The summer after my first year of college, I set off for an adventure in Alaska that began with a multi-day Greyhound bus ride from Maryland to Seattle. After a layover in the upper Midwest, I found myself sitting next to an unpleasant, noisy little man, full of stories of tough luck including how he’d just gotten his wallet stolen and how, gee, he’d probably be getting pretty hungry by the time we got to Seattle.
What was a young, tenderhearted college kid to do? I dug deep into my own wallet to help him out. It was a gesture he seemed to truly appreciate, and for the next couple hours through the Badlands, all was well and good between us.
But by western Montana, the driver had had enough of the guy, who had been periodically and loudly denouncing the driver’s skills for the past several hundred miles. After repeatedly warning my seatmate to shape up, our driver’s patience ran out and we pulled off I-90 for an unscheduled stop at the jail in the little, fantastically named town of Anaconda.
A pair of policemen climbed aboard, handcuffed my hard-luck buddy right there in the aisle and marched him straight off the bus. As we pulled away, the last glimpse I caught of him was as he reached into his pocket to produce an ID from his wallet – the wallet that I’d been told had been stolen.
I eventually made it to Seattle and on to Alaska and the summer was generally a smashing success, but that’s not the point here. The point is I had learned a sobering life lesson: I’d tried to commit a random act of goodness, but the cold, hard world just rubbed it right back in my face.
Just recently, I got a remedial course in this in the most unexpected way.
Earlier this fall, I wrote an article for Modern Farmer about the fierce warnings stamped on milk crates, threatening to punish “unauthorized use” with fines or jail time. I was initially amused by the seeming over-seriousness of it all; I was soon surprised to learn that dairies and others – soda bottlers and bakeries, mainly – are not amused at all by unauthorized use of their plastic crates and cases. The dairy industry alone says crate theft, mostly by organized outfits that sell stolen crates to recyclers, costs it $80 million per year.
This eventually led to a second milk crate article, in which I described my efforts to return my crates to their rightful owners and buy new, legal ones. The dairy folks were jazzed by my good behavior, which made me feel swell enough that I didn’t even really mind spending $32.25 to replace my unauthorized crates with three colorful, lawfully acquired crates, purchased from a New Jersey company called FarmPlast.
And then came a twist.
Two weeks ago, after a two-month investigation, the Fairfield (N.J.) Police Department executed a search warrant of FarmPlast’s warehouse in Fairfield that, according to a department press release, uncovered “a voluminous amount of stolen plastic totes.”
FarmPlast and others stand accused of buying boosted milk crates from shady suppliers, and selling them to well-meaning citizens like myself.
“It is alleged that before and throughout the course of the investigation, both facilities [a nearby plastics recycler’s warehouse was also searched] continuously received stolen plastic totes and other plastic items, around the clock, from a variety of individuals who were engaged in stealing them from various store locations in New York and New Jersey,” the release continues. In other words: FarmPlast and others stand accused of buying boosted milk crates from shady suppliers, and selling them to well-meaning citizens like myself.
Police placed an estimated value of $100,000 on the stolen plastics uncovered in the searches, and arrested eight men who pulled up in trucks with stolen crates while police were on the scene, according to the release.
Did I get suckered again? Was my $32.25 spent on crates manufactured from other stolen crates?
FarmPlast says certainly, definitely not.
“FarmPlast has never been involved in any kind of theft of milk crates,” Eric Lomax, a sales manager, told Modern Farmer. “[We] have cooperated with all police requests and provided documentation for all the plastic we purchase.”
“We have absolutely nothing to hide,” said Lomax adding that none of those arrested were FarmPlast employees and that the company only buys plastic from reputable suppliers.
(The local prosecutor’s office anticipates that additional charges will be filed in the ongoing case; Fairfield police did not return a call for additional comment.)
The investigation also involved private investigators working on behalf of industry groups. Jim Rood, a retired major from the Baltimore Police Department, worked the case on behalf of companies including Bimbo Bakeries USA, H&S Bakeries, Flowers Foods, Cloverland Dairy and Pepsi united under the acronym COMBAT, for Control of Missing Baskets and Trays. Investigators from CVS and Rite-Aid also pitched in, Rood said.
Sound like a big deal is being made of this? Rood said total industry losses from plastics theft amount to $500 million per year.
Or this more qualitative assessment from Rudy Muller of Metro Loss Prevention – another private firm on the case, under contract with Bimbo Bakeries USA – on the sheer scale and pervasiveness of plastics theft:
“I could tell you stories on and on and on that would blow your mind. It’s totally insane.”
Rood, who has drawn attention for his work on similar cases in Baltimore and elsewhere, said the scope of the ongoing New Jersey case, involving numerous private interests, local police and the prosecutor’s office, is shaping up to be the biggest plastics case he’s been involved with.
Plastics theft rings are sophisticated and organized, he said, and every time the screws tighten – increased enforcement, beefed-up laws – they find new ways to get ahead. Same as a young Dustin Hoffman was told in “The Graduate,” there’s a ton of money in plastic, which means someone’s always going to be trying to steal it.
“It’s like a drug war,” said Rood. “I worked narcotics for many years in Baltimore. You come up with something, they come up with something better.”
I’m thinking back to that moment when the Greyhound groaned away from the Anaconda jail, minus the sketchy guy who’d kept me company across the Plains. I’m staring at him through the window, he’s reaching into his pocket as the policemen wait grimly beside him, and in another moment, he’ll have pulled out his wallet and I’ll realize I’ve been conned. The integrity of my new milk crates is now at stake and I’ve got this familiar feeling. The bus driver is letting up the clutch. FarmPlast is reaching into its pockets. The authorities are glowering. I’m soon to find out if I’ve been bamboozled again.