Calif. grease theft crackdown pilot program underway

By Bryan Sims | December 05, 2011

Used cooking oils (UCO) might be viewed as waste to some, but for a desperate few who want it as a free biodiesel feedstock, it can be a prime target of theft. While grease theft isn’t new, reports of a recent uptick in activity is cause for concern to biodiesel producers who rely on UCO or yellow grease, an upgraded, commoditized version of UCO that can be used as animal feed or biodiesel feedstock.

“It’s the new copper,” says Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association, adding that he has encouraged his renderer members to not buy restaurant grease from anybody unless it comes from a reliable source. “In some places it’s more sophisticated than others and somebody might take a little bit for their own use,” he said, adding that he’s even heard of people going so far as advertising on Craig’s List posing as waste grease recovery companies.

Yellow grease has recently been selling for 40 cents a pound, roughly five times what it was selling at nearly 10 years ago Cook said. “It’s the highest it’s been in a while,” he added.

While there’s not an accurate count as to how much money is being lost due to grease theft, Cook estimates that about 6 million pounds of the raw material is hijacked across North America every year resulting in as much as $1 million in lost revenues for NRA’s members.

California is striking back as a means for cracking down on the level of grease theft activity. The California Department of Food and Agriculture, which is responsible for regulating waste grease transport, has contracted with law enforcement agencies to combat theft in areas where restaurants leave their used grease out to be picked up by rendering companies. CDFA spokesman Steve Lyle told Biodiesel Magazine the CDFA crackdown effort with local authorities is considered a “pilot project” that was first launched in Southern California. If successful, the ongoing effort could proliferate into other areas where high levels of theft activity are known to occur.

“We’re evaluating how it’s going there and determining whether we want to engage with additional law enforcement agencies in additional communities where this seems to be a larger issue,” Lyle said. This is the first time the CDFA has been involved in a program like this, he said.

“Hopefully, we’ll come to the conclusion that it’s worth the investment and worth the time and we’ll continue to move forward to try to battle what has been really a ramped problem,” Lyle said. “It’s a high-value item and the people who are motivated to steal it are currently putting some forethought into how to go about it.”

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