INDUSTRY, Calif. (AP) -- The humble milk crate is the focus of a crime that's costing Southern California businesses millions of dollars a year.
With plastic selling for around 15 cents a pound, thieves are swiping milk crates, pallets and bread trays that are sold to local recyclers, ground into pellets and sometimes shipped to Asian factories -- which may turn them back into the same items and sell them to some of the businesses that were victimized.
The scheme is similar to that of thieves who steel copper wire, bronze statues and other metal for recycling. But it's lower-profile, Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Nabeel Mitry said.
"They can do it in plain sight and nobody cares," he told the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/QlcHCI ).
"Your average street cop watching someone behind a store collect this stuff would not . think twice about it," he said. "It's not a sexy crime."
It is a costly one, however.
Downey-based Rockview Farms dairy loses nearly 1,200 plastic milk crates a day and the thefts cost it $1.4 million annually.
The dairy hired Redondo Beach consultant Joe Harrington several years ago to study the problem. He found that retailers took few precautions to prevent thefts, and the manufacturers had no incentive to do so.
"For them, it was built-in demand," he said.
Consumers ultimately share the cost of the thefts in the form of higher prices for bread, milk and other items.
Authorities are fighting back, however.
Last fall, the Sheriff's Department formed what is believed to be the nation's only team to fight industrial plastic thefts.
The five-member Industrial Plastics Task Force is funded by the City of Industry, an industrial suburb of Los Angeles where many of the victimized businesses are located.
The task force staked out store loading docks and tracked plastic thieves to rented warehouses in South Los Angeles where black market recyclers had set up plastic grinders. Vans could pull up with stolen plastic and leave with 2,000-pound bags of ground pellets destined for the local ports, the Times reported.
Some legitimate recyclers, including some with government recycling contracts, also were found to be processing stolen plastic, authorities said.
In June, a raid on So-Cal Plastics in Anaheim turned up $450,000 worth of stolen plastic. The owner pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property.
In the past year, the team has recovered more than $6 million in stolen plastic and sent 47 criminal cases to prosecutors. More than 50 people were charged with possessing stolen property and most have pleaded guilty.
Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com
Copyright 2012 The AP.