Plastic container thieves busted in U.S. sting

by Emily Atkins

A major operation stealing reusable plastic containers (RPCs) was busted in the U.S. late last year.

The stolen containers were being ground into resin pellets and sold for the material value.

The thieves operated a network of over 30 vehicles and dozens of individuals. They were in possession of stolen containers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars when they were busted.

The sting operation was driven by RPC provider IFCO Systems, and involved two national retailers, a private detective agency, and the Cook County, Illinois, sherriff’s office. Advanced tracking devices subtly affixed to IFCO containers enabled the group to pinpoint the time and place of thefts, and ultimately, the illegal regrind location, leading to arrests.

IFCO Systems pools, shares, and reuses their digitally enhanced crates with producers for the shipment of fruits, vegetables, eggs, and other fresh products to retailers. Once the containers are emptied, they are accumulated for return to IFCO. They are then sanitized at an IFCO service centre and reissued to other growers again and again.

RPCs provide important benefits compared to disposable containers. They protect and ventilate perishables to keep them fresh, and also make material handling easier and improve trailer cube utilization. They reduce CO2 emissions by up to 60 percent, cut solid waste by 86 percent, use 64 percent less water, and 80 percent less energy, compared to disposable packaging.

Rising values

Due to rising costs and raw material shortages, the theft of reusable packaging is an ongoing issue. RPCs and other plastic assets are stolen from exposed retail locations and taken to illegal grinding operations. After the containers are reduced and proprietary markings are eliminated, the reground resin from the stolen plastic products is sold to plastic manufacturers as legitimate regrind raw material.

As a result, the plastic packaging owners are forced to purchase new replacement containers to replenish inventory, increasing costs for the entire supply chain, including consumers. Container theft also reduces the sustainability benefits of reusables.

Reusable containers generate such substantial environmental savings because they can be used dozens of times, versus the impact of manufacturing a disposable container for each and every shipment. When reusable containers must be replaced early because of theft, however, the environmental benefits are diminished.

High tech RPCs

Over the last few years, IFCO has been embedding small, undetectable GPS trackers on its crates to help identify “leaky” channels. When reports show discrepancies between the volume of RPCs which should be at a particular retail location or area and what is being recovered, it is a strong indication that a reusable packaging theft ring could be operating.

Recently, a lot of assets were disappearing from a national retailer outlet in the Chicago area. Thanks to sensor information, IFCO was able to provide the retailer with approximate windows of time when the RPCs were vanishing.

The retailer cooperated by monitoring CCTV footage from security cameras and was able to recover video evidence of theft activity. Additionally, IFCO tracked GPS-tagged RPCs from the retailer as well as from a second retailer, both ending up at an unmarked commercial building with no signage. The address did not match with any retailer or shipper authorized to use IFCO RPCs.

A private investigator was retained to follow vehicles and record theft activities of unprotected RPCs and other reusable plastic containers from large supermarkets as well as mom-and-pop stores.

Based on this compelling evidence, IFCO reached out to the Cook County Sherriff’s office. Law enforcement officials discovered a 2,500 square foot illegal grinding operation. There were tons of regrind material at the location, as well as a massive number of RPCs, beverage bottle trays, plastic bread trays, milk crates, and other rigid plastic containers that are coveted by plastic thieves.

A warehouse full of IFCO’s and other reusable assets was recovered from the location, not including those already reduced to regrind. In total, IFCO estimates this particular theft operation was responsible for the loss of many tons of plastic material, and a large financial impact

Arrests were made by Cook County Sherriff Raymond Struck, and prosecution of the grinding operator for two felony counts is currently underway.