Black Market For Used Grease Converted Into Biodiesel Fuel Increases

Few of us give a second thought to grease or oil waste, but much of it is recycled from restaurants to refiners to produce into biodiesel fuel. However, there's a black market that steals this oil, and the practice continues to grow.


May 23 2019, Updated 12:00 p.m. ET

When most of us deal with grease on our food, we tend to simply find it disgusting. It will leak all over fast food bags, and it requires a lot of soap and water to clean off our hands. Used vegetable oil from cooking can be a mess when it comes to the cleanup process, as well. However, some people make a living from this grease. In fact, there’s an entire black market for it as biofuel continues to rise in value.

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There are massive amounts of grease waste being generated by restaurants, especially in the fast food industry. Most of this gunk is handled by specific companies that deal with the waste. Once there’s enough, it's placed in a locked dumpster, and they’ll collect it and give it to an oil company that converts the used grease into biodiesel fuel. It should be a simple process, but gangs have taken advantage of the process and have created an illegal, lucrative business out of it.

A Bloomberg report from Mario Parker and Leslie Patton highlights the thievery of selling old grease from restaurants across the country. They’ll be found disguised as a collection company and will siphon the oil from the dumpsters. Some will do it late at night with hopes of sneaking in and leaving before getting caught. It’s led to an increase in changing locks and getting more advanced technology to thwart off stealers, but it’s only expected to rise in the future.

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While vegetable oil can be used as straight diesel fuel, this can eventually lead to engine damage. That’s why it’s converted to biodiesel, and 30 percent of all used grease is transferred in this way. For over 10 years, the public has been using biofuels more due to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Oil companies must use a certain amount of biodiesel and that requirement continues to grow each year. At the moment, it stands at two billion gallons.

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Used oil collectors are fighting back from the theft. Ace Grease Theft, which has been in operation for over 20 years and serves 10 states in the middle of the country, has dedicated a page to the problem on their official website. They report that over $40 million of potential revenue is stolen each year, and that it costs roughly $3 million to repair containers that have been broken into.

They also give some tips to catch thieves. While some will operate in disguise of a different company, others work in unmarked vehicles and say they’re contracted. For anybody that says they’re “contracted” by Ace, they’re urged to call the company to confirm. Most trucks will only have one worker per vehicle, while most stealers will operate in pairs or more.

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Unfortunately, police haven’t been dedicated to the issue just yet. The Bloomberg report also shows that investigations often don’t end up going anywhere.

"In the summer of 2015, the Plymouth Minnesota Police Department started surveillance at some local restaurants and tracked some people who were using an old white box truck that had a “Fruit Co.” sign on the side as they collected grease illicitly all over the Minneapolis area," Plymouth Police Sergeant Heath Bird said. "No one was prosecuted. Authorities couldn’t justify the time and resources to pursue a case involving stolen trash," Bird said.

Restaurants, oil handlers, and fuel industries are hoping that the grease thievery is dealt with much more seriously in the future.


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