Every industry has a dark underside. Recyclers are no
exception but most yards, by and large, have worked hard to
promote best practices when it comes to preventing metals
theft. And given the patchwork quilt of jurisdiction-specific
laws governing scrap processing on state, county and city
levels, detterence is no easy feat-and more often than not very
Recyclers work with law enforcement officials and the
community in an effort to comply with increasingly burdensome
regulations to prevent stolen metal from entering the supply
chain. The weak link, in their view, is the end-user segment,
where many still fail to take basic precautions when storing
copper and other valuable commodities.
"There are still some stakeholders that don't do as much as
they could to attempt to secure their valuables," said Gary
Bush, director of materials theft prevention at the
Washington-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries
Bush, who spent 32 years in law enforcement, much of it
investigating metal thefts, joined ISRI to bridge the gap
between the recycling community and law enforcement. "I've been
able to see the problem from both sides of the fence," he
While thefts go beyond copper scrap, Bush said the red metal
is a favorite with criminals because it's the most high-value
metal in the scrap supply chain.
Scott Horne, ISRI's general counsel and vice president of
government relations, agreed. "We've been involved in fighting
metal theft for more than 30 years. When prices of scrap
started taking off in 2005 we started to see an upward trend in
theft. We started hearing from a broad base of law enforcement,
and we realized that we needed to ensure that members were
alerted to this issue, particularly the members that had not
experienced (theft) before. We created a materials theft task
force and they put together recommended practices guidelines,"
The best practices for minimizing purchases of stolen metal
include procedures for handling retail scrap purchases, like
getting photocopies of identification, such as a driver's
license and the seller's license plate number, paying for large
purchases by check and asking sellers to sign for cash. ISRI
also suggests videotaping or photographing the transaction and
posting warning signs. Members are advised to refuse certain
materials, like grave markers, manhole covers, guard rails and
high-voltage cables, unless the seller provides a letter of
authorization covering the material.
Finally, the guidelines encourage recyclers to use common
sense and stay away from materials that seem suspicious, like
"20-foot lengths of copper downspouts tied to the top of a 1970
In a recent survey, the overwhelming majority of ISRI
members reported they were following the recommended practices,
even though the group can't require its members to comply,
Scrap processors are, however, required to comply with the
motley mix of laws governing metals processing. Although the
legal initiatives all aim to make it harder for thieves to sell
their stolen loot, many fail to take into account the
unintended impact they have on a recycler's profitability.
"A lot of these laws are overly burdensome because they take
no notice of what's involved in the scrap processing industry.
Things like tag and hold, where authorities want a processor to
tag every piece of material and hold it for 10 days, is
virtually impossible for a scrap dealer to accomplish because
of the amount of space that it would take and the physical
labor involved," Horne said.
Other laws require recyclers to pay peddlers with a check
instead of cash. "If you've got 400 to 500 transactions a day,
you've got to hire another staff member just to write the
checks. The cost of dealing with your bank with that many
checks becomes exorbitant," Horne said.
Despite some frustrating regulations, recyclers are working
hard to keep stolen metal out of scrapyards, and they believe
that more can be done if other stakeholders exercised basic
For example, while electric utilities and phone companies
are the most vulnerable copper consumers because of their vast
infrastructure, these entities don't always take the most basic
steps to protect that infrastructure.
"They are a big stakeholder and many of them are victims of
theft just because they use a lot of copper," Bush said. "A lot
of their sites are very secluded and many of them started
installing alarm systems, video surveillance and working with
local law enforcement to get more patrols more frequently," he
Bush also encourages stakeholders to use ISRI's free Scrap
Theft Alarm service to register metal thefts and warn the
network of ISRI members, other law enforcement officers and
private citizens that a particular load of metal likely will
show up at a yard. "When metal is stolen, the first 48 hours
are critical. That's generally when the majority of the
material goes to the recycler," he said.
ISRI has spent a six-figure sum to set up
ScrapTheftAlarm.com, which has been running
for nearly two years and currently has more than 7,600
registered members, including around 1,700 police officers.
"We've got several dozen success stories since the system
has been set up. It helps law enforcement and recyclers to work
together to solve these cases," Bush said.
Finally, ISRI said that the biggest and most frustrating
problem is that prosecutors and theft victims often choose not
to put the thieves in jail. "We cooperate with the police and
then the victims or the prosecutors won't prosecute, or they
let them out on bail or probation and they're back doing it in
a heartbeat," Horne lamented. TATYANA