Sunday, December 13, 2009

He Who Taketh Shall Giveth Back

Last year the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story on how the high market price for metals was triggering another era of metal "harvesting" in the city. One incident described a situation at a Port Richmond scrap metal recycling center where the manager turned away a customer who wanted to sell a particular brass object: A funeral urn.

The man said there were more where that came from.

"I said, 'Yeah, but you have to dump the ashes,' " the manager said in an interview. "They're stealing everything they can get their hands on."

Salmon Street, a typical area side street.In these economically troubled times you'd think people would be doing just about anything to get some extra money - and they are. But even decades ago when urban blight and drugs first began to plague American cities, stripping buildings of copper pipes, wires, even rooftops, for cash was widespread throughout these old industrial Philadelphia neighborhoods. The exponential leap in price of scrap metals in recent years has made it especially common. 

Fortune Magazine, for all its glory, printed a veritable how-to guide on how to pick and choose the choice items in the publo-sphere with a feature titled The Dark Side of Metal Madness. The article included listings of expected prices one could get for the items from copper wire to beer kegs to manhole covers - most of which it is assumed would be dismantled and hauled away illegally.

According to the magazine, the price of copper, aluminum, lead, tin, and zinc since 2005 has been up 95%, which has prompted a rally in a different market barometer. Call it the petty larceny index. In 2006 more than 24,000 manhole covers were stolen from the streets of Shanghai. And while brass urns started disappearing from grave-sites in Philadelphia, that same year, at a high school football field in Washington, D.C., 750 pounds of aluminum bleachers went missing.

Copper hit a peak of $3.66 a pound on the COMEX exchange about a year and a half ago. Likewise, aluminum, zinc, bronze and stainless steel all have been commanding high prices. These may seem like novel facts until one more novel fact is added; that is, a lot of public infrastructure is made out of these metals. Enterprising folks have been literally ripping off anything that isn't nailed down - bleachers for example. Beer kegs aren't being returned, and some police departments can't get ammunition.

CHICAGO - JULY 17:  A sign advertises prices p...

Verizon, the telecom provider, has been bleeding from every pore. Vandals stole over $300,000 in copper from their cell phone towers in 2007, and that was just in California. In Michigan, Anheuser-Busch noticed the disappearance of enough of its stainless-steel kegs to take action: the beer giant persuaded the state liquor commission to triple the required security deposit from $10 to $30, because a lot of kegs appearantly weren't coming back.

For petty thieves the rewards can outweigh the risks. While a manhole might fetch just $20, a single catalytic converter, wrestled from an SUV, is a metals trifecta. It contains platinum, palladium, and rhodium worth $150. For professional thieves the big hauls, like truckloads of copper wire pilfered from construction sites, can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars.

To some degree this crime boom is cyclical. The silver bubble of the early 1980s led to multimillion-dollar heists from the London Metal Exchange's warehouse and in New York City's Diamond District. But the current crimewave, which began four years ago and has escalated since, has been markedly worse.

The illegal metal plays are not without risk. In New Hampshire recently, two thieves were electrocuted while pilfering copper wire from a transformer.

One key aspect of the recent wave is that the US has been shipping $61 Billion in scrap to China each year. That demand, along with the soaring price is what really made the recipe for the rise in metal theft. However, that may well be starting to subside due the price of shipping as gas prices remain high - a point economist Jeff Rubin makes in his new book Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller.

Likewise, now it seems people are looking for other materials to re-appropriate, and many of these materials are not so intrinsically tied to global trade. For example, the photos below by architecture/urban researcher Bob Powers document the scavenging bricks from abandoned buildings in St Louis.

And though an unsupervised removal bricks from the foundation of an abandoned building is not advised by this writer - especially for safety reasons - a better, more inclusive process of salvaging such materials could be valuable for historic preservation and ecologic sustainability - for example cities with old, historic structures.

European countries often utilize vintage bricks, called "seconds" (second hand bricks) as part of planning by local councils when constructing new buildings or preserving existing ones. Without this constant reuse of building materials some of the most beautiful buildings would have been long ago ruined with a poor choice of materials.

Pipes and fittings made of stainless steel
While much of the theft aspects of urban materials harvesting grabs the typical crime-obsessed news headlines, many people fail to recognize the virtues and increasing importance of its legal side, such as people who scavenge public alleys for aluminum cans or discarded iron. In Philadelphia, like many cities, the city does not have enough resources to do this on its own - these citizens often function as a resourceful, natural part of the recycling loop, and not just shadowy figures in the night.--D.A. DeMers.

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