Posted by: Jack | July 29, 2008

World running out of metal

Police across the UK recently announced a two day blitz on a new major crime problem: organised theft of metal.

The British Transport Police declared theft of metal to be the biggest threat to the railways after terrorism. Persistent thefts of the copper wiring used in signalling systems is a major cause of delays and potential dangers. It was reported last month that in the previous year metal thefts on the railways increased 70% and caused 2, 500 hours of delays.

Any kind of copper wiring is being stolen, but other metals as well. Metal theft, the police declare, is Britain’s fastest growing crime. Popular targets include aluminium beer kegs (400, 000 went missing last year), cast iron man hole covers and catalytic converters from cars for their platinum. The estimated cost to British industry is £360 million a year, and rising.

A hundred road signs made from aluminium in Devon disappeared in one night. The two metre long phosphor bronze propellers were stolen from the Royal yacht Britannia. And perhaps most strangely of all, a Henry Moore sculpture worth £3 million was stolen in 2005, but it’s thought to be melted down for scrap rather than sold as art.

It’s a global problem and is even worse in other parts of the world. In Germany, Russia and the Czech Republic whole bridges have been stolen, such as the 4 tonne railways bridge stolen in February in Bohemia. And last year Melbourne was virtually shut down to traffic after all railways crossings automatically closed due to theft of wiring.

Clearly to accomplish such impressive thefts the perpetrators must be organised and serious. But what’s behind the sudden leap in metal theft? A simple fact-several new manufacturing powers in the developing world are building industries on an unprecedented scale, and biggest of them all is China.

Chinese industry desperately needs natural resources to fuel the massive expansion it has been undergoing since its supposedly “communist” government decided to turn its back on trying to build socialism and instead build a powerful capitalist country. As the late former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put it: “To get rich is glorious.”

Now a huge proportion of the manufacturing industry of the entire world is taking place in China. Every day we are surrounded by a universe of products that have been built by cheap Chinese labour. This means the factories need the metals, fuels and rare elements required to create the commodities we all use. And all those workers need homes too-some estimate that China will need to build 50 cities the size of London in the next 20 years to accommodate the massive flow of workers from the countryside to the city in search of work.

China’s industrialisation is on a bigger scale than anything that has taken place in the world before. It’s estimated that last year China used 40% of the world’s steel, 40% of the coal, 30% of the steel and 12% of the energy. This has been a major force driving up the price of basic commodities like metals and oil. The problem is then hugely exacerbated by speculators in the big banks, who realise they can no longer make money off the bubble in property prices in west after the sub prime mortgage crisis, instead betting on the price of raw materials going up further, meaning markets jack up the price even further.

As anyone who drives a car knows, the price of oil is at record highs, making it profitable for thieves in some cases to pump oil out of domestic heating tanks to be sold on. The price of copper rose 332% between 2003 and 2008. A tonne of scrap copper today is worth around £2500. There has been a 75% increase in the price of aluminium. A 2 pence coin is worth more as metal than as money. And in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa, a war has raged for years that has claimed more lives than world war one, and involves most surrounding countries. At the heart of the conflict is control of resource rich provinces that have reserves of copper and coltan, a rare material essential for manufacturing mobile phones.

China’s largest steel maker Bayosteel has just agreed to double the price it pays to mining multinational Rio Tinto Zinc. And the BBC has even reported on how Chinese companies have purchased an entire mountain rich in copper in Peru, and are moving a town to it so it can be strip mined down to nothing.

All of this has made theft and export of expensive raw materials a very profitable business for organised crime. In China itself recycling is a huge industry, with whole towns dedicated to processing “e-waste”, or all the circuit boards and chips of all the computers, mobile phones and electronics we throw away every time we upgrade. Electronic commodities are designed by manufacturers to break or become obsolete, forcing you to buy new ones. The waste is then shipped back to China, where it is stripped down and useful raw materials extracted. As a result it’s possible to smell the stink of the centres of this industry for miles around, and workers need to drink imported bottled water since the water table is so polluted.

The immediate rocketing of prices for raw materials is driven by the rich bankers of the City and Wall Street, investing in contracts that bet on prices continuing to rise and making others think they will, which becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. But it appears that in the longer term this is a problem that isn’t going to go away. Last year New Scientist magazine reported on studies done by the University of Augsburg in Germany that attempted to quantify how much of various non-renewable raw materials the Earth has left.

Such calculations are extremely difficult to do precisely, as there are many variables, not least of which is the growing shadow economy dealing in stolen metals and resources, but also the fact that reserves of precious materials are closely guarded secrets of many governments. But even conservative estimates are extremely alarming.

The most worrying for manufacturers are the figures for rare elements which few of us have heard of but are essential to products we use. Extraction of indium has rocketed in recent years due to its use in flat screen TVs, but it’s estimated the entire Earth’s supply will have been used up within 10 years. Gallium is a material used to make efficient solar cells central to plans to move away from fossil fuels and ameliorate global warming, but in fact according to the studies these may be only able to contribute 1% of future solar energy generation, limited simply by lack of materials. Antimony, used to make flame retardant materials, may be gone within 15 years, and silver in 10. More plentiful metals may have longer left, but not much longer. Estimates show zinc could be exhausted by 2037, and within this century our need for copper will exceed what can be extracted.

The simple fact is that capitalism finally has to face the fact that there isn’t an unlimited supply of raw materials on the Earth. We waste an increasing and fantastic amount because of the structure of our economy, which demands ever increasing consumption to allow the endless growth in profits for big corporations. Short of going to outer space and mining the asteroids, there is no way this can continue.

In the meantime countless wild places across the planet are being strip mined into a wasteland, just as others fill up with the junk we have discarded, often not even used. This is a big factor behind the massive wave of extinctions facing all different kinds of life on Earth. The ultimate consequences for human civilisation, which depends on the rest of life to clean our water and air, and provide us with food and other essential needs, is impossible to quantify.

The crisis in the price of raw materials is in fact just one part of the massive and multi faceted crisis affecting the ecology of planet Earth, and calls for immediate and urgent action to curb waste, use what we have more efficiently and recycle the waste. But as long as our economy and society is run by a tiny elite determined to make ever greater profits no matter the cost to humans or the environment, that isn’t going to happen. The future of the Earth relies on the majority of its inhabitants taking power for themselves.

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