How Criminal Recycling Works

The Growth of Criminal Recycling
High copper prices have led to increasing thefts of the metal. Here, copper pipes are melted down to recycle.
High copper prices have led to increasing thefts of the metal. Here, copper pipes are melted down to recycle.
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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:]. 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.

­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].

Why not stick to fancy jewelry and flat-screen TVs? It's likely a combination of factors. Many investigators blame drug use: One policeman even goes so far as to say that up to 90 percent of the metal thieves are meth abusers desperate for money to satisfy their addiction [source: Wadsworth]. Other law enforcement officers suggest the combination of rising metal prices and a lagging economy has prompted thieves to consider more unconventional sources of income. In addition, the goods these vandals target are usually unprotected. You probably don't think to secure the wires in your air conditioning unit or the "junk" in your tool shed, whereas your jewelry and flat-screen TV are safely stowed inside under lock and key.

Yet another reason for the surge in criminal recycling could be the apparent lack of oversight in the scrap recycling industry. Unlike pawn shops, which tend to deal in small goods that can be traced easily, scrap recyclers deal with high volumes of heavy, bulky materials that are difficult to trace to their origin. Copper wire, for instance, is so generic that it's nearly impossible to tell if it was stolen or not. In addition, many scrap dealers don't require any identification from sellers and don't question suspicious items. This lack of regulation is a fertile breeding ground for corruption.

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