Rogue recycling

FYI, the apocalypse is here. It’s a shame, too, because for all the climate doom-and-gloom we encounter in the news cycles, there are also a lot of stories of hope: lots of excitement about electric vehicles, persistent talk of energy efficiency measures, a new bill that passed in the House extending tax credits on renewable energy projects.

So I’m sorry to point out that in spite of all that, I’m convinced we’re living a dystopian dream. Pretty much all of our electronic infrastructure—railways, computers, vehicles, telecommunications equipment—relies on some quantity of metals, some of it precious. Obviously. And for some time now, stories about copper theft by hoodlums making their fortunes from scrap metal have trickled through the news media. But in the last two months, with precious metal prices ticking upwards, those reports have gained some urgency. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something particularly ghoulish about sabotaging existing, perfectly functional products to profit off of a sliver of its raw materials for the sake of building yet more products. Stealing, say, an air conditioner to resell it as an air conditioner is one thing—at least the person on the other end is gaining some nicely engineered air. But doing so to scavenge the copper coil inside it is just insane! Except it’s not, and that’s why it happens.

Take, for instance, a recent story on the theft of catalytic converters, a device that reduces the emissions from cars. Thieves have been caught across the United States cutting converters out of cars, each of which is worth up to $50 to scrap-metal dealers, according to the Los Angeles Times. The converter fiends slide under vehicles—usually SUVs, for their greater ground clearance—and cut the devices out, often within 90 seconds, as evidence from surveillance tapes shows. They do it because the converters contain platinum, the precious metal used in several electronics products, including fiber-optic cable.

According to a Forbes story, South Africa accounts for 80% of the world’s platinum. Recent power grid reliability problems have forced platinum miners to cut their forecasts, tightening supply. And with wobbly currencies, the precious metal market is a classic fallback for investors, creating a nice feedback loop of growing scarcity and demand.

And with the increase in price of scrap metal, and the corresponding rise in scrap metal theft, there has also been a concomitant rise in scrap-metal legislation. In September, Texas passed a bill that placed more stringent controls on recycled-metal buyers, and Kentucky lawmakers are considering a bill that would require scrap-metal sellers to provide personal identification with each sale. To prevent some of the more egregious thefts, an email alert system has been set up to alert scrap-metal companies to major copper thefts before peddlers show up with suspiciously large bundles of wire.

Other doomsday theft stories come from Australia’s The Age, which reported yesterday that copper thieves have disabled rail lines, raided tombs for vases and plaques, downed power lines and caused schools to close by pilfering the copper taps off of sinks.

The force of entropy is strong.

Nothing is safe.