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Trash to treasure: Stories behind rash of scrap-metals thefts

Sometimes the germs of interesting business features pop up during the most mundane of transactions. 

I had to purchase a new car battery some weeks ago and was shocked that the “core fee,” as it’s called here, had more than doubled since a similar purchase last summer. The core fee is a charge you pay until you bring the old battery back; it’s to account for the

scrap metal car batteries

Batteries are just one part of junk cars that yield valuable scrap metals.

recyclable lead that’s a major component of the batteries. The auto parts rep said it was somehow due to the value of scrap lead.

Next thing you know, a separate news report about school-bus battery thefts caught my attention; a quick Google search turned up numerous other incidences nationwide or vehicle battery theft.  And since then it seems that tales of stolen scrap metal are popping up everywhere, from tire rims to catalytic converters to storm-sewer grates to a $785,000 bronze sculpture in a London park.  According to this CNN World story, the problem in Britain is so rampant that railway lines, copper wiring and millions of dollars worth of artwork have been snatched and melted down for pennies on the dollar and with one theft of wiring even canceling cancer surgeries at a Welsh hospital last week. 

It’s hard to guage the scope of the problem in the U.S., but it’s not hard to find local news reports trumpeting such thefts.  And like the recent news of pecan thefts and hair extention robberies, such crime is an insight into our economy from two angles:  the personal financial circumstances that promote such property crimes, and the markets for the stolen goods that make the crimes profitable.  In a previous blog post,  I wrote about retail crime and a new report suggesting that organized thefts of merchandise and cargo are burgeoning; the post  has suggestions for covering crimes against businesses through the security and loss prevention industries. 

The economy — including the loss of unemployment benefits by millions who have maxed out, despite federal extensions, and welfare cuts at the state level on top of the lingering jobless problem — may be creating a larger pool of people desperate enough to steal metals for cash. 

The interesting business angle would be taking a look at the industries and companies that create a market for scrap metal.  And how is the scrap processed and used, and where does the revenue come from, and what jobs does this industry create.  In addition to the crime aspect, I see a variety of interesting behind-the-scenes technology, workplace, small business and other angles to the recycled metals industry. 

If the crime angle interests you, talk with law enforcement and your state’s attorney general about any pending or recently closed investigations, the laws and regulations that control the industry and any trends.   Or, you could just use the crime stories as a spring board to interesting features about these little-known industries that send trash on its way back to becoming useful goods.

One place to start is the website of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries; this industry group not only has a  lot of interesting fact sheets on its site — it claims to recycle 150 million metric tons of obsolete materials each year, involving nearly half a million jobs — but it has a great list of chapters including an interactive map and contact information for companies and individuals within each chapter.  A member directory is searchable by state, ZIP code, comapny — and can even be filtered by commodity, so if you want to do a story solely on lead recycling, or copper, or paper — you can narrow down to firms that handle those materials.  A law enforcement channel and area for theft alerts is also quite helpful. 

The London Metals Exchange claims to be the leading market for non-ferrous metals; its website has a fair amount of background/educational material that will help you understand the trade in metals.

 

 

About the Author

Veteran financial writer Melissa Preddy served as a business writer, editor and columnist for The Detroit News from 1995 to 2008, is a Michigan-based freelance journalist. She now works as a writer and editor for a medical research unit of the University of Michigan Medical School. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Melissa Preddy

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