Thieves steal millions of dollars of plastic pallets and milk cases from businesses. Sold to recyclers, the plastic is then used to make new pallets and milk cases.
Thieves steal millions of dollars of plastic pallets and milk cases from businesses. Sold to recyclers, the plastic is then used to make new pallets and milk cases. - 
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Here's an under-reported crime we bet you don't know about: Stealing plastic. Plastic pallets, that is. You know, those heavy-duty trays and crates used to deliver goods to grocery stores and restaurants?

Authorities in Southern California say there's an epidemic of plastics theft in their region, but it's become a nationwide problem. Authorities estimate businesses lose up to $500 million a year to plastic pallet and crate thieves.

The value of high-grade plastic pallets, trays and crates has gone up as the price of petroleum has risen. Lewis Taffer, chief marketing officer for iGPS, an Orlando-based company that makes pallets with radio-frequency ID tags, says thieves find the pallets on loading docks behind grocery stores, restaurants and the like. Until recently, the police didn't pay much attention.

Plastics thieves typically take the pallets to recycling facilities, where they now can get about 15 cents a pound for high-grade plastic. It may not sound like much, but some pallets weigh 100 pounds. The crime's especially a problem in Southern California, which has a lot of recyclers and easy access to the Asian market.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Department has established the nation's first task force dedicated to going after plastics theft. Deputies in L.A. County have recovered plastic pallets and milk crates belonging to Trader Joe's, Anheuser Busch, Domino's Pizza, Ralphs and Vons supermarkets, and the U.S. Postal Service, among others. The task force has recovered over $5 million in stolen trademark plastic in the past year alone.

Bill Kroese at Rockview Farms, a California dairy, says his company has lost up to $1.5 million a year on stolen milk crates. He says some recyclers don't know they're buying hot plastic but he believes others do. "They operate behind closed doors, behind tall fences," Kroese says. "A lot of them don't even advertise what kind of business they are."

Authorities say the black market in plastics is sort of like the one for copper wiring, except plastic is easier to steal and the crime is more widespread.

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Follow Sarah Gardner at @RadioGardner