The Government has wisely clamped down on scrap metal exports from this country as a first step in bringing the rule of law to this business. This was a step advocated by the newspaper previously in this space, and the implementation of this first critical step is one that we unequivocally support. It must also be acknowledged that this business sprang from the grassroots, growing out of efforts at recycling that entrepreneurs in the Port-of-Spain City Dump and ballooning quickly into an enterprise that began to consume the northern side of the Beetham Highway.
It’s a business that was inspired by challenging circumstances and became a critical source of income for a growing number of people. There comes a time, however, when a small business must begin to play by the rules of commerce that govern all businesses, and when those operations potentially threaten national security during a state of emergency, there will, inevitably, be conflicts that arise. An unregulated business operating on the fringes of legality also offers opportunities for shady operators not willing to work in the systems that birthed this recycling business.
Why rummage through garbage for metal when you can simply steal it? At least two state enterprises have been challenged by this criminal economy. TSTT has been engaged for years in continuing cat and mouse chases with thieves who target the company’s valuable copper wire infrastructure and Petrotrin was reported yesterday to be suffering millions of dollars in losses on their extensive estates from thieves brazenly hauling away salvageable metal by the container load. This is particularly galling for the state refinery, because it has its own salvage department, the Investment Recovery Section, which presumably operates with more red tape than the thieves operating in Fyzabad, Santa Flora Forest Reserve and Guapo, among other extensive and quite state landholdings leased to Petrotrin.
Policing these extensive lands is clearly untenable, both because of the scale of the holdings and the ruthless determination of the thieves at work in the area, some of whom are believed to be armed. Petrotrin will have to begin thinking of creating a system of central storage areas where its scrap metal can be gathered for eventual sale or auction. Petrotrin has, at least, an advantage in having larger, more readily identifiable scrap than TSTT does and as a first step, it might simply begin by stencilling identifying markers on the larger items it’s responsible for safekeeping for taxpayers until it can be liquidated.
The Government should create a straightforward framework and structure for scrap metal sales, registering the companies and tradesmen working in the business and creating simple systems to account for the sources of the scrap they buy. An overwrought system of bureaucracy would crush the simple business of buying, sorting and packaging scrap metal for export, but a system is needed to hold these recycling operations responsible for their purchasing decisions that can be consistently inspected and verified. Freed of the temptations of buying stolen scrap metal, recyclers might be more aggressive about gathering abandoned appliances and vehicles, participating profitably in clean up operations that gather these eyesores and encouraging citizens to more readily rid themselves of the “white box” rubbish that’s always a challenge in households.
The Government has already sent a clear message to scrap metal recyclers that their operations will be under scrutiny when tonnes of metal were carted away at Beetham Gardens. The clampdown on exports is only likely to be lifted when the business of scrap metal recycling emerges from the gray economy and answers to the full requirements of commercial legitimacy. Moving from this point of standoff to a situation which will be a win for both the recyclers and the Government, but recyclers must be ready to approach the Government with a sensible and sustainable proposal for their operations which will improve the accountability of scrap metal sourcing. Government for its part should press some of its considerable small business support resources to the task of making this process easier for the honest entrepreneurs in this sector who are providing a valuable service of waste disposal to the country.