Copper in steel causes metallurgical problems, but is pervasive in end-of-life scrap and cannot currently be removed commercially once in the melt. Contamination can be managed to an extent by globally trading scrap for use in tolerant applications and dilution with primary iron sources. However, the viability of long-term strategies can only be evaluated with a complete characterization of copper in the global steel system and this is presented in this paper. The copper concentration of flows along the 2008 steel supply chain is estimated from a survey of literature data and compared with estimates of the maximum concentration that can be tolerated in steel products. Estimates of final steel demand and scrap supply by sector are taken from a global stock-saturation model to determine when the amount of copper in the steel cycle will exceed that which can be tolerated. Best estimates show that quantities of copper arising from conventional scrap preparation can be managed in the global steel system until 2050 assuming perfectly coordinated trade and extensive dilution, but this strategy will become increasingly impractical. Technical and policy interventions along the supply chain are presented to close product loops before this global constraint.