Even in a bear market, slime pays

(First Published Financial Times of Canada, August 1989)
By Adam Corelli

IT WAS A quiet spring night in Toronto when Michael Fuller struck. Carrying a powerful pair of bolt-cutters under his jacket, Fuller drove slowly through the back streets and alleyways of the sleeping city, stopping frequently outside local restaurants. By the end of the night, he had a haul worth thousands of dollars. It took police from the 52-division major-crime unit just a few days to catch up with Fuller. And when they did, he still had some of the loot in the back of his truck — 16 drums of slippery yellow cooking-grease.

Meet Canada’s least glamorous criminal, the grease thief. In the course of preparing meals for their patrons, restaurants produce a prodigious amount of grease – mostly used cooking oil and sludge from the grill. Each night they dump the excess in specially designed back-alley bins. Because of theft, most bins now come with locks. But crooks, like Fuller with his bolt cutters, can usually find a way to break in. Russ Hopcroft, marketing manager of Ontario Rendering Co. (Orenco) Ltd. of Dundas, Ont., a small town near Hamilton, says that at any given moment, eight or 10 grease bandits lurk in the streets of Ontario. It may not have the cachet of jewelry or stereo equipment, but grease, known as yellow cake in the rendering business, can be sold to unsuspecting buyers for substantial gain. “Back a few years ago, grease had a street value of 10 to 15 cents a pound,” says Hopcroft. “Now we don’t pay more than two cents a pound, and still along come these midnight cowboys to steal it all.”

Distasteful as it may be, grease is a valuable commodity, traded on international futures exchanges along with soybeans and corn. Refined to produce tallow, it finds its way into a score of everyday products — medicines, toothpaste, cosmetics, cleansing creams, shampoo, foam rubber, glues, inks, cements, antifreeze, solvents, even gunpowder. “It’s distilled and purified so many times that if you hold it up to the light it looks just like ordinary water,” says Hopcroft. “You’ve got to be careful not to turn people off the product.”

Orenco’s state-of-the-art plant in Dundas, a maze of winding conveyors and belching holding tanks, can handle 27,000 kilograms, or 60,000 pounds, of raw material an hour. Aside from restaurant grease – produced by Ontario eateries at a rate of 900,000 kilograms a week – the plant renders animal parts. Of the average 500-kilo steer, only 180 kilos is edible. The rest, including bones, fat, offal, hide, head and hooves, can be converted into tallow and meat-bone meal. The tallow is broken down into glycerin and other products. The meal is made into tiny pellets to be mixed with animal feeds.

Last year, the worldwide drought and the failure of Brazil’s oil-producing grain crops caused grease prices to soar to more than 10 cents a pound. But this year an improvement in agricultural production has pushed prices down again. Readers of the Fats and Oils Bulletin, the Chicago daily newspaper that monitors the grease market, have watched the plunge with dismay. On the Rotterdam futures exchange, where yellow cake trades in 500-tonne parcels, prices have dropped by up to 50% in recent months.

But it’s a cyclical business, and Hopcroft says he is convinced high prices will come back. He mistily recalls the time, just a few years back, when restaurant grease fetched 28 cents a pound. Those days could return with the next drought. And if they do, Orenco will be ready with a new product: grease extracted from human waste. Hopcroft says the company has just about perfected the technology to remove grease from sewage. When it does, he assures toothpaste users, that the product will be only for industrial applications.

In the meantime, Orenco will continue to collect restaurant grease. For that purpose, the company has developed the Sani-bulk system, the Cadillac of grease bins. Costing $450 each, the odourless containers hold 450 kilograms of grease. Orenco’s special trucks literally swallow the bins, removing the grease and spraying them with hot water and disinfectant before replacing them. The Canada Packers-owned company, Ontario’s largest grease recycler, has more than 2,000 Sani-bulk bins around the province.

But as Fuller’s case showed, even Sani-bulk is no match for determined grease thieves. Fuller pleaded guilty on July 19 in a Toronto provincial court to 15 counts of theft in connection with his back-alley heists. The court handed him a suspended sentence, ordering him to compensate Orenco and placing him on three years’ probation. Determined to keep Fuller from returning to a life of slime, the court placed an unusual condition on the probation: he must not come closer than three metres to any Orenco grease bin.

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