower-grade material which cannot now enter the country even under the new customs codes.
Moreover, trade flows have changed shape over the past couple of years with lower-grade scrap transiting through Malaysia, where it is sorted and upgraded to higher-quality material or copper ingots before onwards shipment to China.
Malaysia is now China's largest supplier of copper scrap, accounting for 18% of total imports last year.
The United States, once the dominant supplier to China, accounted for just 11%. The country shipped more copper scrap to Malaysia than China last year.