Buns of steal

The investigator: Glenn Geib with stacks of bread trays at Stroehmann’s in Bensalem. Over the last eight years, investigators say they have recovered more than 40,000 stolen bread trays. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Private investigators Glenn Geib and Kathleen Smith venture hundreds of miles to hunt down a stolen commodity that most folks wouldn’t look at twice if they saw it stacked up on a street corner.

It’s not gold or silver — or even that recession-era precious metal, aluminum — that sparks the interest of these seasoned sleuths. Rather, the Philly-based P.I.s have their sights set on plastic, millions of dollars worth of it.

Specifically, they’re after the plastic found in bread trays, those custom-made pallets long used by corporate bakeries to ship loaves, buns, rolls and muffins to retail markets. Geib and Smith work for Horsham-based Bimbo Bakeries USA, the manufacturer of brands including Stroehmann’s, Thomas’ and Entenmann’s. In the last eight years, the investigators say, they’ve recovered more than 40,000 stolen bread trays, along with 10,000 plastic dollies used to wheel stacks of trays.

According to a veteran Bimbo executive, the company loses about 250,000 trays each year to theft at a cost of about $3 million. The problem has gotten worse with each passing year as authorities and the public at large generally view the problem as negligible, if they recognize it at all.

“The police don’t understand the scope of this type of crime and they don’t want to be bothered with it,” said Smith, a former Philadelphia police sergeant who served 37 years on the force. “The attitude is, ‘You see them laying out in the street.’”

Bimbo is the nation’s largest baking company by virtue of several corporate acquisitions within the last decade. It supplies products to thousands of supermarkets, smaller bakeries, restaurants and even Citizens Bank Park. Delivery drivers generally leave the trays on-location so the businesses can unload the products at their convenience. The trouble is, many of those businesses then leave the empty trays, dozens or hundreds of them, outside on the loading dock.

Savvy thieves come along and snatch the trays to make a profit on their recycle value. The trays are made of polypropylene, a tough but flexible plastic with a high melting point. Petroleum is used to manufacture the material, so its market value increases with rising oil prices. According to the private investigators, recyclers may pay 25 to 30 cents per pound for it. They grind up the trays and re-sell the untraceable material to manufacturers.

“Once the economy began to slide and jobs became scarce, you had a lot of people looking for work and scrapping,” said Geib, who investigated two thieves who claimed to have earned more than $500 a week by collecting unsecured bread trays throughout the city and delivering them to a North Philly recycling yard.

Alternately, lots of trays end up in the hands of other small businesses, which re-purpose them, often brazenly, for their own product distribution. Many of the merchants along South Philadelphia’s Ninth Street Italian Market use trays to display their goods, for example. Many soft pretzel street vendors use them, too.

“They figure it’s easier to use somebody else’s equipment than to make your own, so they do it until they get caught,” Smith said.

“[They have] almost a sense of entitlement, like they’re angry you want your property back,” Geib said.

Bimbo is not alone as a victim. The problem spans the baking, milk and soft drink industries, said Jack Marro, a distribution consultant for Bimbo and longtime executive with its Freihofer’s brand.

“I’ve been working with the company for 40 years and it’s been a problem going on 40 years,” Marro said. “It’s not unique to our business. It affects anybody in industries that use polypropylene [to deliver products].”

A July 2010 article in the Wall Street Journal reported that the American Bakers Association claimed its members lose at least $75 million a year to tray theft.

“Coca-Cola is quoting figures like $10 million a year,” Marro said.

In 2009, Bimbo, Coke and Sara Lee Corp. formed a partnership to tackle the problem. COMBAT (Control of Missing Baskets and Trays) uses its own team of investigators to track down and recover missing crates while advocating criminal charges against offenders when possible.

Law enforcement has been receptive in some locales. According to the same Wall Street Journal report, five people were indicted in Maryland in 2009 for allegedly stealing $10 million worth of plastic containers from businesses including Rite-Aid Corp. and H&S Bakery. In another Maryland case, prosecutors charged the owners of a Landover recycling business with felony theft after they allegedly earned $443,000 in seven months by selling almost three million pounds of stolen plastic, the Journal said.

However, in many places including Philadelphia, arrests and prosecutions are not happening. The District Attorney’s Office here is unaware of any recent cases, although there is a section in Pennsylvania’s Crimes Code relating specifically to the theft of bakery and dairy crates as well as shopping and laundry carts. A “presumption of possession” clause allows authorities to charge someone with a violation if the person is found in possession of a container marked with a company’s name or logo outside of that company’s premises.

The law lacks punitive teeth, however. A violation is a summary offense punishable by a $300 maximum fine or up to 90 days in jail. In Philadelphia, where violent crime and quality-of-life issues place high demands on limited police resources, the bread crate law doesn’t make the list of enforcement priorities.

Philadelphia police Capt. Frank Bachmayer, the longtime commander of the 15th district and recently appointed Northeast Detectives boss, thinks that victimized businesses should take more responsibility for their own property.

“One of the things the establishment could do is prevent the theft from happening in the first place,” Bachmayer said. “There are things they could do, like more lighting and video surveillance.”

Businesses could keep the trays inside or lock them in a pen.

“I agree, but it’s not practical,” Marro said. “One of the problems is our [high] volume. It [requires] a lot of space.”

In the absence of enforcement, Geib and Smith spend most of their efforts on recovery. Smith recalls a case in which she found someone selling bread trays on the Internet and traveled to a storage facility in the Bronx to retrieve them.

It turned out that the seller had unknowingly bought the trays when he won an auction for the contents of an abandoned storage unit. The trays had been stolen from a truck in upstate New York eight months earlier. They were still loaded with hundreds of packages of decaying bread and buns when Smith showed up.

New York police eventually found out who put the trays in the storage unit.

“They charged him not only with stealing the trays, but stealing all the baked goods, too,” Smith said.

Most times, when the investigators discover a big stash, they convince the person in possession of the trays to surrender them. Voluntary compliance happens “99 percent of the time,” Geib said.

But there’s little to stop the same people from acquiring more stolen trays.

“In order to have any type of impact on this problem, you need a keen interest from law enforcement,” Geib said. “Once they see a precedent, they’re going to know they can’t do this.” ••

A trail of thefts: Gene Sweet moves a stack of empty bread trays. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

Plastic crates are used to display produce at the Italian Market. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO