Taking Grease Theft One Step Further

By David Hull

Like it or not, theft always has been, and always will be, part of a grease recycler’s equation. Or will it?

Restaurant grease inherently has value and in recent years that value has increased to a level that only the foolish would not make some effort to protect it from theft. In today’s environment it is commonplace to look down an alley and see grease containers and tanks using multiple locks along with warning and reward signs offering money for information on theft. Nevertheless, there is a growing trend in the industry to go a step further. Today companies are doing more than simply locking up their product. They are on the offensive, going after the thieves themselves.

Midwest-based Mahoney Environmental is one of those companies increasing its efforts beyond the simple lock and key.

“We make an effort to lock all of our bins,” commented John Setchell, general manager, Mendota Ag Products, a division of Mahoney Environmental. “We use a finer mesh screen and have even installed steel lids in the high-theft areas. There has also been a push to install our inside tank systems when it makes sense; having just a pump fitting on the wall helps deter most thieves.”

However, an ever-increasing number of renderers feel more needs to be done than simply locking up the grease. They feel an effort needs to be made to get thieves off the streets, and that is just what some companies have been doing.

Like many other renderers, Mahoney Environmental recently made the decision to hire a private investigator. Dan Gilbert came on-board in December 2011 and has been working in the field ever since.

Gilbert has a unique perspective on the situation. He spent 26 years in law enforcement, with the last eight years employed concurrently in the rendering industry, working his way up from driver to national account sales manager. Being employed in both professions has given Gilbert the perfect set of tools to fight grease theft head-on.

“One of the biggest hurdles that recyclers face is the education of the public and local law enforcement,” Gilbert replied when asked his opinion of the primary problem with fighting theft. “Most don’t understand the value of the product and therefore don’t see the need of spending valuable resources. They are also unaware of the value that the rendering industry brings to the public as a whole.”

With this in mind, Gilbert put together a presentation showing the value of the product along with the issues that companies have keeping grease secure. Also included in the presentation is an overview of the environmental value the rendering industry brings to the public. With his knowledge of the inner workings of law enforcement, Gilbert started contacting local authorities in problem areas and was able to convince them that it was an issue worth the time and money to address.

In addition to educating law enforcement, getting the public and restaurant owners involved also has great potential.

“The customer is at the location all day, so along with explaining the theft situation to them, we have instituted a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of thieves and another $1,000 when that information leads to a conviction,” Setchell explained. “It gets more people paying attention to what’s going on behind their stores.”

Yet education alone doesn’t catch thieves. With literally hundreds of containers in any one city, it takes a group effort between law enforcement, the public, and investigators to make an arrest. Even then, catching a grease thief red-handed doesn’t net much more than a slap on the wrist.

Although Gilbert has been involved in over 25 arrests in a recent four-month period, with more pending nationwide, the consequences tend to be light for first offenses. In speaking to other renderers around the country, many could not comment directly on cases due to their involvement in the ongoing investigations, but the one thing most would say is that they felt the thieves were getting off too easy and then going right back to stealing again.

One of the reasons for the light sentences is that the value of product from a single container doesn’t normally equate to more than a misdemeanor charge. In order to get tougher consequences, something needs to be done about how and what thieves are charged with.

Historically, most grease thieves were single person operations stealing grease for personal use or for resale to disreputable companies. Nowadays, the high value of grease is making organized theft a bigger problem.

“We are running into more situations where the thieves are seven to eight hours from their home base, driving vehicles with stolen plates,” Gilbert commented. “They have someone scouting that is looking for full bins and a pump truck following via direction from a two-way radio. They normally aren’t at a stop more than five minutes tops. They simply go into an area and clean it out. There is no question about it, this is organized crime.” This organization nets the thieves more product and money but also leaves them open to more serious charges.

Brenda Taylor, assistant prosecutor of Washtenaw County in Ann Arbor, MI, has been working on a case that involves multiple renderers and multiple thefts.

“With the cooperation of the affected companies and their respective investigators, we were able to pinpoint the amount of grease stolen from each bin and the current value on the day it was stolen,” she stated. “With this combined information from multiple incidents, and proof that the stolen product was being held by the defendant, we were able to build a much more substantial case with more considerable charges.”

This larger scope netted the accused a sentence of one year in jail for receiving stolen property. The defendant, who is scheduled to be remanded on that sentence later this summer, was arrested for more than a single act of theft. It was the combined property stolen that made it possible for the charges to be brought by the Washtenaw County assistant prosecutor. It seems apparent that cooperation between all involved parties is required if any substantial consequences are to be seen. If companies want to get thieves off the streets, they will need to come together and look past the petty theft of each container and instead look closer at who is making it profitable for those thieves.

At the end of the day, there is no one way to stop grease theft. It takes a multi-level approach through upgraded equipment, education of both law enforcement and the public, along with a considerable amount of cooperation between all those affected to make a difference. With the continued demand for biofuel feedstock and what seems to be a solid future for grease prices, the temptation for theft is no doubt here to stay. However, with combined efforts between companies like Mahoney Environmental and others like them, perhaps theft will soon be on the decline. Only time will tell.

August 2012 RENDER | back