Catalytic Converter Theft – No, They’re Not Worth £300 Each


The Telegraph tells us that there’s a spate of thefts of catalytic converters. This may well be true, people jacking up cars to angle grind or cut off the metal bearing little darlin’s. One point that doesn’t ring true is the idea that they’re worth £300. Not for a car one at least. That’s not how the basic technology works, nor how the scrap metal business does.

That the thefts are occurring, yes. Here from the US:

Police are warning residents of a series of catalytic converter thefts over the past month in the McKinley Park, Bridgeport, Fuller Park and Canaryville neighborhoods on the South Side and the Brighton Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side.

Six catalytic converters were stolen from parked vehicles between Aug. 8 and Aug. 20, Chicago police said.

Or from the UK:

Police have warned gangs are stripping cars of catalytic converters with some jacking up vehicles in broad daylight to steal valuable metal.

Thieves are cashing in on six-year highs in prices for the rhodium, palladium and platinum in the devices.

The metals, which clean cars’ toxic gases, can be recycled for use in jewellery, dentistry and electronics and command prices of up to £2,000 an ounce, twice the value of gold.

All of that’s true – well, except the uses. For the major uses of those metals is to make catalytic converters. And it’s not really true that prices are high currently. Rhodium has been up at $7,000 and $8,000 an ounce in the past, it’s at $2,400 currently. Platinum’s well under $1,000 at present, again well below highs, as is palladium. So, no, it’s not because of sky high prices. Assuming that it is rising in frequency this crime is more about people working out that it’s a good gig. But this is the bit that really jars:

While thieves might make £300 from a catalytic converter, car owners are left with repair bills of £2,000.

No, there’s just not that sort of metal value in a car’s converter.

Apologies, as this is running from memory more than a little but combined metal values are of the order of 1 gramme per kg (perhaps 1 gramme per half kilo) of the contents of the converter. These contents are something like a “brick” made of zirconium oxide dosed with some combination of those metals. Rule of thumb measures give us 30 grammes per ounce. If rhodium – which it never, ever, is – were the only pgm in there (platinum group metal) that gives us $80 to $160 per kg material. If it’s Pd or Pt with a slight dopant of Rh – which it is –  then more like $40 to $80 per kg material. Each converter is made up of a number of those little half kilo “bricks”. A Smart car might have one, a Jaguar with a V12 4 or perhaps even 8.

So, we can see where these excitable estimates of up to £300 come from. But they’re wrong, wildly so. For they are estimates of what is the metals value after final processing, not what a collector might gain. And yes, there’s a thriving market in collecting catalytic converters – the metals industry is perhaps the one industry that is closest to that aim of a closed, always recycling, economy. Not because we’re all green but because scrap makes money – profit is the driver here.

The thing being that separating platinum group metals one from the other is a difficult business. I’m probably wrong on this but I only know of two European companies that can deal with the process, Heraeus and then Johnson Matthey up in Cheshire. Again this is from memory, a decade back, but you don’t get paid the metal value, not at all.

What you do get paid is metal value times 80%, minus processing charges. Which are substantial. And to gain that you’ve got to strip those “bricks” out of the steel containers (which will be nickel steel, itself worth maybe £1,000 a tonne as scrap) and you’ve got to deliver that material in one tonne lots at minimum. I emphasise that this is from memory and based on old (but higher) metals prices. But I seem to recall that this mixture, the zirconium oxide plus the pgms, would produce a revenue of some £20,000 a tonne to the collector. Maybe a little more, that fog of memory thing. Or £20 a kg.

That’s not going to translate back to some scrote getting £300 a piece for a complete unit being handed into a scrap yard. Now, for a girt big ‘un off a decent sized lorry, maybe. But then diesel ones don’t have the higher priced rhodium in them either.

Sure, catalytic converters are worth something as scrap. But it’s not £300 for the converter.