Recycling old copper wires could be worth billions for telcos

800,000 metric tons of cabling is just lying there

Increasingly redundant copper wires may be worth over $7 billion to telecommunications firms, should they take the trouble to recycle them.

The estimate comes from British engineering company TXO, which claims there's up to 800,000 metric tons of copper wiring that could be harvested in the next ten years. TXO claims over a dozen telcos are investigating extracting copper wires from old networks to sell on the open market.

The need for copper wiring is declining as carriers adopt fiber optics, which have superior carrying capacity – one upcoming fiber technology is expected to increase the data capacity of undersea cables by 12 times

While repurposing old stuff isn't unusual, recycling copper can be particularly valuable as the conductive metal is a crucial material for things like solar panels and batteries, which rely on old-school electrical wiring.

A 2022 report from S&P Global estimated demand for copper would double by 2035 – from 25 million metric tons in 2022 to 50 million – and since the copper mining industry reportedly won't be able to keep up with demand, that means higher prices. Copper is already 50 percent more expensive since the COVID-19 pandemic, and prices will likely continue to increase.

Recycling copper won't be easy. Many of the wires telcos have installed over the years are underground and may have degraded. Digging the metal up and getting it into a saleable condition will entail non-trivial expenditure.

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However, recycling may not be able to fill in the gap between supply and demand completely, the report claims, which means each ton that gets recycled is individually worth more – making the prospect of digging it up and processing it more economically viable. At current copper prices, recycling operations can net a 30 percent profit, it's claimed.

AT&T only recycled 14,000 tons between 2021 and 2023 – worth potentially an estimated $86 million to $120 million based on copper prices during those years – but it is picking up the pace. "It's gotten to be a fairly sizable business for us, and we're heading into much bigger numbers," according to AT&T supply chain GM Susan Johnson, quoted in the report.

At the time of writing, copper was worth about $10,000 per metric ton – close to breaking an all-time high for modern times. Should prices continue to rise, the total value of recycled copper wires could easily increase by hundreds of millions of dollars – once you get it out of the ground and process it, that is. ®

Editor's note: This article was revised to correct the estimated value of copper wire recycled by AT&T.

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