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Police and courts are finally upping their game over the menace of theft

With prices at an all-time high across all materials, the good news is that scrap markets look to have fully recovered after the recession and credit crunch. But as material values rise, an increase in theft is inevitable, particularly across the textiles and metals industries.

The textile recycling industry has campaigned for years to get its voice heard about the millions of pounds being lost by industry and charities to thefts. But it seems that matters are now moving on the issue.

Industry stakeholders and trade associations recently attended a meeting with civil society minister Nick Hurd in which it was reported that the Ministry of Justice is likely to increase sentencing to try to deter thieves from stealing textiles.

More work is also being done to ensure that councils are fairly issuing licences to the correct textile collectors. And just this week it was reported that due to more involvement from the police, there has been a “notable” rise in the number of arrests for textile thefts. This is something that has pleasantly surprised recyclers which felt this was a crime being largely ignored by the police.

Textile Recycling Association national liaison officer Alan Wheeler commented: “In the same way that because the price of copper is high and being stolen, the price of textiles is high and being stolen from both collection bins and doorstep collections. The problem is that with more coverage of thefts in the national media, people get scared of donating their clothes if they think they are just going to be stolen. Charities get a significant amount of their income from textiles donations, so if the public stops donating via these streams it will [have an] impact on them.”

According to MRW/WRAP textile prices, material from textile banks can reach up to £323 a tonne, while mixed charity rags are currently fetching £450 to £520 a tonne. Defra estimates losses to the textile industry due to theft each year amount to between £7m and £12m, with 90% of textile recyclers being affected.

“We’ve got to move quickly on this matter and start an initiative to try to tackle textile theft as soon as possible,” said Wheeler. “We hope we can set up an intelligence network with help from the police this year. With more data, we can then develop a strategy to really get to the core of the thefts.”

The textiles industry is not alone in taking decisive action against theft. In October last year, the British Metal Recyclers Association (BMRA) joined forces with the British Transport Police to clamp down on thefts.

“It is important that the police and other authorities have appropriate powers and resources to clamp down on the rash of unlicensed and illegal metals recyclers, which act as magnets for stolen materials”

Commenting at the time, BMRA director general Ian Hetherington said: “Until policing is demonstrably consistent, imposing new police powers or restrictions on our members is untimely, unwelcome and will not help to combat the issue of metals theft. It is important that the police and other authorities, such as the Environment Agency, have appropriate powers and resources to clamp down on the rash of unlicensed and illegal metals recyclers, which act as magnets for stolen materials.”

Meanwhile, Network Rail is currently working towards the launch of a campaign to dissuade cable theft on the country’s railways. Data shows that since 2006, the cost of cable thefts has reached £35m following more than 2,000 incidents. Network Rail has tried to make cable harder to steal, easier to identify if stolen and is supporting the British Transport Police to collate evidence.

Network Rail director of operational services Dyan Crowther said: “Metal thieves targeting the railway are causing misery to thousands of passengers and freight users, and costing the industry, and the wider economy, tens of millions of pounds a year - and rising. We are doing everything we can to deter such thefts and protect our vital railway. Working in partnership with the police, more and more culprits and scrap metal dealers are being caught, and we’re pushing hard to make sure they face the toughest possible sentences.” 

More pressure is clearly being put on the police to take scrap theft seriously and for the courts to impose higher sentences. But with high-value materials freely lying around in collection bins, or in the middle of a field in the case of railway cable, it might not be possible to really stamp out theft without companies taking high security measures.

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