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Pilfering plastic a booming industry in Calif.

SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) -- A new breed of thieves is scoring big not with cash, jewels or cars, but empty milk crates.

Southern California is seeing a boom in the theft of crates, pallets, and other easy-to-steal hunks of plastic that are chopped up and sold to recycling centers for totals that investigators estimate at some $5 million annually, the Orange County Register (http://bit.ly/Sp4oIy) reported Sunday.

A task force headed by the Los Angeles County sheriff's department and funded by the city of Industry has exposed at least 50 underground recycling operations since its Sept. 2011 formation.

The busts included a recovery of $115,000 worth of stolen plastic from El Monte and Lynwood in January, and the arrest of four people and recovery of $450,000 of stolen plastics in Anaheim in July.

The key for these thieves is convenience.

“These plastics are easier to steal under law enforcement's nose,” said Sgt. Nabeel Mitry, the head of the task force. “The average street cop could see it and not really realize it's a crime.”

Milk crates cost businesses about $3.50 apiece, and plastic pallets $75.

Bill Kroese, the director of safety and loss prevention at local dairy Rockview Farms, said the company spent $1.4 million a year to replace missing milk crates in 2012.

“Customers leave the crates lying around,” he said. “We're now offering incentives to customers who return more crates than they previously have.”

Thieves render their hot items unrecognizable by passing them through a grinding machine that resembles a wood chipper, then bagging the raw plastic that comes out of it.

“The scavengers who steal the plastic only make, let's say, $3 per pallet because the grinder has to make money and the seller has to make money,” Mitry said. “But if you steal 300, 400, 500 of those a day you can make a profit.”


Information from: The Orange County Register, http://www.ocregister.com

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