The Black Market in Scrap Metal (and How it Impacts Transportation)

At a few hundred dollars a ton, scrap metal is decently valuable, and a good source of extra revenue for those who run body shops, construction sites, junkyards, and the like. And if you’re a thief, it’s also a pretty good thing to steal — not only is the demand for scrap metal rather robust (and therefore, it’s not hard to find a willing buyer), but the metal also looks like any other metal, making it hard to trace back to its true owner. So if you can steal some scrap, you can probably off-load it for a profit.

That’s a big “if,” though. Outside of junkyards, there aren’t a lot of places that just have metal lying around for the taking — it’s not like a thief can steal the steel beams from an office building, at least not in a cost-effective way. The most difficult part about being a scrap metal thief is stealing it in the first place.

But thieves will find a way.

In early 2012, residents in the village of Slavkov, Czech Republic woke up to find that a nearby foot bridge was no longer there. It’s disappearance, however, wasn’t much of a mystery. The day before, a team of workmen had arrived in town and went to officials with work orders explaining the job. According to the Telegraph, the work orders explained that the were there to remove the bridge so that a new route could be built for cyclists. The workers were able to finish the job without much difficulty — the police stopped by, as reported by GlobalPost, but everything seemed to be in order. Within a day or so (the media reports don’t go into the timeline), the bridge was gone.

Then — and only then — the railway decided to double check on that work order. And what they learned was that it was forged. The bridge wasn’t supposed to be removed. It had been stolen.

The footbridge was a repurposed railway which contained about 10 tons of metal, mostly steel. The steel, when sold for scrap, had a market value of about $6,500 (U.S.), according to Pavel Halla, a spokesman for the Czech Railway. The cost to the Czech Railway was much, much higher. Halla told the Telegraph that “the cost of replacing the bridge will run into the millions.”

But for the thieves, that’s not a bad day’s work. And amazingly, stealing bridges is actually a relatively common type of criminal activity. In 2008, thieves stole a 200-ton bridge in Russia, with scrap metal worth about $30,000. In 2011, it was a 40-ton bridge in Pennsylvania worth about $100,000. In Michigan, in 2014, a 5,000 pound one vanished. In Turkey, in 2013, thieves took a 22-ton bridge worth about $12,000. So if you’re trying to become a scrap metal bandit, stealing bridges may be in your future. But if you’re looking to be a more creative felon, you may want to steal something else.

AnchorBonus Fact: If you really want a bridge but don’t want to steal one, don’t worry — opportunities like that come up every once in a while, too. In 2012, the Colorado Department of Transportation wanted to get rid of a 150-foot-long bridge and replace it with an more environmentally-friendly one. Instead of paying someone to remove it, though, the Colorado DOT offered a great deal, as recounted by NBC Chicago: “the bridge is free to a good home, but the recipient will need to pay for the disassembly, relocation, and re-assembly of the bridge.” Unfortunately for the bridge, no one took the Colorado DOT up on the offer; it was demolished in June of 2013.

Take the Quiz!: Here are a bunch of bridge-related terms — with a word missing. Fill in the blanks.

From the ArchivesBridge Over Former Water: A bridge which, if stolen, probably wouldn’t be missed all that much.

Related: London Tower Bridge, in LEGO form.