In 2013, a small group of Texas Retailers Association members came together with a common problem:

Their businesses were targets of a widespread crime spree (theft of plastic containers/pallets) that spanned the entire city of Houston, Texas. The increasing frequency and the amount of containers/pallets of these crimes was a cause for alarm. However, it was hard to prove, as there was no real way of tracking a seemingly “disposable” asset.

Plastic Containers (milk crates, bread trays, soda totes, pallets) used to distribute multiple products to grocery stores, are commonly considered “disposable”, likened to plastic bottles, plastic shopping bags and other similar items, they are convenient for storage and transport, but they do not get considered “valuable” or associated with a monetary sum. The fact is, any ordinary citizen, and even the average police officer could witness these items being stolen and not realize a crime is being committed!

Many businesses receive products in plastic containers, usually in the form of crates and pallets, and often leave these outside for the next pickup from the distributor. Thieves have zeroed in on this norm and turned it into a multi-million-dollar annual operation. In Houston region alone, it is estimated to exceed ten million dollars annually. Stealing and shredding plastic shipping containers from local businesses was a highly profitable operation. Those stolen pallets were shredded into plastic chips, which were then bagged and sold as raw plastic material.

In an attempt to cut down on these losses, distributors have begun to label their plastic containers with a “Property of” and warning label, but that didn’t prove to deter thieves from continuing those operations. The thieves realized if those containers/pallets were ground up into plastic chips, they become harder to identify. After ground into chips, a laboratory is needed to identify plastic equipment based on a blend of components that the manufacturer used to develop their unique container. In addition, retailers have begun securing the plastic containers, but occasionally the plastic containers are still accessible due to a combination of increased sales or lack of space in the store and are then generally stored behind the store until they are picked up by the distributors on their next visit to the stores. Until the problem was realized, industry didn’t track inventory of plastic containers very accurately until the demand for replacement of the stolen of plastic containers/pallets outpaced the growth rates of the products by large margins.

Industry is now in addition to clearly marking each container with ownership information, in many cases citing the penalty for theft and is in process of pacing signage behind stores clearly indicating this is private property and offenders will be prosecuted for theft for taking any type of plastic containers, totes, or pallets. You also have some manufacturers placing metal rods in the containers/pallets to shut down the grinders and some even use GPS devices to track containers/pallets.

Texas Plastic Container Theft Task Force

Texas Retailers Association has launched the Operation S.T.O.P.P. initiative in the City of Houston in response to the overwhelming plastic container losses our member retailers report each year.

These thefts affect profit margins that in turn are costs offset by the consumer. Therefore, the cost of goods increases but not labor, so where does all that money go? It goes into REPLACING the stolen crates, trays, baskets, totes, pallets….

Below, listen to The Texas Standard’s interview with our private investigator, Hunter Cox, about the work he’s done to help address the issue in the Houston area.