Column: Scrap remains the wild card in China’s copper imports – by Andy Home (Reuters U.K. – January 30, 2019)

LONDON (Reuters) – China set a new record last year in terms of how much copper it sucked in from the rest of the world. Imports of refined metal reached 3.75 million tonnes, up 16 percent from 2017 and eclipsing the previous high of 3.68 million tonnes registered in 2015.

The strength of China’s import appetite is surprising given the country’s own refined copper production surged by 8 percent to just over 9.0 million tonnes in 2018. New smelting and refining capacity continues to be built and there was no shortage of mined concentrates to feed it last year thanks to a robust performance by the world’s copper mines.

China also imported more copper concentrates than ever before, close to 20 million tonnes in gross weight terms. In part, the explanation for China’s increased call on units from the rest of the world is one of simple restocking after relatively weak imports in 2017.

In part, however, it’s also down to scrap, the often overlooked component of the copper supply chain. Copper scrap imports slumped last year as Beijing tightened purity rules on the type of material it is prepared to accept, part of a broader campaign against “foreign waste”.

And with more rule changes coming this year, scrap will remain the wild card in China’s copper import picture. Imports of copper scrap fell by 32 percent to 2.4 million tonnes gross weight in 2018, the lowest headline figure this century.

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