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There is no simple solution to deterring catalytic converter theft

A pile of catalytic convertors in a recycling facility
ISRI is currently working in partnership with the Catalytic Converter Theft committee of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) on a public education campaign that encourages vehicle owners to uniquely identify their catalytic converters.

A catalytic converter is an exhaust emission control device that reduces toxic gases and pollutants from an internal combustion engine, and it contains a significant amount of very valuable precious metals. Some of these metals, like platinum, are currently comparable in price to gold as a commodity. 

Due to such a high return, thousands are stolen around North America yearly, and reported incidents have risen by upward of 300 percent or more in some regions between 2020 and 2021. According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), thieves target all types of vehicles and a single stolen catalytic converter can garner anywhere from $US50 up to $US875, depending on its type and precious metals content. For recyclers and law enforcement, curbing this kind of metal theft is very difficult. Catalytic converters do not have serial numbers, which makes it difficult to prove a unit is stolen. 

To address this part of the issue, ISRI is currently working in partnership with the Catalytic Converter Theft committee of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) on a vigorous public education and information campaign that encourages vehicle owners to uniquely identify their catalytic converters. The two organizations suggest using high-temperature paint, marking units with an engraving and/or using a non-destruct label that will break into pieces if an attempt is made to remove it. In this way, the catalytic converter can be associated with a vehicle, which will deter theft and make the job of law enforcement easier. 

But this is only one step toward a solution. According to Cliff Hope, senior account manager at PMR, which specializes in catalytic converter recycling, "Unique markings on converters could deter some thefts, but without a consistent national database which tie the markings on the converter to the ownership of the vehicle, it will be very tough to stop illegal sales." 

He says that consistent laws and regulations for buying and selling catalytic converters also need to be in place, in both the U.S. and Canada, or thieves will just go to the next county, municipality, state, province or country - wherever the market continues to exist. 

Scrap industry veteran Brad Rudover, co-founder of Scrap University and owner of Vancouver-based Detroit Scrap Consulting Services, agrees that there simply is no easy solution to the issue of catalytic converter theft. "Given the current price levels of platinum, palladium and rhodium, there is no doubt converter theft will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future." 

He also agrees that while adding identifying marks to a catalytic converter by consumers is a good step and will help, the solution - outside of changing consumer and professional behaviour and establishing consistent data, laws and regulations - really lies in rethinking the initial stage of producing goods. At the design stage, he says, OEMs could help immensely by simply altering the positioning of catalytic converters and make them less accessible to thieves by bolting or welding in a cover to restrict access. 

This really sounds simple enough. Once again, it would seem, the foundation for improving the way we recover used materials comes back to design for recycling. Designing our goods and packaging, all products for consumers and industry, with their end-of-life in mind, is clearly the first step in making a real shift toward sustainable, efficient recycling systems for all materials, from plastic packaging to catalytic converters.

This article was originally published as the Letter from the Editor in the October 2021 edition of Recycling Product News,Volume 29, Number 7.

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