Libyans sell catalytic converters to make money in hard times

Palladium has become a source of income for many families who consider protecting the environment a luxury in times of war and hunger

Ahmed Salem
Libya Correspondent
Friday 04 December 2020 17:02
<p>Misrata in north Libya during the coronavirus outbreak</p>

Misrata in north Libya during the coronavirus outbreak

This article first appeared on our partner site, Independent Arabia 

Libyans have found a way of making money by selling the catalytic converters found in the exhaust pipes of cars.

Workshops handling and purchasing them have become widespread, with each offering a different price for the purchase of the box which reduces toxic gases emitted from the exhaust pipes of cars. 

Since the European Union put in place new standards for reducing the rate of carbon emissions from cars in 2014, the price of palladium has skyrocketed. Palladium, one of the metals used in manufacturing catalytic converters, has now reached a value of $2,590 (£1,926) per ounce, surpassing the value of gold at the moment which is $1,640 (£1,219) per ounce.  Palladium is extracted in Russia and South Africa, and is also used in the manufacture of electronic appliances, jewellery and in dentistry. 

This metal has also become a source of wealth for some Libyan families who use the money from its sale to pay off debts, for rent and medicine. In contrast, in times of war and hunger, protecting the environment is a luxury, thinks Hisham ben Soraiti, speaking to Independent Arabia, “I learnt from my friend that I had a treasure hidden in my car. Given the dried up economy, delayed salaries and rising prices, I went with my friend to one of the carbon traders who owned a workshop specialised for this purpose and had placed a large sign detailing the nature of his work. 

"He had a number of African workers who were busy disassembling catalytic converters and giving them to the workshop manager who would weigh them using the scale he had placed on his desk next to huge amounts of crisp money.” 

Prices differ from trader to trader. Salim Al-Ojaili, owner of one of the workshops trading carbon, believes that buying by weight doesn’t give the true value of the product to the seller. 

Speaking to Independent Arabia, he said: “The price isn’t gauged by weight, rather by quality, which can be ascertained by the digital code or key inscribed on the converter which shows its value according to the prices listed in a special catalogue. The price is then estimated according to the current value of the dollar.” 

Mr Al-Ojaili, who has been working in this field since 2005, highlighted that there are a large number of foreign traders who exploit people’s ignorance and their desperation for cash, by buying catalytic converters from them at extremely low prices. As for the palladium inside in the converters, its price is linked to several factors including the scarcity of this metal and limited global supply. 

Hussain Al-Mahdi, who works in one of the workshops dealing with carbon, said: “The process of buying converters containing palladium, rhodium, and platinum involves Libyan as well as foreign representatives of American, British and German companies.” Mr Al-Mahdi denied reports that the metal is taken to southern Libya and used to purify gold.  

The scarcity of palladium has led to its value skyrocketing, according to Bloomberg, and this is on the back of several countries imposing severe restrictions to end pollution from cars and trucks, and making it mandatory for manufacturers to increase the amount of palladium used in making vehicles. 

“The number of cars that are brought to the workshop is not the same every day, it depends on the cash available to people. On some days, we work on five cars and on others we get 35 to 50 cars, and the prices range between 500 and 6000 Libyan dinars (370 to 4430 US dollars) depending on the quality of the metal”, says Mr Al-Mahdi who further adds, “There are two types of customers: ordinary people and traders who sometimes have up to 100 cars.”

Mr Al-Ojaili believes that “paying attention to correctly installing a metal screen where the catalytic converter would have been, would reduce the amount of toxic gases from car exhausts”. In contrast, Ibrahim Aswaidiq, who works in a car repair workshop, thinks that “The contents of the catalytic converter are important for maintaining the car’s engine, and without it the emitted gases can have a damaging effect.”

Mr Al-Ojaili said: “The age of the catalytic converter is theoretical, if it expires the engine will be damaged.” According to the World Health Organisation: “Every year, 8 million people die across the world before their time as a result of illnesses caused by air pollution, such as chest allergies and lung cancer.” Scientific studies also point to “how pollution is one of the chief causes of cardiovascular diseases”. 

Despite the controversy surrounding the sale of catalytic converters, car traders in Libya set the price for these boxes according to the value of their contents and the going price of the car, and advertisements for workshops dealing with carbon are publicised. Opinion remains divided between those who reject the idea totally on the grounds of protecting the environment and those for whom providing food and shelter to their families is a more pressing concern than the environment.  

Translated by Tooba Ali, Edited and proofread by Celine Assaf  

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