Where’s the opportunity in this problem?

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Manhole cover in Tokyo
Manhole cover in Tokyo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was running on the verge of a road in a suburb when I heard rushing water from the raised pavement. I wondered where the water was coming from. Was I imagining it? It was early in the morning. I looked up on the pavement and saw that the manhole cover was stolen. The sound of water was coming from the storm water pipes because the manhole covers were gone. Further on my run I spotted another to manhole covers that was stolen.

It took close to a month for the city water department to replace these three manhole covers. They were replaced with cast iron manhole covers. But these ones are just as vulnerable to theft as the others were. They have been there for about a month but one wonders how long it will be before these disappear too.

Instead of dwelling on the problem of scrap metal thieves, I began thinking about how the city water department could solve the problem. Scrap metal prices are rising which means that for desperate, jobless people money can be made from manhole covers.

The problem had to have solutions. Was it a different kind of material that they could use? Could there be some sort of locking device that would make it impossible for scrap metal thieves to steal the covers?

A while later I was scanning through an industrial and business newspaper when a tiny story popped out at me. A company has introduced a range of NMC polymer resin manhole covers. These manhole covers are distributed throughout the country by a fluid conveyance solutions provider.

The NMC manhole covers are manufactured from a composite material that is bound together by resin and fibreglass. This material has no scrap value. It is a solution to city and local municipalities who are facing increasing theft of traditional cast iron manhole covers. The cast iron covers can be sold for up to R500 at local scrap dealers. It is estimated that thousands of manhole covers go missing each year.

I have also seen in schools how copper water pipes are stolen for their scrap value. Hundreds of metres of copper pipe stripped and sold for scrap. One provincial authority came up with a solution: use plastic piping and plastic taps as replacements so that thieves would not be interested. Many other metal products such as overhead line cabling, telecommunication cabling, metal fencing and even railway tracks are coveted by criminals for scrap value. All of these materials can have substitutes which provide no incentive for theft.

I was speaking to a road sign the company the other day and the business representative said that one of their big problems was metal roadsigns in towns and on national roads. They were also looking at alternative materials and they had tried wood, plastic and cement. They were testing these materials and would eventually choose which was best for specific applications.

As society changes, the ordinary person might despair when they pick up their newspaper or read online about the theft of scrap metal. Although municipalities can presently sustain losses with ratepayers’ money there are limits. Entrepreneurial businesses who are quick off the mark and hungry for opportunities will come up with solutions for metal replacement in a time when no metal whether it is in a public or private place is safe.

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