Non-ferrous metals such as aluminium, copper, or zinc are important for the EU’s manufacturing industries, sustainability, and economic growth. They are irreplaceable for many products in the automotive, aerospace, mechanical engineering, and construction sectors. Their unique thermal, electrical, and isolating characteristics coupled with endless recyclability and low weight make them indispensable to achieving the EU’s energy and resource efficiency goals.
What non-ferrous metals are
- Unique characteristics - non-ferrous materials are used because of their low weight (aluminium), high conductivity (copper), or resistance to corrosion and non-magnetic property (zinc). The last two properties distinguish them from ferrous materials such as steel;
- Utilisation – non-ferrous metals are essential for mechanical engineering, transport, aerospace, construction, packaging, electricity and energy, electronics, and medical devices.
Why non-ferrous metals are important:
- EU economy – the sector accounts for 1.25% (€19.91 billion) of EU manufacturing. Turnover in the sector was €116.09 billion (1.8%) in 2010.
- Manufacturing - the EU is one of the biggest consumers of non-ferrous metals worldwide. In the manufacture of non-ferrous metals, aluminium represents the largest share.
- Production – the EU has been losing its share of the world market and its dependence on imported raw materials for the production of metals and metal products is growing rapidly;
- Employment – the sector employs more than 300 000 people. Downstream industries provide the majority of these jobs.
Role of the European Commission
The Commission assesses the competitiveness of the non-ferrous metals industries and promotes the sustainable development of the sector in the context of the EU Sustainable industrial policy:
- Communication on the competitiveness of the metals industries (2008)
- Study on the Competitiveness of the EU Non-ferrous Metals Industries (2 MB, 2011)
- Assessment of the Cumulative Costs of EU regulation on the Aluminium sector (5 MB, 2013)
Challenges faced by the sector
The important issues influencing the competitiveness of the EU non-ferrous metals industries are climate change, protection of environment, cost of energy, access to raw materials, research, innovation, and trade:
- Energy - the production of non-ferrous metals is very energy-intensive, and high energy prices in the EU discourage investment in primary production. The shortfall in production is partially made up by the increasing use of secondary raw materials and by growing imports.
- Access to raw materials –access is affected by strong demand and policy measures in non-EU countries. The issue of raw materials is addressed by a specific Communication adopted in November 2008 and the following European Innovation Partnership on Raw Materials – see more on raw materials.
- Trade - trademeasures applied by non-EU countries have a negative impact on the EU’s metals industries as competitors in those countries often benefit from governmental support.
- Low flexibility - the sector is characterised by high capital intensity and low flexibility. The main factors in investment decisions made by metal producers are access to raw materials and energy at competitive prices, as well as proximity to end-users.
- Production placement - the proximity and size of downstream industries remains the biggest incentive to keeping the industry in the EU. At the same time, the shift of production to countries with lower energy prices and lower social and environmental costs are challenging the status quo.
- Innovation - the future of the non-ferrous metals sector in the EU will depend on innovation, improving product quality, and looking for niche markets and new products to respond to market needs such as using the antiseptic qualities of copper or new advanced alloys for conductors.
- Price - the cyclical nature of commodity prices, determined by global demand and supply, also affects the non-ferrous metals sector. Most non-ferrous metals are globally traded and their prices are set by the London Metal Exchange (LME). This price mechanism limits the capacity of non-ferrous metals producers and processors to pass on costs to customers.
International Study Groups
- International Lead and Zinc Study Group
- International Copper Study Group
- International Nickel Study Group
- Non-ferrous Metals Manufacturing: Vision for 2050 and Actions Needed (2017) JRC Science for policy report
- Non-Ferrous Metals Best Available Technology Reference Document (2014)
- Assessment of Cumulative Cost Impact for the Aluminium Industry: Final report (5 MB, 2013) and Executive summary (73 kB) and its MEMO.
- Study on the competitiveness of the EU Non-ferrous metals industries (2 MB, 2011) which analysed the issues affecting the competitiveness of the non-ferrous metals sector.