FOX 29 Investigates: Local theft and recycling ring

There's a new scheme in town that's making thieves some big bucks and guess who is picking up the tab that's right the consumer.

Believe it or not, thieves are now stealing plastic from local corner stores and supermarkets. One expert told FOX 29 when it comes to theft "plastic is the new copper". It's a $100 million dollar a year black market industry nationwide.

FOX 29 Investigates joined authorities when they took down a local theft and recycling ring that's ultimately hits you right in the wallet

You can find them outside any corner market in your neighborhood. Those blue or yellow hard plastic delivery trays used to hold bottles of soda or bread. Who would think they are are worth their weight in gold.

"A very lucrative business," says Lt. Jonathan Josey of the Philadelphia Police Major Crimes Unit.

The trays or shells are made of high density polyethylene, which is a tough but flexible plastic manufactured with petroleum so as the price of oil goes up so does the price of these trays. They cost about $7 to make and believe it or not right now they are a hot commodity on the black market.

"This is a national problem," Lt. Josey explained.

They're also the target of thieves here in the Philadelphia region and across the country from Florida to New Jersey. The bread, soft drink and dairy industry estimate loses at close to $100 million a year in those plastic containers because of theft. And guess who ends up picking up the tab. You got it. You do.

"People may think it may not have an impact, but it actually trickles down to the consumer," Lt. Josey said.

The theft of these plastic trays has become such a problem that companies are hiring private investigators to track down the thieves and the cost to consumers. Experts say it could be as much as a nickel more on a loaf of bread, a gallon of milk, or a bottle of soda

"I think it's awful," shopper Juan Rodriguez told FOX 29.

Shoppers we spoke with weren't too happy to hear about paying more for this new rip-off scheme.

"We're paying enough as it is. It's like the soda tax, it just went up now. There's a theft ring going on and we have to dig in our pockets some more," Rodriguez added.

"It's not fair that it should be put on the consumers. We have enough already. We've been taxed on everything and now this. I mean it's just one more thing we have to pay," shopper Bee Sadic said.

On January 20th, as President Trump was being sworn into office, SWAT teams and the city's major crimes unit joined private security forces to raid a Port Richmond warehouse.

Police say this was ground zero for a regional theft and recycling ring that stole tens of thousands of dollars of these trays from stores across our area. They were brought to a warehouse on the 2100 block of Ann Street where they were put through a grinder.

"They were actually milling down and grinding down the stolen plastic," Lt. Josey explained.

SWAT officers hit the place and literally cut through the garage doors to get inside. There they found stack after stack of the stolen trays as high as eight feet. They found the grinder and huge containers of ground up trays ready to shipped out at a big profit.

"Roughly about 1,500 pound to 2,200 pound containers and they're shipped," Lt. Josey said.

The raid was the result of a four week undercover operation that discovered thieves stealing the trays from behind local food markets and corner stores during daylight and evening hours. Recycling companies pay 25-30 cents per pound for the valuable plastic product. Many of the trays are clearly labeled by the owners, but the grinding process makes the material untraceable. The trays get ground up, the grinds get boxed up and shipped out.

"They're shipped to other countries or other places and it's melted down and recycled and used in making toys and other things. And often times sold back and made into these same shells, so getting a profit off it over and over again," police said.

Police say trays found at this warehouse belonged to several companies including Bimbo Bakeries, Canada Dry, Coca-Cola, Pepsi and various dairy companies.

"One company in particular lost $3 million a year in their plastic pallets.That's gonna trickle down to the consumer. In Philadelphia, now we have the soda tax. Incrementally, it can increase the price of products people use every day," according to Lt. Josey.

"Grocery bills are going up for no reason other than people are stealing now. It's pretty upsetting to hear," Bee Sadic told FOX 29.

Two men were taken into custody during the warehouse raid. Police loaded up an entire tractor trailer load of stolen trays and confiscated a box truck used during the thefts, along with three other vehicles.

"This business is not set up to be a recycling plant. They were strictly in the business of recycling these stolen plastic pallets and trays and soda crates," Lt. Josey added.

Back in November, the New Jersey state arrested two men, Yih Tan and Rong Wu, charging them with running a theft ring in Bayonne, New Jersey, and shipping the ground up tray materials overseas to China. Police say they bought the stolen containers with no questions asked. Police recovered 45,000 pounds of ground up trays worth close to $70,000,

"If we have companies operating like this, in different places, it will impact and trickle down to the consumer. There is definitely economic fallout for the consumer," the lieutenant said.

"And now we still paying for it. I think somebody needs to go to jail," Rodriguez said.