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How Criminal Recycling Works?

Criminal recycling is not new -- reports of thieves selling suspicious scrap metals
go back many years. What is new are the increasing prices for copper, aluminum and
other metals, which have caused the practice to skyrocket. The U.S. Department of
Energy estimates that metal theft costs U.S. businesses around $1 billion a year
[source: Smith].

Metal thieves steal everything from boat propellers and vases to street signs and street lamps.

The damage isn't just monetary. Many of the items thieves lift are necessary for
countries to function. For example, taking copper from Amtrak train engines disrupts
service and poses a threat to passengers, while stealing utility wires causes massive
power outages that prevent people from being able to use 911 emergency services.

These recycling thieves are creative, too -- or desperate. The criminals, many of whom
are thought to be drug addicts, take everything from brass vases off cemetery graves
to steel baking racks from bakeries. Even stadium bleachers and highway guardrails are
not safe. If it's made of metal, it's fair game.

Criminal recycling has received much publicity in recent years as thefts rise and
thieves grow bolder. On the next few pages, you'll learn more about this curious
phenomenon -- from what factors led to its rapid growth to how people are trying to
prevent it. You'll also get a surprising look at some of the more interesting tales of
recycling gone bad.
The Growth of Criminal Recycling
As much as we would like to believe that recycling is a selfless act fueled by the
desire to care for Mother Nature, much of it is driven by cold, hard cash. When this
article was written, copper was selling at about $3.94 per pound, three times as much
as it was a few years ago [source: MetalPrices.com]. Other metals like aluminum are
following a similar trend, thanks to demand from industrializing nations like China.
In the United States, the scrap recycling industry generated $65 billion and processed
roughly 145 million tons of materials in 2006 [source: ISRI]. It was only a matter of
time before enterprising criminals cashed in on the moneymaking machine.

Stockbyte/Getty Images
High copper prices have led to increasing thefts of the metal. Here, copper pipes are melted down to

Copper -- found in everything from street lamps to underground pipes -- seems to be

the metal of choice, but many of the renegade recyclers are indiscriminate. Some of
them target cars to retrieve the platinum found in catalytic converters, while others
go after copper boat propellers or the relatively popular roof gutters and fences.
Although metals are the primary target, thieves sometimes swipe other recyclables as
well. Newspapers have been stolen by the truckloads even before the ink dried,
probably on reports of fast rising paper prices [source: Wadsworth].

Many sane people question the practicality of investing the time and manpower into
securing and transporting hefty items like metal bleachers in exchange for the $600
they might fetch, but the thieves don't seem to mind [source: Kurutz]. In Akron, Ohio,
a perpetrator stole 60 landscaping lights that weighed 50 pounds (23 kilograms) each,
were set in bronze and bolted to the ground. Thieves in Tucson made off with eight
miles (12.8 kilometers) worth of copper cables that were used to power street lights
[source: ISRI].

Criminal recycling isn't just a minor nuisance. You'll see how thieves can inflict thousands
of dollars worth of harm and threaten lives.

The Cost of Criminal Recycling

Wilfried Krecichwost/Getty Images

Metal bleachers cost more to replace than thieves can get in exchange for them.

Although criminal recycling may not earn thieves big bucks, the damage their vandalism
causes often easily outweighs the value of the stolen items. Those stolen bleachers
that the criminal recyclers traded in for $600? They cost the already strapped school
more than 15 times that much and left it without seating for fans [source: Armon]. And
the little bit of platinum that thieves get from catalytic converters? At the most, it
will bring in $120, but the car owner will have to pay nearly $2,000 to get it
replaced [source: Wadsworth]. Criminal recycling costs its victims millions of dollars
each year.

• In Alabama, vandals filched $35,000 worth of air conditioners for the copper
cables they contained.
• In Arizona, miles of copper cable that powered street lamps along a two-mile
(3.2-kilometer) stretch in Tucson cost $250,000 to replace.
• In California, farmers have been plagued by scammers stripping the copper wire
from their irrigation pumps: more than $1 million worth of metal was stolen
from one county over one year.
• Nationwide from January 2006 to March 2007, electric companies in 42 states
reported more than 270 copper thefts that cost millions of dollars in
maintenance and repairs.
[sources: Parsons, Smith, "Scrap-Metal"].

The crimes cause more than monetary damage. Just ask the homeowners whose living room
flooded after a rainstorm because sections of their roof were removed unknowingly, or
the people whose lives were endangered by missing warning lights on a railroad track
or the residents who couldn't use their phones or computers after thieves dug up a
telecom line.

Learn how legislators, law enforcement and scrap recyclers are clamping down on these
metal-happy criminals.

Criminal Recycling Prevention

If thieves can't exchange their loot for money, they'll stop stealing it, right?
That's the idea behind placing tighter controls on the recycling industry. More than
30 U.S. states have adopted laws that require scrap recyclers to maintain records of
their sales, and many other local laws have established varying degrees of regulation
[source: AT&T]. Some of the common stipulations include:

• using traceable payment methods for transactions more than $100

• keeping photo IDs of customers on record
• storing recyclables for a period of time before processing them
• fingerprinting

Some states have a difficult time passing such regulations due to strong industry
opponents who fear tough rules may hurt business. But that doesn't mean other scrap
recyclers aren't trying to cut down on unscrupulous sellers. The Institute of Scrap
Recycling Industries , ISRI , has an entire section on its Web site devoted to the
issue of metal theft where it details its efforts to minimize the practice. It has
also partnered with the National Crime Prevention Council to strengthen those efforts.

ISRI has also set up a Theft Alert System to notify scrap recyclers to look out for
specific items reported stolen and refrain from purchasing those materials. Victims of
theft notify ISRI with comprehensive information concerning the theft, which is then
broadcast throughout the region in an e-mail list.

In addition, ISRI encourages scrap recyclers to adopt some precautions to minimize the
purchase of stolen materials. Along with some of the guidelines suggested by already
established legislation, the recommendations include:

• requiring identifying information from sellers such as license plate number and
driver's license number
• training workers to recognize and report suspicious materials like bleachers and
traffic signs
• refusing to accept items that are specific to a certain industry, such as
manhole covers, kegs or guardrails unless the seller is confirmed
• investing in security cameras

Regular people can also help to curb metal theft by securing items in their possession
likely to be targeted by thieves. They can put covers on their air conditioning units,
park their cars in the garage, bolt down large metal objects and lock any outdoor
tools in a shed. Many of the suggestions for common house thefts also apply: install
outdoor lighting to deter criminals, invest in an alarm system and trim high shrubs
that could serve as cover. Placing clear identification on items can also deter
thieves or at least help to identify them if they are stolen.

Some thieves, however, simply will not be daunted. Get another glimpse of the bizarre
world of criminal recycling.

Strange Criminal Recycling Stories

Even a cop who's seen his fair share of street lamp-stealing criminals has to pause at
some of the criminal recycling stories that pop up. While the majority of thieves
frequent abandoned buildings, construction sites, older homes and businesses under the
cover of night, an Oregon criminal trio was much more daring. By masquerading as
construction workers, two men and a woman successfully dismantled crossbeams and
handrails from a bridge in plain sight. Along with two other thefts over the following
year, the thieves stole a total of 3.5 tons of steel [source: Millman].

Glow Images/Getty Images

Hopefully those are real construction workers and those steel girders will stay where they are.

Thousands of miles away, thieves set their sites on an even heftier goal. In Russia,
employees of a heating plant had to find an alternate route to work after the bridge
that provided them their only direct access was stolen by scrap thieves during a
nighttime heist. The heating company estimated that the 200-ton steel bridge would
cost almost $40,000 to replace -- this time with concrete [source: Daily Mail].
Admittedly, stories like that are somewhat amusing, but others are just plain
disturbing. In Florida, 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms) worth of artificial body parts
taken from cremated bodies were dug up in a Tampa Bay cemetery and sold for $5,400
[source: "Proposed Law"]. Who knew thieves would covet prosthetic legs and steel hips?

On a lighter note, in the United Kingdom, it turns out that pubs are not only popular
for their quality ale. Beer kegs also are a hot-ticket item: More than 250,000 of them
were stolen in 2005. Four hundred and thirty of those were stolen in just one night --
transported over a chain-link fence no less. One brew master now slaps large yellow
signs on his kegs warning scrap dealers not to buy them [source: Millman]. In the
United States, missing beer barrels have cost the industry $50 million a year [source:

If only legitimate recyclers were as eager to recycle as these guys, our planet would have
nothing to worry about.


• Armon, Rick. "Thieves steal bleachers from Archbishop Hoban." Akron Beacon Journal. Oct. 9, 2007. (March 31,
2008) http://www.ohio.com/news/10333747.html
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• Millman, Joel. "Scrap Thieves Thirsty For Beer Kegs." Wall Street Journal. March 14, 2006.
• Parsons, Cecilia. "Summit digs into drug-driven theft." Capital Press. March 21, 2008. (April 2, 2008)
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• Sky News. "Thief Electrocuted Stealing Copper Wire." Sky.com. Oct. 7, 2007. (April 1, 2008)
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