An employee, not a crook, seen here vacuuming out the used cooking oil from a 200-gallon bin behind Bizou on the Downtown Mall.
Greenlight Biofuels' John Spagnolo (seen here in a file photo) says that cooking oil theft is on the rise.
Back in the day, when John Spagnolo was in the restaurant business, he remembers having to pay to get rid of used cooking oil.
"Then they began taking it away for free," says Spagnolo, a sales manager with Greenlight Biofuels, a locally-based company founded in 2007 that collects and processes waste oil in Virginia and Maryland to produce biodiesel fuel. "Now we pay restaurants for their used cooking oil."
Indeed, with gas prices so high, the demand for biodiesel has been rising. According to the National Biodiesel Board, one billion gallons of the stuff is now being produced every year. As they say, it's a hot commodity. And as a result, crooks are stealing the stuff. At peak times, it sells on the street for as much a $4 a gallon.
"This is a big problem for us," says Spagnolo, who estimates that they lose between 20 and 40 percent of their oil to thieves.
But how do the cooking oil crooks do it?
"The same way we do," says Spagnolo. "Pros now use tank trucks with a vacuum system, and just pull up to the containers behind restaurants."
It's forced the company to create a Theft Prevention Department, which educates restaurant owners on identifying and reporting theft, securing their containers, and has even been going after the thieves themselves.
In Arlington, police conducted a sting operation for Greenlight that led to the arrest of two men. A trial is scheduled next month.
"It's new crime, so our lawyers aren't exactly sure how they're going to handle this," says Spagnolo. "It will be interesting to see how the court approaches this."
While Spagnolo says that most of the theft is happening in big urban areas, like Baltimore, he says its happening to some degree everywhere, even in Central Virginia.
Indeed, while the rising price of biodiesel has a been a boon for the company, it's also become an easy target for cooking oil crooks. Since Greenlight also sources used oil from other suppliers, and the industry is so new, its also been hard to determine if they might actually be purchasing used oil that was stolen from them.
"There's simply a big market for it now, " says Spagnolo.