Recyclers Seek To Combat Scrap Metal Theft

On a daily basis, thieves are carrying away guardrails from roadways, metal siding from buildings, bronze plaques from cemeteries, and copper or steel wire from scores of places. While the problem of stealing metal is ever present, theft has boomed in recent months, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI -- stated on June 6.

The rash of scrap thefts has put recyclers in a difficult position. Many find themselves trying to maintain their incoming supply while guarding against accepting stolen material.

"Unfortunately, with most scrap metal, there's just no way to tell the difference between legitimate scrap and that which has been stolen -- it all looks the same, said Chuck Carr, spokesman for ISRI." Recyclers are also confronted with the challenge of protecting their own inventory from theft, both at their facilities and in transit to their customers."

To meet these challenges, recyclers are engaging in cooperative crime-fighting efforts with other recyclers and law enforcement officials.

In general, scrap recyclers must address scrap thefts on two fronts: First, they must protect themselves from having their own material stolen. And second, they must protect themselves from inadvertently buying stolen material over the scale.

Recyclers are taking steps to identify incoming stolen material and avoid purchasing it. Scrap operators know it's illegal to intentionally purchase stolen material. They also recognize the potential out-of-pocket losses they may suffer by unwittingly buying such material. If the material's rightful owner or local authorities find the stolen goods in a recycler's yard, they can reclaim it without having to reimburse the recycler.

Here's what some recyclers are doing to protect themselves and the industry.

To identify suspicious material, scrap operators are stepping up their visual inspections of inbound loads. Sometimes it's easy to detect questionable items; many times it is not, unless the material has marks that identify its source or unless it's automatically suspect.

Another line of defense for recyclers is bringing greater scrutiny to their suppliers, principally their over-the-scale customers. Scrap operators need to know their customers and ask, "What's wrong with this picture?" whenever a customer or his material raises suspicions.

As a protective measure, some recyclers are installing video surveillance equipment and investing in computer technology to scan and store suppliers' driver's licenses, license plate numbers, information on the type of material delivered, and other data. Some localities, in fact, require recyclers to obtain this type of customer information. Other recyclers have simply opted to stop buying scrap from certain types of customers.

ISRI is taking the lead in assisting the industry in identifying stolen material through its Scrap Theft Alert system.

The program works like this: Whenever ISRI learns of a major scrap theft, it sends an e-mail notice to scrap recyclers in the state where the theft occurred as well as in surrounding states. The alerts include a description of the stolen material, serial numbers and photos of the material (when available), and contact information for local and/or state law enforcement officials. "These alerts are highly effective," said Carr, noting that the industry has recovered stolen metal and helped police catch thieves using this network.

Recyclers are also working closely with local and state law enforcement officials in the battle against stolen scrap. Swapping information is one of the most critical and most common cooperative efforts between recyclers and authorities. Ideally, law enforcement entities inform ISRI and the scrap operators in their region whenever material is stolen. Similarly, recyclers contact the authorities when they encounter suspicious material or suffer a scrap theft within their own operations.

In many cases, scrap thefts have been detected and suspects taken into custody thanks to alert recyclers.

Scrap thefts aren't likely to disappear, but recyclers, ISRI, and law enforcement authorities are cooperating and coordinating their efforts in unprecedented ways to mitigate the problem. Beyond that, quick thinking, information sharing, and vigilance by recyclers has proven to be the most effective response.

For more information on ISRI's Scrap Theft Alert system, law enforcement officials are encouraged to email

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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