Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
Used cooking oil is collected from restaurants and turned into biodiesel for cars, trucks and buses.
With demand for biodiesel on the rise, the market value of the grease that's used to make it has shot up in recent years. "Grease bandits" are stealing used fry grease from restaurants, as well as from businesses that collect and purify it, says Ben Arnoldy of the The Christian Science Monitor.
This grease, known as "yellow grease" — which is basically the gunk left over after restaurants cook food in vegetable-based oil or animal fat in large-capacity fryers — can be turned into biodiesel. Increased demand for biodiesel has caused the price of yellow grease to triple in the past few years, to 32 cents a pound.
Arnoldy says it's pretty gross stuff.
Before visiting one grease-rendering plant, Arnoldy was warned not to wear good shoes or clothes — or they'd end up forever reeking of the grease's particularly pungent smell. "It smells like a combination between a fast food restaurant and a butcher shop, where maybe the meat's gone bad."
But as bad as the grease smells, people have found it worth stealing. Arnoldy says the rendering facilities, which are located in 20 states, have started locking up their steel storage bins. But thieves bend the tops and insert small "stingers," or nozzles connected to hoses that slurp up the fat. A haul of 5,000 gallons can be worth as much as several thousand dollars.
Some businesses that have been hit have hired full-time detectives to follow suspected criminals.
"One of the detectives said ... he's dealt with third-generation grease thieves," Arnoldy says. "Lately, sometimes it's newcomers who've been attracted. ... The price has tripled — there's money to be made."