How Criminal Recycling Works

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

What do beer kegs, boat propellers, utility wires and a 200-ton metal bridge have in common? They all have been stolen by a brand of thieves called criminal recyclers. No, they're not recyclers who neglect to flatten their cardboard boxes or to separate their glass from their plastic. They belong to a growing group of lawbreakers who steal recyclable items (primarily metals) that they exchange for cash at a recycling facility.

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].


­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

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

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.


The Cost of Criminal Recycling

Metal bleachers cost more to replace than thieves can get in exchange for them.
Wilfried Krecichwost/Getty Images

­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 on the next page.


Criminal Recycling Prevention

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries partnered with the National Crime Prevention Council to help prevent metal theft.
Photo courtesy Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries

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 on the next page.


Strange Criminal Recycling Stories

Hopefully those are real construction workers and those steel girders will stay where they are.
Glow Images/Getty Images

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].

­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: AT&T].

ISRI encourages scrap recyclers to post this sticker on their premises to discourage unscrupulous keg recyclers.
Photo courtesy Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries

If only legitimate recyclers were as eager to recycle as these guys, our planet would have nothing to worry about. For more information about recycling's alter ego, browse through the links on the following page.


Lots More Information

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  • Associated Press. "Man Electrocuted While Allegedly Stealing Wire." Sept. 24, 2006. (March 31, 2008)
  • Associated Press. "Proposed law would target people who steal metal for scrap." Bradenton Herald. March 30, 2008. (March 31, 2008)
  • Associated Press . "Scrap-Metal Theft a Growing Problem." Fox Jan. 19, 2006. (April 1, 2008),2933,182188,00.html
  • AT&T. "New Law Going Into Effect Tomorrow Helps Police Stem Metal Thefts." March 25, 2008. (March 31, 2008)
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