How Criminal Recycling Works

The Cost of Criminal Recycling

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