In the dark of night, thieves sneak into the alley behind a restaurant in one of Canada's biggest cities. They back up a pickup truck and in a few minutes have made off with a tank full of a hot commodity – used cooking oil.
The theft of used oil and grease has become a big problem in Canada, mirroring a trend south of the border.
The price of "yellow grease" – what kitchen oil is called after it has been cleaned and refined – has tripled in the past few years, partly because of growth in the biofuels industry. Yellow grease is now a key feedstock in the production of biodiesel, which federal rules say must make up 2 per cent of all diesel sold in Canada from now on.
That increase in value means that kitchen grease, once a burden that restaurants paid to have trucked away, is now worth a considerable amount, both to companies that buy it and to thieves who take advantage of easy access to storage containers behind many dining establishments.
The biggest legitimate grease collectors are rendering companies – firms that take animal byproducts and process them into animal feed, soap products, and increasingly, biofuel. Renderers contract to buy and pick up grease, and when it gets stolen by rustlers, they and the restaurants both lose out.
"The theft of used cooking oil is definitely an increasing problem in Canada, [particularly]in major metropolitan centres," said Todd Moser, vice-president of Rothsay Canada, a Guelph, Ont.,-based rendering company owned by Maple Leaf Foods Inc. Rothsay began making biodiesel about five years ago.
In the 1990s, Mr. Moser said, refined yellow grease was priced below $300 a tonne, but now it is around $900.
While no one can pin down exactly how much money is being lost in Canada through grease theft, the National Renderers Association in the U.S. estimates that about six million pounds of the raw material is hijacked across North America every year.
Rothsay drivers are finding that when they get to a customer at a set pickup time, the outdoor grease bin may be empty or close to it, Mr. Moser said. When grease was considered garbage no one bothered to lock the bins or barrels, Mr. Moser said, but now, heavier bins and strong locks are being installed to try to thwart the thieves driving around with containers and vacuum pumps.
The most helpful technology, he said, involves bulk systems where used grease is stored in large vessels inside a restaurant, then is withdrawn through a locked outside coupling. That approach also has environmental and health benefits, Mr. Moser said, because grease does not have to be carried outside by staff and dumped into a freestanding bin – a recipe for spills and falls.
The newer storage technology is used widely by big restaurant chains. Both Macdonald's Canada and Burger King Canada said they use secured, locked grease storage so theft is not an issue.
Barry Glotman, chief executive officer of Vancouver rendering firm West Coast Reduction Ltd., said small-time grease thieves are similar to the crooks who steal and resell pipes or wire when copper prices are high. Grease thieves usually resell the product to refiners, although some may be "bathtub biodiesel guys who want to produce their own fuel because they've got an old Volkswagen van or something," he said. They may have adapted their vehicles to run directly on filtered grease, without processing it into biodiesel.
Canada has one barrier to theft that the U.S. does not have, Mr. Glotman said. In winter, grease solidifies in the cold, making it harder to siphon. Legitimate collectors have the equipment to immerse containers in a hot bath on their trucks, to melt it before carrying it away.
In the U.S., where grease tends to stay liquid, the theft problem is so serious that California's Department of Food and Agriculture has teamed up with police to target thieves. California requires a licence to transport inedible kitchen grease, making it easier to charge rustlers if they are caught in the act.
In Canada, police are aware of the issue but have not adopted any special tactics.
Toronto police have had reports of grease theft, and they try to keep an eye out for it on regular patrols, said spokeswoman Wendy Drummond, but they have no idea how widespread the problem is. "It's classified as a theft, and as you can image, we get a lot of theft reports," she said.
Rothsay's Mr. Moser said it is important that law enforcement begins to take this issue seriously, not just because of the financial losses, but because of the potential environmental consequences. "What really worries us is that you get people out there engaged in this behaviour who aren't playing by the same rules. If they tip over a bin, or their hose drops out and you get a grease spill, that grease could find its way into a sewer."
There is also a chance that it may not be processed properly, allowing impurities into biodiesel or animal feed, Mr. Moser said. "This has environmental impacts for the broader society."