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Used restaurant fryer grease, an easy, profitable target for thieves

by WayneTimes.com
January 2, 2023

Americans produce more than 2.5 billion gallons of used cooking oil each year. That amount of utilized oil calls for unique and efficient disposal methods. In commercial kitchens, the need for fryer oil recycling is even greater. Just as with cooking at home, pouring the grease down the drain in a commercial kitchen can create plumbing challenges, sewer blockages and groundwater contamination...plus it is very illegal.

According to the Eater, a newsletter for the restaurant industry, thanks to a 2007 energy law, oil companies were required by 2017, to use 2 billion gallons of biodiesel a year, 100 million gallons more than the previous year, and with fuel prices on the rise, demand is increasing.

Very often the used cooking oil is stolen for the black market, where unscrupulous truckers cut out the collectors and processors and refine the oils into biofuel in a labor intensive process. It can also be used as heating oil in homes and small businesses.

In 2021, about 17.5 billion gallons of biofuels were produced in the United States and about 16.8 billion gallons were consumed. 

The United States was a net exporter of about 0.8 billion gallons of biofuels in 2021, with fuel ethanol accounting for the largest share of gross and net exports of biofuels.

Biodiesel, for the trucking industry, is made from soybean oil, but old fryer grease is the second largest (and fastest-growing) source, becoming an untapped treasure chest for thieves.

Production and consumption of biofuels in the United States have generally increased each year since the early 1980s. The increases are largely due to various government policies and programs intended to reduce the use of transportation fuels made from fossil fuels, by promoting and/or requiring the use of biofuels. 

One local source indicated that used cooking oil has fetched up to $7 per gallon from processors, depending on the market. The used, refined oil is then combined with virgin diesel fuels.

Most restaurants in Wayne County have at least one deep fryer which they fill with gallons of clear vegetable oil, shortening, or lard every day. When it’s time to change the oil, local regulations mandate that restaurants use an approved collector to dispose of it, as it can be a fire or environmental hazard.

The National Renderers Association estimates more than $75 million worth of grease is stolen every year, according to a 2019 calculation. Thieves often operate under the natural camouflage of darkness – breaking into outdoor grease containers, sometimes as easily as pulling a truck or van beside it and vacuuming the grease out into their own tank truck, then they sell it on a newly reinvigorated black market.

In Wayne County, there are no fewer than five cases of used tanks of frying oil thefts currently under investigation. The thieves, under the cover of night, cut the locks on the drums, or tanks and siphon off the cooking grease. Numerous cases in Monroe and Ontario County are also being investigated, as well as Syracuse restaurants.

At first, Wayne County Sheriff, Rob Milby scoffed at the thought of used cooking oil thefts, but when he dove deep, he discovered his agency is currently investigating thefts from Fat Frankies in Sodus,  Orbaker’s  and Peppinos Italian Eatery, both located on Route 104 in Williamson. There have been similar reports from New China Wok Chinese restaurant and Mac’s Pizza in Macedon.

Steve MacNeal from Mac’s Pizza Shack said they do not monitor their used oils tank and receive a couple hundred bucks a year in what is retrieved. He doubts his tanks were part of the thefts.

From the restaurant’s point of view, the fryer oil thefts are not a primary concern. Depending on the overall market for the by-product, restaurants in the past, have either had to pay the grease collectors to haul the substance away, or receive a minimal amount of cash.

Ted Hristodoulou, from the Log Cabin Restaurant on Route 31F in Macedon has a tank located out of sight near his dumpster. 

He stated he buys about five gallons of cooking oil each week. By the end of the month, after use, the remaining oil boils down, or is absorbed in the cooking process resulting in to about 12 gallons of used product that is then deposited into the restaurant’s tank. When the tank has accumulated enough of the by-product, the processor, or collection company, unlocks the tank and removes the cooking grease.

“Years ago we had to pay to have it taken away, then there were times we would receive a minimal amount for it. We’re just happy to get rid out it,” said  Hristodoulou. “If there is enough money in it, somebody will take it”,  he added. 

The local restaurants are often not reporting the thefts, the collection companies are.

Larger, perhaps national restaurant chains that use cooking oil on a more frequent base, have large, mostly underground tanks, that have to be handled by contracted companies specializing in refining used cooking oil creating biofuel.

One Albany pizza shop owner recently reported that a grease theft was caught on his surveillance cameras, leading to an arrest. It was the second time in the last seven days that thieves tried to steal his used cooking oil. But he says this has happened at least a dozen times this past year.

In 2019, a band of 21 conspirators stole $3.9 million worth of used of cooking oil, known as “yellow grease,” from restaurants in three states and transported it across the country, according to a federal indictment unsealed in North Carolina on Thursday.

In a FOX News channel story by Louis Casiano: “Used cooking oil has become a sought-after commodity by biodiesel companies, and restaurants use the sale of this oil as another source of revenue,” said John Eisert, Acting Special Agent in Charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Charlotte, N.C., said in a new release. 

“This team of co-conspirators had an elaborate scheme to steal thousands of gallons of cooking oil for their own profit in violation of several U.S. laws.”

The thieves targeted multiple eateries in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia over five years. They pumped the oil from restaurant storage tanks into trucks and sold it.

Jim Tydings runs a local collector company out of Macedon. He stated that the used cooking oil is a market commodity and prices for resale for the biodiesel industry fluctuate. 

He too is familiar with the used cooking oil thefts that are under investigation. 

He added that currently the thefts seem to be tampering down locally, but in other parts of the state it is robust, especially around the big cities.

From an environmental standpoint, Wayne County Water and Sewer Director, Marty Aman suggested that dumping used cooking oils down the drain could be a problem, even for homeowners.

Once the oils hit colder temperatures they solidify and could congeal in drains and garbage disposals.

Too often the oils are often skimmed off at waste water facilities. He added that other items often poured down the drain include:  kitty litter, sand, grit and paints which are also tough on the waste water plant’s operation.

Marty suggests that homeowners pour used grease into a container and wait until it solidifies, then throw it into the trash.

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