United Kingdom Besieged By Cooking Oil Thieves

A blog about murder, theft, and other wickedness.
March 25 2013 5:34 PM

United Kingdom Besieged By Cooking Oil Thieves

Fried Chicken
A bucket of KFC Extra Crispy fried chicken is displayed October 30, 2006 in San Rafael, California.

Photo Illustration by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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As if the British didn’t have enough to worry about—what with their miserable weather, Kate Middleton’s recent bout with crippling morning sickness, and the continued preponderance of “chavs”—the BBC now reports that the United Kingdom is under attack by devious gangs of used-cooking-oil thieves. Used cooking oil is in great demand, in the U.K. and elsewhere, because it can be converted into biodiesel fuel. Bootleggers will sneak into restaurant parking lots and siphon the oil out of holding tanks. Then, they’ll either sell the oil to biodiesel processing plants or process it themselves and sell the fuel on the black market. (I was as surprised as you are to learn that there’s a black market for biodiesel fuel. Does this extend to other ecologically friendly products? Can you also buy bootleg carbon credits?)

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The story doesn’t say whether the bootleg biodiesel is any less safe or effective than its properly taxed counterparts. But it represents a big problem for the government. Up to 20 percent of the U.K.’s used cooking oil is stolen, thus depriving the government of tax revenue—25 million pounds’ worth per year, according to the BBC. As such, the authorities are starting to crack down. In December, two men were sentenced to two years in jail for stealing 220,000 liters worth of used cooking oil from grocery stores and KFC outlets. (“Finger nicking good,” said the Daily Mail.) I can just imagine the conversations in the prison yard. “What am I in for? Oh, I stole a swimming pool’s worth of old chicken grease. [brief pause] No, I’m not being cheeky. Hey, put down that shiv!” 

Cooking-oil theft happens in the United States, too, though as far as I’m aware KFC has not yet resorted to storing its used oil in safes protected by dynamite. As thievery goes, this seems relatively benign—it’s nonviolent, it’s good for the environment, and it probably stimulates business at local do-it-yourself car washes, from bootleggers desperate to get that grease-trap smell out of their upholstery.

Justin Peters is a writer for Slate. He is working on a book about Aaron Swartz, copyright, and the rise of “free culture.” Email him at justintrevett@fastmail.fm.