John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Step aside, copper thieves. There's a new weirdly brazen criminal in town.
There used to be a day when if you spotted a man staggering down the street covered in grease, you could safely assume he was just a harmless sybarite into some freaky stuff.
But times they are a'changing. Nowadays, if an oil-covered stranger slithers into your vicinity, you could be in the presence of a hardened criminal. That's thanks to the rocketing price of used cooking oil, and the underground thieving network it's inspired. (What, you thought that one Simpsons episode was fiction?)
The latest report of grease theft comes from Quincy, Massachusetts, just south of Boston. In a down and dirty story, WBZ News Radio reports that two men made a big score off of the stored grease behind Cathay Pacific Restaurant. (Google review: "i thought the food was excellent, and very reasonably priced for the quality and portion sizes.... and no, i didn't see any 'hookers or drug dealers' in the parking lot.") They loaded up nearly $500 in fetid lipids before pulling out; a baffled detective told the radio station that this was a "new type of crime to us. So I guess we’ll be watching out for unmarked cube vans filled with Crisco."
Grease criminals have staged similar heists recently at a Don Pablo's restaurant in Mount Laurel, New Jersey, siphoning about $100 of the yellow gold from a storage drum, and at a diner in Norwalk, Connecticut, where a thief cut a lock to access a grease-holding area at 1:30 a.m. and made away with about 40 gallons. And these two guys allegedly ripped off an Orange County grocery store to the tune of 500 gallons of grease using a waste-removal truck.
This is how a grease job might go down, courtesy of CCTV footage from a northern California restaurant:
So where is all this illicit oil ending up? Biofuel companies, it seems, via the hands of criminals. Once processed, the stuff that fries your food becomes a substitute for diesel fuel. And with the price of gasoline going through the roof, used grease has become a hot commodity. The pricetag for a pound of it went from 8 cents before 2000 to 18 cents today, or as much as 45 cents after processing. One report has it that a gallon of grease goes for $4 "on the street."
The prevalence of grease rustling is so wide that the National Renderers Association estimates that North American businesses lose up to six million pounds of old oil each year. That equates to $1 million in losses for businesses. The people doing the stealing, meanwhile, are protecting their enterprise with specialized attorneys who know the ins and outs of grease law.
If you know where to score some primo grease, hit me up on Twitter.
Photo credit: Dalibor Sevaljevic /Shutterstock