Metal Prices Driving Substitution of a Different Kind

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We have heard many times over the years about metal substitution as a result of rising metal prices — the most classic case is probably plastic water pipes in place of copper — but everyone is likely to have their own example.

We have also heard, both in these columns and in the wider press, about the dramatic rise in metal thefts that has taken place as a result of the rise in metal prices.

Lead theft from church roofs, for example, has more than tripled in the last couple of years compared to the position just 5 or 6 years ago. The Church of England has reported 9,000 crimes of metal theft on its churches in the last five years, compared to just hundreds in the years before. Even more dangerous is the theft of copper from railway lines, both power and communications, which have caused thousands of hours of passenger delays in the last year alone here in the UK.

So it was probably inevitable that sooner or later the two trends would meet and metal substitution as a result of theft would become an issue for manufacturers of some metal components. Judged to cost in the region of $1 billion per year, metal theft is estimated to be the biggest loss of metals since the Second World War, when park and house railings were torn down for munitions and armaments, according to the FT.

While English Heritage, that organization that oversees the maintenance and restoration of historic buildings in the UK, is still firmly in favor of replacing lead with lead, they are beginning to accept that some locations sometimes suffering two or three thefts a year, have to consider alternatives.

The Church has therefore advised parishes to consider cheaper, less attractive alternatives, the most popular being powder-coated cast aluminum, which looks very similar to cast iron, but is cheaper to install and less attractive to thieves. Even plastic alternatives that simulate the look of cast iron are appearing on the market and beginning to gain market share.

Seeking to avoid the tragedy in South Africa where six children died in a single year due to the theft of manhole covers, new plastic covers are coming onto the market. Even though they cost more to buy, they are guaranteed for a minimum of fifteen years and have proved of zero interest to thieves.

The most-stolen industrial metal, though, is almost certainly copper. Although prices have come down from recent highs, scrap still commands close to £5,000/ton ($8,000), making it pound-for-pound the most attractive bulk metal. Copper’s electrical properties make it irreplaceable — even if aluminum were used in its place, the thieves would find it almost as attractive; yard-for-yard, the value is about the same due to the need for a greater cross-section of aluminum.

Changing the law to prevent scrap dealers from dealing in cash would improve controls and traceability, and increasing paltry sentencing to levels similar to those applied to burglary may help. One change that is unlikely to resolve the problem is a collapse to historically low metal prices. Metal theft and product substitution are problems component manufacturers, just as building and infrastructure managers, are going to have to learn to live with.

–Stuart Burns

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