RACHEL MARTIN, host:
Hey everyone, listen up. Grease is the new copper. If you're a thief stealing someone's air conditioner for the copper wiring, that is so 2007. Sucking used fry grease out of the bin behind the Arby's, now that is where it's at these days. Yeah, I know, it's totally gross.
MIKE PESCA, host:
MARTIN: But useful. Raw grease can be rendered into yellow grease and then made into biodiesel. With the demand for biodiesel increasing, the market value of this yellow grease has tripled in the last couple years to 32 cents a pound. They may not sound like a whole lot, but it's about bulk, baby, bulk. In fact, there's been a legitimate grease-collection trade for decades now.
One of the largest companies involved is called Griffin Industries, and they say that, quote, "rendering contributes more than 1.5 billion dollars to the GNP annually." So it's been a big business for a long time. There have always been thieves, too. But lately, more people are getting into the grease game. We learned about all this from a report by Ben Arnoldy in the Christian Science Monitor. And when reporters do out homework for us, we call it ripped off...
(Soundbite of "Law and Order" theme)
MARTIN: From the headlines. Ben is on the line with us, now. Hey, Ben.
Mr. BEN ARNOLDY (Reporter, Christian Science Monitor): Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Hey, thanks for joining us. So we've characterized this stuff like french-fry grease. But give us a few more details. What is this stuff?
Mr. ARNOLDY: Well, it's grease that's collected from restaurants. So, whenever they're deep frying something like french fries, it's the leftover stuff in the Frialator, and that could be vegetable oil. It could be animal fats.
MARTIN: From any food that's just deep fried?
Mr. ARNOLDY: That's right.
MARTIN: And I understand you visited a rendering plant, where this stuff is made into the more valuable yellow grease. Explain that particular adventure. It sounded kind of gross.
Mr. ARNOLDY: Well, before I went, I was talking to a source and said, well, I'm planning to go down to a rendering plant. And they said, oh, do not wear good clothes. And wear old shoes you don't care about because this stuff can really smell, and if it gets on you, it's hard to get off.
MARTIN: What does it smell like?
Mr. ARNOLDY: Well, it smells kind of like a combination between a fast-food restaurant and butcher shop, where the meat maybe has gone bad. Yeah.
MARTIN: Yeah, that's not good. And so, when you went to this plant, did you see anything that kind of surprised you?
Mr. ARNOLDY: Well, it was a tallow company. So I don't know if you know what tallow is, but it's scraps of animal fats. So there was some animal parts that I could see, which was kind of gross. But I also - the other thing they do is collect the grease out of the restaurant bins. So the owner there showed me some of the bins that they have. And they are metal bins.
And the top cover for a lot of them was bent up, and that's because they put locks on the bins, and these thieves, instead of trying to break the lock, they would just bend up the metal of the container and then flip in what they call a "stinger," which is a nozzle on a hose. And there's just enough room so that they could sneak the nozzle in and slurp up the fat in the bin.
MARTIN: Wow. So they're actually taking it from the rendering facilities as well as from the restaurants. Now, the whole thing was pretty much news to us. I had no idea that it was illegal to take this grease. I mean, you would think that this is just waste, that restaurants would actually pay companies to take it away, right?
Mr. ARNOLDY: That surprised me, too. In fact, for many years, that's the way it worked, that they would have to pay people to come and get it. But because yellow grease is so valuable now, it's usually done for free or even, in some cases, the collectors will pay the restaurants for the grease.
MARTIN: Wow, so they're clearly making a profit. So, a legitimate collection business, like the one we mentioned, Griffin Industries, one of the larger ones, how does that work?
Mr. ARNOLDY: Well, they operate in some 20 states, and they've got drivers who will go around, you know, daily on rounds to pick up grease. And you know, how often they go to a particular restaurant depends on how much stuff they're frying. But they'll go around with a tanker truck, and they'll vacuum out the grease in each of the bins.
And the tanker truck could hold, say, 5,000 gallons of grease, and that's worth, you know, several thousand dollars. And companies like Griffin, this is a big business for them. And the theft is so bad that they've actually hired two full-time detectives. One is a former Texas Ranger and the other is a former policeman in San Antonio, and they do nothing but track grease thefts in different states where they operate full time.
PESCA: It doesn't seem that hard. Just hire a collie if it smells that bad.
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Mr. ARNOLDY: Right.
MARTIN: Who are the thieves? What's the profile of a typical grease thief?
PESCA: Oh, very daring, like Remington Steele, like a cat burglar. He woos the ladies by night and steals the grease by day.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARNOLDY: Right, so I asked that question, too. I was really curious, and one of the detectives said, well, they can run - he's dealt with third-generation grease thieves, so this can kind of run in the family.
Mr. ARNOLDY: Lately, sometimes it's newcomers who've been attracted. They want to get into this business because, you know, the price has tripled. There's money to be made. But the problem is there's no free grease left. Because they can always get enough contracts to make a go of it, they'll just go to the bins and steal it, take it.
MARTIN: But then, when they try to resell it, don't they get caught?
Mr. ARNOLDY: Well, there are these middlemen, who are independent grease collectors, who - small-time operators...
PESCA: Put that on my business card.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ARNOLDY: Right, a grease middleman. So these middlemen will collect it, and then that sort of obscures the origin of the grease. And then they'll sell it to a rendering company. But the rendering companies are kind of getting smart to this, and oftentimes they won't buy from an independent because they figure, well, this is stolen grease.
MARTIN: Well, it's, I have to say, a kind of a bizarre story, but Ben, we're glad you reported on it. We'll glad you shared it with us. Ben Arnoldy is a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. I will never again go to Arby's and not think twice about all that leftover grease that's left in the back. It's making fuel.
Mr. ARNOLDY: Right, my please.
MARTIN: Thanks, Ben.
Mr. ARNOLDY: Yep.
PESCA: You'll still use the Horsey Sauce liberally, but you'll think about it.
MARTIN: The horsey cause.
(Soundbite of laughter)
PESCA: I'm definitely writing the grease screenplay. You know, you can have lines - I mean, the lines just write themselves, right? He's a pretty slick operator. He just slipped through our fingers this time, but we'll get him next time. We're the grease gang.
MARTIN: Oh, my. So we're going to make a little bit of a turn here at the Bryant Park Project, going from grease thieves, we're going to talk about a more serious story. We're going to talk about aid and the problems that aid agencies are facing in trying to get much needed supplies into Myanmar after this weekend's devastating cyclone. We're going to get an update from one agency that operates in the region. That'll be coming up next here on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.