Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
As its value has risen, a growing class of criminals are focusing on stealing and selling used cooking oil.
The Bloomberg years have been kind to property markets and tough on fast food.
What a peculiar coda for this gilded age, then, was the news last week that a Manhattan real estate broker had been arrested for using a fake waste-hauling license to buy used frying oil from a Brooklyn Checkers. Somewhere, Tom Wolfe is taking notes.
When flipping pads wasn't going so well, DNAInfo reported, Seon Intrator flipped yellow grease — several thousand gallons of it each month since March. Grease-dealing out of a small truck may have earned Intrator as much as $10,000 a month.
She is one of many Americans—likely several thousand—who have been stealing and selling used cooking oil at a healthy profit. New York City, with 17,000 grease-producing establishments and only 29 licensed haulers, is a particularly attractive target, though there have been incidents reported in California, Connecticut, and New Jersey.
"In the past, this was considered waste," says Joe Casey, the general manager of Clean Green Horizons, a Delaware grease-hauling company. "Now it's a commodity."
Indeed yellow grease, which can be used to make animal feeds, detergents, and biodiesel fuel, fetches between 30 and 40 cents per pound. Interest in biodiesel, in particular, has transformed grease into a valuable waste product. Restaurants that once paid to have the stuff removed now receive competing bids from hauling companies and renderers, which turn yellow grease into biofuels.
Hence the theft, which has become a multi-million dollar problem over the last decade, according to the National Renderers Association. Greensworks Holdings, a group of companies that collect yellow grease from 13,000 restaurants around the Northeast, told the Philadelphia Inquirer last summer they lose cooking oil from about 1,000 of those establishments each month.
"They come in the dark of night, when nobody's looking," says Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association. "They just stick their vacuum into the grease container, and when our member comes to collect, they're looking into an empty container."
Because yellow grease smells, takes up space, and cannot be disposed of like trash, restaurants typically keep it outside, where it makes an awfully easy take. The whole business shares many similarities with the illicit cardboard-hustle that John Metcalfe exposed last summer.
And as with cardboard theft, grease collectors say, police do not always take the crime seriously. "They think it's funny that people are having their grease stolen," one San Francisco-based hauler told the Wall Street Journal.
On one memorable occasion in Philadelphia, Casey recalls, a crafty watchdog reported a "suspicious van" (rather than a grease theft) to the dispatcher, in order to ensure a firm response. Blocks of the city were cordoned off as police swarmed the area.
But that response was the exception rather than the rule. "Police have more things to do than going after someone stealing a little bit of grease—robberies, crimes, drugs, everything else," Cook says.
As a result, the industry has adapted. Companies hire watchdogs, rig cameras and alarms, and use software to analyze patterns of grease loss and determine where thieves might strike next. Greenworks is spending millions to lock down its collection bins outside restaurants. The company Wastequip recently designed a theft-proof grease vault in response to customer demand.
But while city police have been slow to clamp down on grease theft, clearing the way for an arsenal of private security tactics, lawmakers are beginning to respond. A yellow grease bill that would require licenses for all grease-haulers was proposed for the first time in the New York State Senate this May. The legislation also emphasizes that stealing over $1,000 worth of grease (like other goods) is a felony. For big grease-haulers, it's a welcome recognition of a trend that's plagued them for years.
But not everyone is a fan of such new regulations. In North Carolina, which had a similar "grease police" bill go into effect this year, some say the legislation will do little to deter thieves.
Rather, onerous licensing and insurance requirements will drive the honest, small-time grease-haulers—hobbyists, hippies, or folks looking to make a little extra money—out of business in favor of large rendering companies.