dirty business

Grease Bandits Now Make $75 Million a Year Stealing Restaurants’ Used Cooking Oil

Slick. Photo: Fox

It’s probably safe to say that pilfering restaurants’ kitchen grease is nobody’s idea of a good time, but Bloomberg has a gross story out today on how it’s suddenly hot as an illegal occupation. Hot as in, the criminal enterprise has become a big business, not that the oil is very warm (although, maybe that, too). The article explains that 30 percent of yellow grease now gets turned into biofuel, enough to make restaurants’ vats of “golden goo,” as Bloomberg christens it, the centerpiece of a thriving $75 million black market. It isn’t new as a get-rich-quick scheme (business entrepreneur Homer Simpson gave it a go way back in 1998), but about 113 million pounds now get processed into biofuel each month, thanks to refineries’ demand for cheap raw materials, and the price they fetch has jumped 230 percent since 2000. Thieves sort of see it like being in the middle of a much gooier, sludgier gold rush.

And now that it’s springtime, there’s no more siphoning oil from alleyway grease drums in freezing temperatures. So the grease-collection industry (that’s a real thing, with its own lobby group and glossy magazine, Render) is strapping itself in for even more heists. “It’s like crack money,” Sumit Majumdar, who runs a grease-collection business in New York state, tells Bloomberg. “There’s an actual market for stolen oil. It’s almost like a pawn shop or scrap-metal business.”

The story is full of other wild factoids — like that Knoxville, Tennessee, alone has had 45 thefts in the “previous few weeks”; that Majumdar hired private investigators to track his culprits, and is offering a $5,000 reward for their arrest; that people in the Midwest are currently on the lookout for two thieves who travel under the cover of night in an old Pepsi truck; and that police rarely investigate because they can’t justify spending energy and resources on tracking down “stolen trash.” Can’t Discovery Channel just get a reality-show film crew on this already?

Restaurant-Grease Theft Is Now a $75 Million-a-Year Industry