Urban Recycling the Capitalist Way

Fueled by record high metal prices, thieves from Chevy Chase, Maryland to Mumbai, India are causing headaches for authorities by stealing copper wires, aluminum bleachers, zinc artwork, and iron manhole covers. Meanwhile, in Detroit, the problem of metal theft drove one energy company executives to confront directly those who would cut down copper wiring to sell for a quick profit.

Thanks to strong demand due to rapid economic growth in China and India, the price of a variety of metals has hit historic highs. In the words of one commentary: “The five major base metals, copper, zinc, nickel, lead and aluminum, are all in the midst of spectacular secular bull markets that have seen each of them shatter their previous all-time highs. At their recent bull-to-date highs these metals have risen 575%, 537%, 1,124%, 888% and 145% respectively. These numbers are simply astonishing, and based on these metals’ current fundamentals they are likely not done yet.” The increases have boosted the value of scrap sources tremendously.

Delft Construction SiteThe problem of metal theft has become common enough in South Africa that a new housing development I visited last summer was installing polymer sewer grates and manhole covers made from metal with no scrap value. A public service announcement that played at the movie theater dramatized the harmful impacts of telephone wiring thefts with actors playing the role of businesspeople cut off from phone service.

Last year, wiring theft in Melbourne, Australia delayed hundreds of trains before repairs could be made. Tens of thousands of manhole covers are stolen each year in Beijing. In Mumbai, an artist couple lost over 60 zinc metal plates, the product of 10 years of work. An interesting story from the New York Times published in 2004 described how high metal prices was cleaning up metal junk across Asia:

The invisible hand of high scrap prices is tidying Mongolia’s sere and treeless landscape, a tableau now picked clean of metal trash. On a recent six-hour drive across the steppe, only two wrecked cars could be seen. One had been converted into a feed dispenser for livestock. The other car had been in an accident only a few hours earlier. …

The Pacific port of Vladivostok, once disfigured with half-sunken derelict boats, has been cleaned up, restoring the harbor’s reputation as the San Francisco of the Russian Far East. Moving deeper and deeper into Siberia in search of junk metal, the INI Steel Company of South Korea opened a purchasing office in 2003 in Yakutsk, 300 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

The phenomenon has not been limited to developing economies. Earlier this year, thieves stripped copper downspouts off fancy Chevy Chase homes and stole wiring at Houston’s public library. Perhaps hardest hit has been Detroit. Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at around 7%, and the Detroit area’s is around 8%. With copper fetching over $3 a pound, it becomes attractive for theft.

Copper Theft ConfrontationAccording to a press release issued earlier this year, the city’s primary telephone and power utilities reported over 370 incidents of copper theft in the first half of 2007, and have begun a program offering $1,000 for any information relating to copper theft. For a recent magazine article, a reporter tagged along with a power company executive investigating a report of stolen wire. The thieves were seen in Detroit burning off the rubber sheathing to prepare stolen wire for redemption at a scrap yard. The photo shows the executive, Michael Lynch, extinguishing the wires while the man who had been tending it looks on. The article describes in some detail the connection between metal theft and drug use. The problem is not limited to utility wires, the theft of copper piping at a historic Detroit gym drew the attention of the Freakonomics blog last year.

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The high prices and low warehouse reserves (‘LME’ above) of copper and other metals could have a variety of implications for our cities. We should expect to see more manhole covers and sewer grates from non-valuable, and perhaps non-recyclable materials. Greater attention will be paid to securing readily available metals wherever they are found.

The raw material costs may also filter into the building process, as they raise the cost of basic infrastructure. In South Africa we learned how architects, engineers, and planners had sought to design homes and communities using the absolute minimum piping and wiring while providing basic services, in order to maximize public housing production with taxpayer’s money. This minimalist architecture has spread to the private realm, where wealthy clients sought highly basic homes for lifestyle reasons.

If we relate this basic architecture to discussions about the virtues of small homes, we can easily see how this could become connected to a broader efficiency ethos. The resulting city could be reminiscent Richard Sennett’s “architecture of justice,” a city that convinces us to live with less

> Chief Security Officer Online, 2/1/07: “Copper Theft: The Metal Theft Epidemic

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. we r intersted in setting an urban metal waste re-cycling plant in INDIA, n r looking for technology for the same

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