The rise in metal prices in recent years has made metal recycling a more lucrative business now than it has ever been before. But metal theft has climbed too and larger volumes of stolen material are moving into the supply chain.
A wave of thefts of railway cables, statues and war memorials has dragged the issue into the national and international spotlight.
On December 2, The Sun, the UK’s biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, ran an outraged piece on three pages about the theft of a wheelchair worth £2 in scrap.
“No war memorial, no war hero’s statue, no church roof or railway line is safe from the scrap metal vermin despoiling our land. And now not even a wheelchair is immune from the parasites, believed to include Romanian gangsters cashing in on soaring metal prices,” The Sun said.
This is an emotive and costly issue, to which MP Graham Jones has responded by tabling a private member’s bill to change UK legislation.
But scrap merchants and metal recyclers are increasingly finding themselves the victim of these crimes, too.
Those that rob them are not just impoverished young men acting opportunistically, metal recyclers believe.
Instead organised criminals with links far beyond the UK are behind the crime wave, they say.
Licensed scrap merchants and recyclers, while regularly having their material stolen, are also subject to stringent spot checks.
There is a suspicion among some in the market that unlicensed scrap dealers are not the focus of quite such intense scrutiny.
In 2010, 15,000 tonnes of metal was stolen in the UK and of that half was taken from metals recycling sites, according to figures from the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA).
It is thought that in 2011, this percentage will be higher.
Where once merchants talked of petty crime, they now tell tales of armed robbery.
(This, incidentally, may be another factor in some recyclers' willingness to move to a cashless payment system, because to do so would make them less of a target.)
Metal is stolen from a yard, then sold to unlicensed traders who either redistribute it domestically or export it to unsuspecting customers.
If sold domestically, the metal tends to be split up, mixed in with other material and sold back to licensed dealers, who have no way of knowing whether the metal was stolen or not.
There is even the possibility that the metal could be sold back to the merchant it was stolen from in the first place because traceability is so difficult.
This is the challenge the industry, police and lawmakers face.