Waste Veggie Oil Thieves Prove Slippery

By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff

In the past few years, as the market value of metals has spiked, so has the theft of these materials. Given the current high prices paid for copper, steel, aluminum and other metals, people have taken to stealing pipes, flashing, gutters and wiring from construction sites, abandoned homes and, at least in one case, a church.

But metals aren’t the only commodities that have enjoyed a spike in market prices recently. The market value of waste cooking oil, which is used in large quantities in most restaurants — think deep-fryers — has almost quadrupled in value during the past five years.

In fact, the waste-oil market is big enough right now that, what once was waste that restaurant owners would have to pay to have removed, is now collected for free by such companies as Newport Biodiesel.

This increased market value on waste grease has pitted waste-oil recyclers against not only their legitimate competition, but also against theft of their raw product from restaurants and institutions that contract for waste-oil removal.

“We don’t think this issue comes from our legitimate competitors,” said Myles Standish, co-owner of Newport Biodiesel. “Most of the theft we’ve seen probably comes from individuals that are either refining biodiesel at home for their cars or heating oil, and people who are stealing it to sell on the open market.”

The waste-oil open market has become very lucrative in the past few years. With used oil selling for about $2 a gallon — a little more than 30 cents a pound — in its unprocessed form, more and more people are seeing the collection of waste oil as a viable business model. This poses a problem to legitimate collectors of waste oil and refiners of biodiesel, because, unlike petroleum-based fuels, waste vegetable oil (WVO) and biodiesel are not considered hazardous materials by the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and therefore there are no hauling or handling requirements. For the most part, if you can afford a tank, a pump and a truck to put them on, you are in the WVO collection business.

In order to sell the waste oil on the open market, one must find a buyer, and if you’ve stolen that oil, preferably a buyer who won’t ask too many questions regarding the source.

“Everyone in this business experiences theft,” Standish said, “but it has recently become a serious problem for us. Some months we lose up to 1,000 gallons to theft.”

When that 1,000 gallons can sell for $2,000, people begin to see dollar signs. “It’s easy to justify a trip well out of state to sell waste oil when the return on the investment is so high," Standish said.

The problem has become so prevalent for the folks at Newport Biodiesel that they’ve installed locks on many of the covered 55-gallon drums that store the dirty fryer grease prior to pickup, and they are installing cameras at some of the more frequently pilfered-from locations.

Standish was hesitant to name any particular location that has experienced this theft because, “we’re still actively trying to catch these people. We don’t want to tip them off.”

Los Angeles-based Baker Commodities, the largest — with 13,000 collection accounts — collector and refiner of waste vegetable oil in southern New England, has experienced theft of the fry oil in proportion to their size. Their local refinery is in Billerica, Mass.

“It’s difficult for us to quantify how much oil is being stolen, due to the size of our operation, but we certainly have experienced theft," Joe Huelsman, vice president of Baker Commodities, said. "We’ve had a couple of these guys caught by local police, but district attorneys have declined to prosecute them.”

That left the thieves with a slap on the wrist in the form of a $500 fine, which is easily recouped with another illicit oil run.

Huelsman believes that many of the thieves come out of the New York/New Jersey area, and said that, “Our L.A. office has been working with the California Legislature to try to stiffen the fines and jail time for WVO theft.”

Huelsman also noted that the thieves have gotten a bit more savvy about when and how much oil they take. “Most of these guys work on the weekend, when other collection companies aren’t on the road,” he said.

Some have even started using scouts to scope out potential targets. “We’ve caught a pair on camera. One will come in and check out the situation and the amount of oil in the drum or bin, he makes a call, and sure enough, five minutes later, here comes the pump truck.”

While Newport Biodiesel has gone the lock-and-camera route to ensure security, Baker Commodities has begun to “over-service” their accounts, which means more pickups, and a greater financial cost to the company. And while Baker buys WVO from outside sources, Huelsman said each of the companies is vetted to make sure everything is legit.

Given the regulatory ease on WVO haulers from most states, and the ease with which one can obtain oil collection equipment — at a relatively low cost — from sites such as Craigslist, Standish doesn’t see this problem getting any better in the near future. Search your local Craigslist for biodiesel, WVO, waste oil or fryolator oil, and you’ll find several ads for what one can only assume are private citizens willing to collect and transport, buy or sell waste vegetable oil; you’ll also find people selling storage tanks, vacuum pumps and biodiesel refining equipment.

One of the major problems faced in catching these slippery thieves is that the pumping process happens very quickly. The pumps that Newport Biodiesel uses on its trucks can empty a 55-gallon drum in less than a minute. It is difficult to catch these thieves in the act, and without photographic evidence or eyewitness accounts, nearly impossible to prosecute them without doing so.

WVO haulers have contracts with restaurants and other producers of waste oil to collect the stuff, and usually the hauler assumes responsibility and ownership of the oil as soon as it’s placed in the company’s pre-approved receptacle, whether it is a drum or the larger oil “Dumpsters” that sit behind some restaurants.

Legitimate grease haulers will have their company’s name emblazoned on their trucks, so if you see any suspicious, unmarked tank trucks collecting waste oil in your neighborhood, call the local police.