Book Review: Metal scrappers and thieves: Scavenging for survival and profit

AuthorJoel Best
Published date01 June 2023
Date01 June 2023
Subject MatterBook Reviews
Book Reviews
Stickle, B. F. (2017). Metal scrappers and thieves: Scavenging for survival and prot. London, England: Palgrave
Macmillan. 223 pp. $99.00. ISBN: 978-3-319-57501-8.
Reviewed by: Joel Best ,University of Delaware, Newark, DE, USA
DOI: 10.1177/0734016819871336
Modern societies consume massive amounts of metal, and a great deal of newmetal contains recy-
cled metal that has been reprocessed. Scrapyards or recycling centers are where used metal can be
turned into cash. Some of these transactions are legal (people may haul their used metal to be recy-
cled or give permissioneven payfor a scrapper to haul it away), but others are illegal, in that they
involve selling stolen metal. Thus, we have Benjamin Stickles basic distinction: scrappers versus
metal thieves. His book reports the ndings of ethnographic eldwork that involved both observation
and interviewing.
Both scrappers and thieves are stratied. At the bottom are those who tend to be very poor, some-
times homeless, and who searchusually on footthrough alleys, dumpsters, and curbs for dis-
carded metal they can exchange for modest amounts of cash. Then there are professional
scrappers who have turned scrapping into a small business; typically, they have a pickup truck
and agree to remove unwanted trash. And there are professionals who scrap.These are people
whose jobs in construction or maintenance bring them into contact with unwanted metal, such as left-
over material from construction projects; such metal may be worth hundreds, sometimes thousands
of extra dollars when it is recycled. Moving up each hierarchy, we nd people with more resources
that enable them to make more money.
It is possible to operate legally at any of these levels. Stickle notes that many scrappers take pride
in not stealing. However, thieves he spoke to often reported having drifted from legal scrapping into
metal theft. In general, scrapping is dirty, physical work. Scrapping may not be part of the under-
world, but it is not very far above the surface. All scrappers will encounter metal that belongs to
someone else but would be easy to take, intermingle with legally acquired scrap, and sell. And,
once individuals identify as thieves, they may recognize lucrative opportunities: A contractor who
installed metal in a project knows it would be possible to return to the site and remove the metal,
and some thieves pursue metal theft systematically, in that they search for empty or abandoned build-
ings that can be stripped of large amounts of copper wiring and piping or for agricultural equipment
left in elds that can be hauled away. In a few cases, individuals report having made tens of thou-
sands of dollars annually from this sort of systematic metal theft.
Stickle also reviews reports by various insurance and law enforcement agencies about the dimen-
sions of the metal theft problem. These tend to emphasize drug usersrole in the problem, where his
data make it clear that the people stealing metal are diverse. Metal thieves have different career tra-
jectories, and they are organized in different ways, adopt different techniques of neutralization, and
think about what they do differently. The most sophisticated operations involve some division of
labor (e.g., scrapyards pay higher prices if the insulation is removed from wiring before the
copper is presented for sale). What all scrappers and metal thieves have in common is that they
Book Reviews
Criminal Justice Review
2023, Vol. 48(2) 262-271
© 2019 Georgia State University
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