As the value of precious metals have risen, so has catalytic converter theft across the country and internationally. Prices of platinum, palladium, and rhodium, the elements found in catalytic converters, are at all-time highs. Converters aren’t readily identifiable, putting recyclers and law enforcement at a disadvantage.
To curb the rise of thefts in Oregon, the state passed a law that will provide additional requirements to sell “private metal property,” which the law defines as “a catalytic converter or a component of a catalytic converter that has been removed from a vehicle and is offered for sale as an independent item, whether individually or as part of a bundle, bale or in other bulk form.”
ISRI members and staff were key drivers in this effort, says Sean Daoud, Pacific Northwest Chapter president, and vice president at PNW Metal Recycling. “We want members to get catalytic converters, properly handle them, and send them to the proper location to be sorted.” Signed June 23 by Gov. Kate Brown, Senate Bill 803 will be effective Jan. 1, 2022. Mike Schmidt, Multnomah County district attorney, requested the legislation to address rising metals theft in his jurisdiction. State senators Chris Gorsek and Lew Frederick were the bill’s chief sponsors.
The measure prohibits recyclers from purchasing or receiving catalytic converters except from a commercial seller or owner of the vehicle originally containing the device. It prohibits dismantlers from acquiring catalytic converters removed from vehicles and separately offered for sale. The law requires recyclers to record detailed transaction information including the seller’s name and government-issued photo ID. It requires information associated with the catalytic converter to be recorded for tracking purposes, including “the vehicle identification number and a copy of the title or vehicle registration for the vehicle from which the private metal property was removed.”
In October 2020, ISRI’s Materials Theft Subcommittee formed a Catalytic Converter Working Group to help recyclers identify and avoid buying stolen catalytic converters by making the sales more traceable and finding creative ways to permanently mark converters in a manner that clearly identifies ownership.
The group also developed suggested elements for catalytic converter legislation that members could propose as new bills make their way through the legislative process. “Catalytic converter theft is best incorporated within existing state metals theft statutes,” explains Danielle Waterfield, ISRI’s chief policy officer. “All 50 states have enacted specific metals theft statutes unique to the needs of each state, and simply writing new laws tends to open loopholes in existing statutes that criminal thieves can exploit.” ISRI suggests there is no “model bill” or one-size-fits-all approach for state legislation.
The suggested elements include requirements that used, detached catalytic converters may only be purchased by metal recyclers with a fixed place of business, and additional recordkeeping and proof of ownership requirements based on the type of seller. “These elements won’t pull away from how members operate currently,” Daoud explains.
According to comments ISRI submitted on the Oregon bill in March, “Existing Oregon metals theft laws require records of all nonferrous, commercial, and private metal property (detached catalytic converter) transactions with individual and commercial sellers to be kept and made available to law enforcement.” The problem wasn’t with existing laws but rather in the growing black market for stolen catalytic converters.
ISRI members worked with Schmidt’s office to strengthen the bill and ensure it addressed the root of the issue. ISRI’s original asks included specifying that any private metal purchaser is a scrap metal business and must follow requirements, allowing individual sellers if they provide proof of ownership, and avoid placing undue burden on commercial sellers.
“A big part of our work was going through the provisions, and when [the DA’s Office] proposed a restriction, we would explain how it would work in the day-to-day,” explains Justin Short, ISRI’s manager of government relations. ISRI members identified the rules and preventative measures already in place, and provided recommendations that would not impede recyclers.
As proposed, the bill would have barred individual sales of catalytic converters. People can legally possess a catalytic converter detached from a vehicle they own (generally if they kept possession after a repair job or are parting out a vehicle). Prohibiting a legal pathway for them to sell can help sustain a black market, Short explains. In addition, businesses that don’t have a commercial account, such as sole proprietorships and similar small businesses, qualify as individual sellers. “ISRI worked with the DA’s Office to create requirements that would ensure that individual sellers do legally possess the catalytic converter they are attempting to sell, and create a way that allows law enforcement to show an individual seller’s ‘proof’ was falsified upon investigation,” Short says.
“Catalytic converters need to be taken off cars and properly handled, and we’re the ones who help with that process,” Daoud explains. “To put regulatory burden on top of us when we’re the last place the material goes to be fully processed doesn’t address the problem or align with the state’s goal of increasing recyclability.”
Like all metals theft, catalytic converter theft is frustrating for those on law enforcement. It’s challenging to build a case as well as prosecute and convict metals thieves. One of the basic barriers is that most prosecutors don’t really understand the recycling business, Waterfield says. ISRI members and staff found Schmidt’s office was somewhat familiar with the recycling industry, which allowed for fruitful discussions about metals theft issues. “That trust was already there and only grew during this process,” Short explains. “We need to continue partnering with law enforcement and the DA and show we are part of the solution.”
The progression of SB803 shows what can happen when the recycling industry partners with prosecutors. Developing relationships with law enforcement provides regulators with a better understanding of the industry and may give recyclers a seat at the table, Daoud says. “We want to be partners with the state, the regulators, and the agencies to make sure we’re doing the best for Oregon and other states we represent,” he adds.
Photo courtesy of Cacophony, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.