Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Dairies Hire Dicks To Find Missing Milk Crates!

I didn't write that title. It came from the Associated Press news release. And now, I'm feeling guilty for this crime I committed in my "glory days!" For decades, college kids, including myself, have used stolen milk crates as the basic building blocks of coffee tables and dorm room shelves. Now, a new breed of crate rustler is cashing in by swiping thousands of the containers from loading docks and selling them to shady recyclers. The containers are chopped into bits and shipped to booming factories in China to be made into a variety of products, from pipes to flower pots.

Facing an estimated $80 million in annual losses from the thefts, dairies across the country are moving to stop the plastic pilfering. In California, companies are even hiring private detectives and staging sting operations. "We saw them disappearing into this black hole," said Rachel Kaldor, executive director of the Dairy Institute, a trade group in Sacramento. "We just don't know who's stealing these crates off the loading docks." In the past two years, the high-density polyethylene has joined a growing list of materials that are being stolen and sold via a thriving underground recycling network.

Among other things, thieves target copper, aluminum bleachers, beer kegs, even cemetery vases and nameplates. It took a while for dairies to determine what was happening to their crates. "If it were just college kids taking them, the dormitories would be overflowing with milk cases," said Stephen Schaffer, general manager of Alta Dena Dairy near Los Angeles. The crates are made of petroleum-based plastic that has increased in value along with gasoline prices. The material now sells for 22 cents a pound, compared to 7 cents a pound in 2005, said Patty Moore, a recycling consultant in Sonoma, Calif.

Consumers can spend as much as $10 for an "authentic" dairy crate at retailers such as the Container Store. Dairies pay about $4 when they buy in bulk. Last year, the industry lost about 20 million crates to thieves, said Clay Detlefsen, vice president and counsel of the International Dairy Foods Association. California, because we have nothing better to do, has taken the lead in the fight against plastic poachers.

Alta Dena Dairy, located east of Los Angeles, hired Edmund Woods, a former police officer, to find its stolen containers. A tip led Woods to Santee Alley in the downtown Los Angeles Garment District, where he recovered more than 300 containers from merchants using them for storage. "We don't take a large SWAT team in, just one or two officers for a uniformed presence," Woods said. "We're very polite and we go in real soft." Wood hopes the busts encourage college students and homeowners to voluntarily return any stolen milk crates they might be using. Alta Dena's has even set up a "milk crate abuse" hotline at (800) 457-6688 for people to surrender the containers, no questions asked. "People look at milk crates like they're nothing," Woods said. "It says right there on the crate that this is private property... It's clearly marked so there's no mistaking it."

But who says college kids know how to read? Party, yes! Read? That remains to be seen!