Recent years have seen a drastic rise in copper theft around the world. Last year CNBC reported on the wave of copper theft in the U.S. as an ‘epidemic sweeping the country’. On September 5th train traffic to Schiphol, the busiest airport in the Netherlands, came to a standstill as a result of a disastrous copper heist.
Considering that copper prices have risen significantly over the last ten years - in 2011, copper prices hit $4 a pound, four times the price of the metal only three years earlier, and has stayed above $3 since then - this trend is not surprising. Meanwhile, copper is readily available and relatively easy to steal. From electrical substations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads and water wells, to construction sites, and vacant homes, copper is pervasively used in the physical infrastructure that make our modern cities tick.
Evidently, copper theft can be more than just a petty crime and criminals are getting bolder, disrupting larger infrastructural systems. Further, both thieves and repair crews face severe risks of electrocution, fires and explosions when handling copper.
So, how have governments and industry dealt with this growing threat? Aiden Sidebottom of University College London outlines a few strategies. He suggests heightened site security, property marking and metal ‘tagging’ to curb the supply of easily accessible metal. In terms of demand, he notes that market regulation can be effective, whereby scrap metal buyers are encouraged to be more meticulous when making purchases from scrap metal merchants (e.g. requiring photographic identification).
Governments can also turn to legal mechanisms to regulate the industry and prosecute thieves. In the U.S., a number of states have passed laws that mandate recycling yards to take more responsibility when purchasing copper, in addition to enforcing stricter penalties for those convicted.
Nonetheless, experts are not optimistic about the future of copper theft, and metal theft more generally. If returns remain high, thieves remain bold, and deterrents remain weak, metal theft will continue to plague the U.S. and the rest of the world.