Solid Waste & Recycling

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Scrap Metal: Behind Bars

As soon as man discovered how to smelt copper back in the fourth century BC he very quickly learned to recycle it because it was much easier to re-melt a broken tool than make a new one from ore. It i...


As soon as man discovered how to smelt copper back in the fourth century BC he very quickly learned to recycle it because it was much easier to re-melt a broken tool than make a new one from ore. It is probable that the first scarp metal theft occurred shortly after that as well.

Today, stories abound of stolen items like aluminum soccer goals posts, aluminum bill boards, copper piping and plumbing fixtures, bronze statues and plaques, wire and cables. Why is this happening? The simple fact is that scrap metal is managed via an international commodity industry and the current relative high demand for materials has pushed prices up to levels that make them worth stealing. Examples from recent Ontario headlines include: brass bushings and copper wheels stolen in Hamilton; 30,000 to 40,000 pounds of high carbon steel bars stolen in Brantford; Aluminum I beams stolen in Hamilton.

Even though the material stolen amounts to maybe 5 per cent of the total 16 to 18 million tonnes of metal recycled each year in Canada, public officials feel pressured to do something. Their solution in jurisdiction after jurisdiction so far has been to introduce local bylaws that require scrap dealers to collect personal data, in some cases including photographs of individual sellers, as well as material information which is sent to police agencies daily, and to separate and not process material for a minimum of seven days. Unfortunately, this knee jerk reaction will not solve the problem.

Scrap yards do not keep individual loads separate. Many would not even have enough land to do so. Material and parts are identified and sorted into the appropriate material pile or container. Neither can the industry save loads for even a seven-day period. Material in high demand periods can be collected, sorted, processed, and shipped the same day.

The second issue created by these bylaws is that of privacy. The bylaw requirements seem to contradict the obligations of all Canadian businesses under the Federal Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPED). Essentially, the Act prohibits businesses disclosing personal information collected without the consent of the individual. Even with consent, use and disclosure is limited to what a reasonable person would consider appropriate. Is it reasonable for an individual’s personal information and photograph to be in the local police hands the same night or day after he cleaned out his garage and took an old Bar-B-Q or computer to a scrap metal dealer? The Ontario Privacy Commissioner and the B.C. Commissioner have also both expressed concerns about privacy in relation to these types of bylaws. In fact, court cases dealing with this issue are currently at the appeal level in both provinces.

Most importantly, however, these bylaws will simply not stop the current rash of metal theft. The vast majority of material received at a scrap yard is indistinguishable. It does not have a serial number or any distinguishing marks. Various police forces have told the industry and its members that they would not be able to get a conviction in court because, without a particular marking, the material can not be attributed to a particular victim. Trying to match stolen material thefts reports to scrap yard sales does not work because material is usually altered during a theft, in order to transport it, or to make it less distinguishable. Large pieces are cut, bent or flattened etc.

Finally, police agencies in the past have directed few resources to metal theft. Often it was the responsibility of an officer or two in vehicle theft. With resource cut backs and changes in priorities, police forces are not able to address the current increase. Police can not currently respond in a timely manner to tips from scrap yards about obviously stolen or questionable material. It takes hours if not days if there ever is follow up. Since police are not increasing the manpower to deal with material theft through these new bylaws, how can it be expected that existing officers will have the time to review every transaction from every scrap dealer, let alone pawn broker and second-hand goods stores each day? It isn’t physically possible.

Far from creating this problem, the scrap metal recycling industry suffers much theft at its yards. Individual companies as well as the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries (CARI) have taken steps to address this issue. CARI has issued its members a Metal Theft Prevention Program, held meetings with police agencies and members, and has developed a metal theft bulletin program that has lead to the recovery of material and arrest of individuals. Stainless steel equipment stolen in Waterloo was recovered through a CARI theft bulletin. CARI is in the process of developing a better electronic system that any company can access and rapidly inform scrap dealers of material that has been stolen from them.

Of course the real solution will arrive when the price of metal drops, as any commodity will. Unfortunately this is not the solution sought by the recycling industry.

Len Shaw, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Recycling Industries (CARI) in Ajax, Ontario. Contact Len at len.shaw-cari@on.aibn.com


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