It’s after midnight in a gritty urban alleyway, empty except for clusters of 10-foot by 4-foot green dumpsters and a smaller, locked 250-gallon metal green container.
A pickup with headlights off comes to a quiet stop. Men approach the green container, break the lock, toss a hose inside and swiftly pump the contents into a large tank on the pickup’s bed.
Within moments, the truck whisks away. Another four containers are emptied within the next hour.
For just 60 minutes of effort, the thieves are $2,400 richer. Another three hours and 750 gallons later, they’ll have cleared nearly $10,000. Not bad for one night’s work.
The precious substance worthy of late night thievery?
The same foul, food-flecked kitchen grease restaurants pour into special dumpsters and hire haulers to dispose of.
Except now grease is so high-priced, the haulers pay the restaurants for the privilege of collecting it.
When inedible cooking grease is purified and the moisture removed, it becomes “yellow grease,” a commodity used in making biofuels as well as chicken and livestock feed.
The burgeoning biofuel market – and the high price of gasoline and regular diesel – has driven the price for a pound of yellow grease to 43 cents, making it nearly as valuable as liquid gold. Six years ago, the per-pound price hovered around 6 cents.
Today, the roughly 2.5 billion pounds of yellow grease manufactured each year has a market value of nearly $1.1 billion.
A gallon of used grease is roughly eight pounds. So that makes purloining the contents of a half-dozen 250-gallon grease containers a lucrative enterprise.
While thieves don’t get the full 43 cents a pound, they can pocket somewhere between 20 cents to 30 cents, state enforcement agencies say.
That’s money that would otherwise be paid to the legitimate haulers who eat the cost of manpower, transportation and equipment when their grease is filched.
“Sometimes we almost get mocked by people saying, ‘You’re complaining about someone stealing a bit of grease?’ But that grease has a high monetary value and if it’s not there to pick up, you’re not making money,” said Tom Cook, President and CEO of the National Renderers Association in Alexandria Virginia.
A large chunk of California’s 44 registered renderers is collecting used kitchen grease.
The thieves certainly know the value of grease because stealing it is a nationwide phenomenon.
“Theft of Cooking Oil on Rise,” reads the headline in the June 26 edition of the Hudson Valley’s Middletown Times Herald-Record.
“Used Cooking Oil a Hit Commodity for Thieves,” reported KZTV10 in Corpus Christi on May 15.
“Thefts of Cooking Grease Way Up,” said the Omaha World-Herald on April 26.
Similar reports have appeared in the media in Albuquerque, Fort Meyers, Gainesville, Hannibal, Port Charlotte and Wichita within the last six months.
The same epidemic is occurring in California and that has the Golden State’s renderers riled up.
Mad enough they are sponsoring legislation to reimpose on themselves a lapsed $3,000 annual regulatory fee in an effort to help the state be more zealous in fettering out more green thieves.
At a spring conference sponsored by the National Renderers Association, Andrew Andreoli, a senior vice president of Vernon-based Baker Commodities, said his company “suffered a $2 million loss in stolen raw material and equipment damage due to thefts just in the Los Angeles area,” according to Render Magazine.
Vernon is also home to three other rendering operations including Farmer John-Clougherty Packing who fear their costs of doing business, particularly energy, will climb if Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Los Angeles Democrat, succeeds in unincorporating the city and making it part of Los Angeles County.
“Our industry is losing hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to these rogue people every month,” says Michael Koewler, president of Sacramento Rendering Company. Koehler’s company has 2,500 customers from whom he collects grease.
Doug Hepper, chief of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Division of Meat, Poultry and Egg Safety, told Capitol Weekly he received an email from a Northern California renderer who reported 2,700 thefts from May of 2010 through May 2011 of 5.1 million pounds of grease with a market value of $1.5 million.
“It’s rampant,” Hepper says of the thefts, adding that California has two full-time and two part-time inspectors on the trail of grease thieves. He readily admits that isn’t enough manpower to rein in the number of thefts.
“We catch people mainly through leads. We simply don’t have the personnel to sit in alleys at night,” Hepper said. “Some of the rendering companies have hired investigators who then give us information about their containers.”
There are more than 250 renderers nationwide, according to Cook.
Of California’s 44 renderers, 26 make their living exclusively from collecting and processing inedible kitchen grease.
The remaining 18 handle cooking grease too but they also do what renderers have been doing since the Middle Ages when the fat trimmings from butchers were used in candles and soaps.
Renders call themselves the “invisible industry” and, more recently, the “first green industry.”
With some justification.
Humans don’t eat about half of a cow, 45 percent of a hog and 40 percent of a chicken. Renders cook those “spare” parts at a high temperature, remove any moisture and separate the remaining fat. The protein can be used for pet food and the fats for lubricants, paints, textiles, soaps, cosmetics and toothpaste.
Nationwide, each year renderers recycle some 54 billion pounds of leftover animal parts and grease that would otherwise be land filled, composted or find its way into the water supply.
And for every metric ton of CO2 produced by rendering plants, more than 7 metric tons are removed from the environment.
“Without rendering we’d be in serious trouble,” says Cook, noting that 54 billion pounds of waste would fill the Dallas Cowboys stadium 10,000 times. “That’s a lot of grease and inedible animal byproducts.”
Unlike in some states, it’s a crime to steal grease in California. First offense is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $10,000 fine or up to one year in county jail or both. If previously convicted, subsequent violations can be punished with state prison time of up to one year.
“The difficulty we’ve had is getting district attorneys to prosecute,” said Hepper. “They’re stretched so thin and have to set priorities. The theft of inedible kitchen grease does not appear to be a high priority crime.”
Hepper said the state is considering legislation to increase the $1,000 administrative fine it can levy to create a greater deterrent.
And, Hepper says, even with each of the state’s renderers sending the department $3,000 in fees each year, it won’t hire another investigator.
However, he says the department is weighing adding an administrator specializing in grease thefts and other rendering issues.
The renderers’ bill is SB 513 by Sen. Anthony Cannella, a Ceres Republican.
“California’s rendering industry – although not often talked about – does play an importa
nt role in supporting our state’s agribusinesses and in protecting public health,” said Canella, noting that his bill also creates a seven-member rendering advisory board within the food and agriculture department.
An advisory board is another way the industry hopes to raise its “invisible” profile. Says Koewler: “The point is to get these thieves off the street and create an environment in which everyone competes legitimately on a level playing field.”