4 things you didn’t know about copper theft

2014-06-26 10:03

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Cape Town - Power outages, train delays and communications breakdowns – copper theft is regularly in the news, and is on the rise.

Copper theft has jumped by 26% in the past year, according to the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

On Wednesday, around 15 people were trapped under the rubble of a collapsed structure in Soweto after they allegedly tried to steal cables and metal from the building. In South Africa, scrap metal is often weighed for cash, leading people in dire straits to commit criminal and dangerous acts. According to a report, on average two cable thieves are electrocuted in South Africa each month.

But what more do we know about copper theft?

1. Copper theft is not just an African problem

Copper theft has risen sharply in the US and the UK in recent years. The FBI warned in 2008 that copper thieves in the US were targeting electrical sub-stations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites and vacant homes. Despite the FBI's warning, figures from the National Insurance Crime Bureau show that the number of reported copper thefts more than doubled from 13 020 in 2006-2008, to 32 568 in 2010-2012.

In the UK, the MP Graham Jones called for reforms in the laws over scrap metal after hearing the "constant concerns" of his wife and son - who both worked for Electricity North West. He discovered that metal theft in the UK had risen by 700% in the two years to June 2011, according to the UK's Energy Networks Association.

2. Copper is in more things than you think - even the Statue of Liberty

Copper is the only naturally occurring metal other than gold that has a distinctive colour.

The "skin" of the Statue of Liberty contains around 81 000kg of copper - it was originally a dull copper colour but shortly after 1900 the metal began to oxidise and turn a shade of green.

But copper isn't just pretty - it's extremely useful. Since industrialisation in the late 1800s it has become vital in the construction of buildings and power generation - because it is the best conductor of heat and electricity of all metals, apart from silver.

The average home has 180kg of copper for electrical wiring, water pipes and appliances, according to the Copper Development Association Africa (CDAA).

Most copper in use, such as wiring and plumbing, will remain in use for more than half a century.

3. Copper is a thermometer for the global economy

Industrialisation and the building of infrastructure rely on copper. As the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) points out, small handicraft outlets have been transformed into large factories with electricity - which in turn have created the need for copper-based railways for distribution and copper-based telephone systems for communications.

Copper is used so widely for industrialisation and infrastructure projects, and because of this it is often seen as a thermometer for the global economy.

A cooling in the price of copper indicates a drop off in the demand to build infrastructure - which doesn't bode well for the economy.

4. Chinese demand is to blame (mostly)

In 1999 the price of copper hit a 60-year low - as demand from post-industrial societies slowed, according to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS). But in the last decade, the rapid industrialisation of China has spurred copper prices ahead again - to reach an all-time high of just above $10 000 a ton in February of 2011.

According to the ICSG's latest figures, China is by far the largest consumer of refined copper - accounting for about 40% of world demand.

The demand for copper has created a robust international trade - and the market for illicit copper is rising alongside it.

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