The high price of food and fuel has made a valuable commodity out of an unexpected resource: the price of used vegetable oil from restaurant fryers is so high that people are stealing it.
Just ask grease truck driver Benjamin Dorsey. He picks up used fryer oil for Valley Proteins in Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
These days, when Dorsey drives behind a restaurant to empty one of the company's big metal containers for used grease, he’ll often find someone has beat him to it.
Of 15 scheduled stops on a recent morning, four had been hit by thieves.
"If you don't pick up any grease, the company doesn't make any money," Dorsey says. "Other people are taking from you."
Trash to treasure
“If it’s got value, people will steal it," says J.J. Smith, president of Valley Proteins. "And grease has value.”
For about 60 years, Valley Proteins has been turning discarded fats, oils and grese into raw materials for everything from cosmetics to plastics.
Most of it is used as a cheap way to add calories to animal feed. High prices for feed grains have pulled the price of grease up with them.
But these days, there's a new player in the grease business. With oil prices high, demand has been growing from companies that turn that used grease into biodiesel fuel.
Smith says the extra demand from biofuels is a key reason the price of grease has doubled in the past year, and nearly quadrupled since 2006.
“There’s a finite amount of fat available in the United States," he says. "So, when you only had animal feeders demanding the product, [the market] was much more in balance.”
More demand means higher prices - which means more incentive to steal. Smith suspects, but can't prove, that his competitors are the ones stealing.
“While they’re pumping at their legitimate container on this side of the property line, they might reach over and put the hose in my container, at the next restaurant over, while they’re sitting there," he says.
Dorsey, the grease truck driver, gets suspicious whenever he sees a small tanker truck with a hose. He says some thieves use septic trucks designed to empty portable toilets.
Crime, but little punishment
Valley Proteins says they're losing about 10 percent of their grease supply to theft. But even when thieves are caught in the act, the punishment is usually light, because each individual container is not worth that much.
“By the end of the day, they may have gotten you for grand larceny," he says, "but at the one location you’ve got an eyewitness, it's petty theft.”
Plus, he says, most people - judges included - find it hard to take seriously that someone is stealing what many consider trash. But in these days of high food and fuel prices, one person’s trash is another person’s liquid gold.