Biodiesel Boom Spurs Theft of Nasty, Used Fry-O-Lator Grease

Rotting, leftover fryer grease has turned into gold in the race to our energy future — and thieves have taken notice.

Yellow grease biodiesel[social_buttons]

It’s early in the pre-dawn dark hours of the morning. A group of Northern California pseudohippies just finished a game of Zonk — or rather, the game just stopped because somebody quoted a line from Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and everybody forgot what they were doing.

Yet, by a stroke of luck, the conversation about Harold and Kumar reminds the group of their real reason for staying up so late. They pack into a truck and head down to the local fast food joint looking to load up — but it’s not the food they’re loading up on, it’s the nasty, half-rotted, leftover fryer grease.

That’s right — the leftover, sun-warmed, Joey Chesnut-defeating grease from a McDonald’s fry-o-lator has become valuable enough to steal due to the skyrocketing demand for biodiesel and the out-of-sight costs of regular diesel.

Most restaurants store their smelly, used fryer grease in large tanks outside and out of view of the public eye — and for good reason. If the customers actually knew what their food was fried in, they might never eat there again.

But the necessity to store the grease outside and away from public view has left it in a rather vulnerable and unexpected position.

Rendering plants in Northern California and elsewhere are reporting loses of $15,000 per month due to the increasing amount of grease theft. These rendering plants normally make their money off of contracts with restaurants to collect the grease and recycle it into biodiesel and feed supplement for livestock.

For sure, some of the thieves are looking for a cheap way to make their own backyard biodiesel — a fairly straightforward process that can be accomplished for less than $1/gal. With the cost of regular diesel hovering around $5 per gallon, the enticement of the free grease has proved to be too much to avoid.

However, it’s hard to believe that there are enough do-it-yourselfers out there making backyard biodiesel to drive such a huge growth in grease theft.

Looking at the larger economy, the trading of leftover fryer grease —referred to as yellow grease — is booming on the commodities market.

Eight years ago yellow grease was trading for 7.6 cents per pound and now it trades closer to 36 cents a pound, or $2.73 a gallon. If a thief can load up a 2,500 gallon tanker truck, that’s $6,825 dollars — not bad for a few nights of work.

Authorities have had little luck in catching grease thieves and so have no idea if the thefts are conducted by organized groups or, as I suggest above, by random groups of stoned psuedohippies looking to save a buck.

In reality it’s probably both, but I’d say that the pseudohippies make up a very small percentage and the actual growth is being driven by organized groups. Whatever the case, it’s amazing how the value of something as lowly as used fryer grease can see its fortunes turn around so quickly.

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Image Credit: Photo from The Udall Legacy Bus Tour: Views from the Road‘s Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.