How Grocers Can Help Sink Reusable Plastic Piracy

ground up plastic

Everyone loves reusable plastic containers, including, it seems, thieves.

New Jersey State Police charged two men with fencing 45,000 pounds of illegally obtained plastic, valued at $67,000, and shipping the ground-up plastic to China. After an eight-month investigation, authorities in Miami-Dade County, Florida, arrested 20 people in connection with the theft of more than $1.5 million worth of reusable plastic crates. Police in Philadelphia raided a warehouse and found as much as 2,200 pounds of stolen plastic crates and pallets.

The scope of the problem

A 2015 survey by found responding companies were unanimously concerned about pallet and reusable packaging theft, with 39 percent citing it as a serious concern and 76 percent said the problem didn’t get the attention it deserves.

It’s difficult to pin down an exact dollar figure for how much plastic piracy costs the food and beverage industries each year, but estimates range in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Payoffs for plastic piracy

Crooks pilfer plastic pallets, milk crates and other forms of reusable plastic packaging and profit off their theft in several different ways:

  • They may, as in the New Jersey case, grind the plastic down — so it can’t be traced — and sell it overseas, where it will be used to make other products.
  • They may remove identifying or tracking information and resell the crates or containers intact. Purchasers may be unaware the items they’re buying are stolen, or they may know and not care.
  • They may sell the plastic to recyclers, both legitimate and unsavory, for a profit.

How does plastic piracy happen?

Failure to properly secure and/or track reusable plastic packaging such as reusable plastic containers (RPCs) is a leading source of plastic piracy. Pallets and crates may be left outside stores on loading docks, or in unsecured trucks waiting for transport back to distribution centers or RPC poolers. They may be improperly marked, or not marked at all.

The costs 

Reusable plastic packaging is a boon to supply chain efficiency, cost savings and sustainability. However, to maximize their full value, the containers need to be protected and returned to the poolers that own the containers.

Typically, the price for an RPC rental program varies based on the quantity leased, the ship to and pick up locations, and how quickly they go back to the pooler. When RPCs are returned promptly, everyone wins — the retailer whose pricing stays lower, the pooler who has more product to rent and distribute, and the consumers, who ultimately bear the pass-through cost of RPC losses.

Securing your RPCs

Tosca uses multiple layers of proprietary technology to maximize our ability to track our RPCs, but we can’t curtail plastic piracy on our own — no one can. When you use Tosca RPCs, or any other form of reusable packaging, you can take steps to protect your supply chain from plastic pirates, including:

  • Establish written policies and procedures for securely storing reusable plastic containers and other reusable packaging before it is returned to the pooler. Reusable plastic packaging should never be left in unsecured locations, such as outside near a loading dock or beside trash dumpsters.
  • Educate all employees on security procedures and hold everyone accountable for securing reusable packaging. In the PackagingRevolution survey, 85 percent of respondents cited lack of employee accountability as the biggest challenge to preventing theft of plastic containers.
  • Invest in asset management and tracking technologies. 54% of those polled by PackagingRevolution said lack of appropriate security and tracking technology contributed to the difficulty in protecting reusable plastic packaging.
  • Work closely with law enforcement and become involved in industry efforts to curtail plastic theft. Just 23 percent of survey respondents told PackagingRevolution they felt law enforcement was ineffective in helping prevent theft of reusables.

Working together

In order for reusable plastic packaging to benefit everyone — suppliers, retailers and the environment — it has to actually be available for reuse! Curbing theft of reusable plastic packaging is a priority for Tosca, and we’re deeply involved in industry and law enforcement efforts to raise awareness of the problem. If you would like to learn more about how you can support efforts to reduce plastic piracy, please reach out to us to find out how your organization can get involved.

To learn more about how reusables create more efficient supply chains, click here.

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