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Fryer Grease Hits the Black Market

We know that oil consumption is a hot topic today, especially in this volatile economic climate, but as of late, petroleum's green alternatives are making their own waves of controversy. For example, biodiesel has taken center stage this week with reports of increased grease theft from restaurant kitchens nationwide, subsequently creating an underground frying oil market.

With green energy becoming evermore prevalent and effective, the demand for biodiesel has inspired many to cash in. Here is how it happens: restaurants store used cooking grease in barrels to be picked up by a collection company, "green" thieves steal the grease and resell it to recyclers who then process it and sell the processed biodiesel to someone in the transportation industry. Yes, all this effort is over lard.

For years, restaurants had to pay companies to haul away old grease, which was used mostly in animal feed. Some gave it away to locals who used it to make biodiesel for their converted car engines. But with a demand for biofuel rising, fryer oil now trades on a booming commodities market, commanding around 40 cents per pound, about four times what it sold for 10 years ago. Many restaurants now have contracts with collection companies to sell their grease for about $300 per container. This boost in value is tempting for thieves, especially in hard times like we face today, so the rendering industry has been trying to lock down the growing market from freeloaders. But barrels of grease are still slipping through the cracks. So instead of restaurants paying collection companies, they are now paying lawyers to persecute grease thieves.

It did take some time, however, for this type of larceny to be taken seriously in court.  “The reception in municipal court is very uneven,” said Steven T. Singer, a lawyer in New Jersey. “You’re reliant upon the prosecutors, so you got to get them to understand the seriousness of this, as well as the judge.”

As companies have invested more time and money in lobbying efforts though, the justice system has started to reciprocate concern. Randall C. Stuewe, chairman and chief executive of Darling International, the largest publicly traded rendering company in the United States, said it had recorded 100 arrests just in 2011.

Now action is being taken at the state level as well. California and Virginia have enacted special statutes (and here) to regulate grease collection from commercial kitchens  through investigations and cooperation with local district attorneys. Perhaps the headway these states make with their pilot programs will encourage the rest of the nation to mop up this new black market.

Watch the video below to see a security camera recording of  grease theft in action:


Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Samantha Neary

Samantha is a graduate of Boston University with concentrations in English, Biology and Environmental Policy. After working in higher education textbook publishing for some time, she turned to the freelance writing world and now reports on corporate social responsibility, green technology and policy, and conservation for TriplePundit.

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