Sometimes the world changes enough that new crimes emerge and new laws have to be written. The just-completed Texas Legislature dealt with one of those.
Retailers, bakeries and other food and beverage companies have lobbied the Legislature for years to create penalties to help prevent the theft of plastic delivery crates.
No, baby boomers, this isn’t like when you went to college and repurposed milk crates as catchalls and temporary dorm shelving. That problem was solved by the market when the Container Store and others started making and selling them.
This time, plastic tray thefts are costing U.S. companies tens of millions of dollars a year because thieves have found a way to turn them into cash.
Plastic containers, trays and pallets are used to deliver milk, bread, beer, soda and lots of other foods to grocery stores. The trays are used over and over again. Once unloaded, they’re left at the back of the store for the next truck to pick up.
The thieves — ranging from a couple of people working together to major criminal organizations — have been helping themselves to the crates, which have great value as recycled plastic. Criminal operations are set up in warehouses where the crates are put into commercial-grade grinding machines that turn the containers into pellets to be sold to recyclers, said Justin Williamson, a spokesman for the Texas Retailers Association.
The American Bakers Association said the problem has grown every year in Texas.
In the past five years, plastic tray theft has cost the baking industry, which in Texas includes Bimbo Bakeries USA, maker of Mrs Baird’s bread and buns, over $25 million in lost equipment and countless disruptions, the industry group said.
Although the problem is statewide, the biggest offenders worked around Houston, where the big recycling companies are, Williamson said. “We know they use the [Houston Ship Channel] to export the pellets.”
The new law, which goes into effect Sept. 1, will try to dry up the market. Laws against stealing cover the thieves, but this law goes after the buyers of the stolen goods.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed HB 4584, which sets penalties for recyclers who purchase stolen crates and pellets. The law requires recyclers to get proof of ownership of the crates and a government-issued identification from the sellers. Recyclers can no longer pay cash on the spot.
Violations are a Class C misdemeanor with penalties of up to $700.
“Some recyclers have assisted with busts that have resulted in $100,000 worth of crates recovered,” Williamson said. The Houston Police Department has been helpful, he said, and a few retailers even got together and hired a private investigator in Houston to document the problem.
A few years ago, by switching to reusable containers from heavy cardboard, Williamson said, retailers believed they were solving another issue. “They were doing the right thing, the green thing,” he said.