A Modesto-based dairy company has had enough of milk crate theft, which costs the U.S. industry an estimated $80 million a year.
Crystal Creamery, formerly known as Foster Farms Dairy, is working with law enforcement, grocers and other partners to combat the problem.
They are focusing mainly on large-scale thieves who try to sell the ground-up plastic to recyclers, although it’s also illegal to take a single crate for use as a toolbox or storage container.
“Milk crates have always disappeared, but in the last two or three years, the rate of disappearance is greater,” said Elliot Begoun, vice president of sales and marketing at Crystal.
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He said the thefts have increased with the rising value of scrap plastic, which is based in part on the price of the petroleum used to make virgin plastic.
Begoun talked about the problem during an interview Tuesday at the Kansas Avenue headquarters of the company, still owned by the Foster family, which also is in the poultry business.
On a typical day, Crystal trucks haul about 60,000 crates filled with milk, sour cream and cottage cheese to grocery stores and food service customers from Bakersfield to the Oregon border. The drivers are supposed to bring back crates from previous deliveries, but they can be stolen if not secured at the customers’ locations, Begoun said.
Each time that happens, Crystal loses about $4, which is hard to take in an industry with tight profit margins, he said. Nationwide each year about 20 million crates are stolen, according to the International Dairy Foods Association.
Crystal is working with grocers on improved security, as well as with food banks, which sometimes get donations of dairy products in the crates.
The company also approached Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson. He said Tuesday that the crime is driven mainly by addicts looking for recycling income they can spend on drugs, similar to metal theft.
Christianson said he was surprised that the scrap value of plastic has risen so much. He noted other such commodities that are being stolen, such as used grease from restaurants, which rendering companies buy.
“Milk crates are no different,” the sheriff said. “It’s a material that can be recycled.”
Christianson said he is asking detectives to look into where the stolen crates are being ground up and recycled. They’re molded to include a warning against unauthorized use, and their distinctive appearance makes it hard to sell them intact.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries warns member companies against accepting materials “that are clearly marked as property belonging to an entity other than the seller, such as beer kegs, milk crates and other marked materials.”
Crystal also is asking the public to resist the temptation to take a small number of crates for personal use. Begoun and Larry Diggory, director of food operations at the plant, said they have seen them used in retail displays, on the back of motorcycles and on plumbers’ trucks.
“What we’re trying to do is to create an awareness with the public that it’s theft and it’s a cost of business,” Begoun said.