Grease bandits strike as biofuel demand rises

As the price of this waste product and biodiesel ingredient has risen, so have thefts.

Ben arnoldy
Treasure in trash: The San Jose Tallow Company uses metal bins meant to hold 300 gallons of grease.
SOURCE: The Jacobsen /Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

Mark Rosenzweig watched with suspicion as a tanker truck sidled up to a local Burger King's grease bin last month. The driver plunged a hose into the 300-gallon tub of used French-fry grease and slurped it into his tank.

Mr. Rosenzweig called the police, patiently citing legal codes to convince them that, yes, grease theft is a crime. He should know. As a legitimate grease collector, he has his livelihood stolen four to five times a month these days.

In March, grease bandits in South Bend, Ind., broke bin locks to get to their oozy booty. One collector, Griffin Industries Inc., has two detectives working cases in Kentucky, Texas, Florida, Missouri, and against an entire grease gang in northern Arkansas.

Grease is a traded commodity like gold or pork bellies, and its price has tripled in the past two years – leading to increased theft. The reason: Grease can be used to make bio-diesel and has seen the same price spike as corn and other biofuel inputs.

"We monitor grease theft on a regular basis. Right now it's a big issue," says Christopher Griffin, director of legal affairs for Griffin Industries Inc. in Cold Spring, Ky. The company collects raw grease in 20 states and boils and filters it into "yellow grease," which is what is used to make biodiesel.

Yellow grease is becoming liquid gold. It now trades on US commodities markets for 32 cents per pound, up from a low of 12 cents in 2006, according to data from The Jacobsen website.

"People who were not in the industry in 2006 are seeing this is a moneymaker," says Mr. Griffin. The trouble for these grease greenhorns, he says, is that there's no free grease anymore – it's all under contract. "So those people, if they can't get the volume of grease they want, then they will just steal it."

Rosenzweig's call brought five policemen, who arrested the alleged thief, David Richardson. He did not have a California permit to collect or haul grease. Reports say his 4,000-gallon tank was half full and he planned to sell it for $1.35 a gallon, meaning he stood to make roughly several thousand dollars.

When grease was much cheaper, restaurants here and around the country would often have to pay to have the grease removed from outdoor bins. Now that yellow grease fetches a good price, Rosenzweig doesn't charge his clients – some services even pay the restaurant. There's strong competition for contracts.

"Everybody gets a kick out of it, thinks it's funny – 'Oh, how weird that somebody would steal it'. But it's a serious crime, and it hurts all of the reputable guys," says Rosenzweig. He estimates he can lose a couple hundred dollars for every full container. "You lose enough of those every week, or every month, and it starts to hurt."

Just who owns the grease can be a slippery legal question, according to Houston attorney Jon Jaworski. He's defended clients in more than 150 grease cases and refers to himself as "the grease lawyer."

For years, grease was put out in barrels next to the trash and picked up by verbal agreement. After a court ruling found that arrangement to be a free-for-all, he says, collectors drew up written contracts and provided branded bins. Collection companies say that once the grease hits the container, it's theirs.

"It's really a question mark to me," says Mr. Jaworski. "Do they own the grease because it's put in the container, or do they own the grease at the end of the month when they pay the restaurant?"

He's defended several dozen cases in court and lost only one, he says. He started making clients promise to clean up before coming to his office after one visitor tracked dark footprints on his carpet and stained a chair. The smell didn't leave until three weeks and a fumigation later.

"Juries are amazed by the time and effort put in to try to convict people for stealing stuff that is rancid," Jaworski says.

Larry Findley, a former San Antonio policeman, has spent 17 years pursuing poachers for Griffin. He says they run the gamut from poor immigrants who are given a pickup, some barrels, and a bucket by a middleman, to organized rings with their own tanker trucks.

And now, there's also well-meaning people taking grease to make biodiesel at home. Christopher Griffin of Griffin Industries notes that media love to highlight the local environmentalist who makes bio-fuel. One such report showed a professor getting grease from a Griffin-marked bin.

"You've got people who never considered being a thief out there taking grease thinking it's OK. So now it's really spiking," says Mr. Findley.

Stopping hard-core grease grabbers is tricky, because they usually strike at night. Findley and his colleague, a retired Texas Ranger, use police surveillance techniques. They've even persuaded a thief to wear a hidden mic to nail his buyer.

The detective duo has put two thieves into the penitentiary. More common are fines of $500 to $1000 and a few days in jail. A third conviction can draw sentences of nine months to a year.

Word spreads quickly as far as 500 miles away after any crackdown. But rather than stop, the thieves often just take from different companies or go to different states.

"Once they get into it, it's really hard to turn them," says Findley, who notes he sometimes deals with third-generation grease thieves. "It's almost embarrassing as someone in law enforcement to say that the best you can almost hope for is to move them."

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