Scrapping has become a big phenomenon as people struggling to get by rely on collecting scrap metal to sell to scrap yard. I do a little scrapping myself, mainly in the copious aluminum cans I find scattered around my work sites. Plus, having as little as a pound of aluminum can get you around a minimum weight limit on scrap steel. But sometimes people go to far with scrapping and collect as scrap metal things that aren’t trash. This crosses a line from scrapping to theft.
One of the biggest problems with resorting to theft for scrap metal is the stolen item costs much more to replace than the scraper receives for it.
The economic cost of scrapping theft is larger than the scrapping industry
In road construction, a traffic control supervisor typically collects all of the signs, cones, and other equipment they will need for the duration of the project and sets up an equipment yard somewhere on site. In some cases, this “yard” is as little as a wide spot in the grass on the side of the road.
On Monday, we arrived at work to discover that a dozen of our signs from our equipment yard had been stolen. Each weighs about 10 pounds and is mostly aluminum. At current scrap rates, those signs were probably scrapped for about $100. Sounds like a pretty good haul for whoever took them.
Unfortunately, those signs cost more like $1000 each. Each sign is coated with a material that reflects light back at its source, making them easy to see and read in the dark. The material costs roughly $.40 per square inch. The signs are 9 square feet. That works out to each sign requiring over $500 of the retro-reflective material.
Other stories of scrapping theft
While in jail, my friend Jake shared a cell with a guy who got caught breaking into houses to steal copper water pipes. Copper has been fetching high prices and is making an attractive target to thieves. But even assuming that a homeowner could replace the pipes for the cost of the scrap price, they are likely to require a plumber who charges $80 or more to install them.
Copper theft has actually reached epidemic proportions. While breaking into an occupied home to steal its pipes may be the most extreme case I’ve heard, construction sites, farms, and businesses around the country are constantly being raided for their copper. Some areas are even starting to regulate scrap copper sales requiring that copper be held for up to three days before recycling, in case it gets claimed by its rightful owner.
How to protect against inadvertent scrapping theft
When you scale a fence or break into somebody’s basement, you obviously know that you are doing something wrong. But many cases of scrapping theft are accidental. For scrapers accustomed to laws treating curb-side garbage as public property, seeing equipment stored by the road can be mistaken for legitimate scrap. To combat this, I’ve compiled a short list of ways to tell if an item is not scrap.
Logos – Traffic control companies always put their name or logo on the back of their equipment. When picking up potential scrap, scan all sides for something that identifies the owner. If it does, it probably isn’t scrap.
Last month, Highway Technologies, the largest traffic control company in the US, went out of business rather unexpectedly. It was so sudden, in fact, that all of their equipment was left out on the road. I head one person recommending to others that if they saw any equipment with the HT logo on it, to feel free to collect it for scrap. Sorry, but that is theft. As the company goes through bankruptcy proceedings, some other company (or several companies) will wind up buying their assets, including all that equipment sitting on the side of the road. If you take it, you are stealing from its new owner.
One piece – We hardly ever throw equipment away. If it is broken, we will usually use it for parts. Other companies may just throw the broken equipment away, but nobody junks working stuff. If it appears to be in one piece, or even mostly one piece, then the chances of it being trash are slim.
Away from the road – Legitimate trash and scrap will be on the curb. People’s definition of “on the curb” seems to vary from anywhere of in the road to in the grass before the sidewalk. But if something is more than three feet from the edge of the road, it isn’t scrap. It’s somebody’s property that they are expecting to find where they left it.
Do you collect scrap metal? Have you ever picked up scrap that was questionable whether or not it was truly scrap?