Again and again, their investigations led them back to tiny warehouses — available for rent by the month — packed in industrial sections of South Los Angeles near the Alameda Corridor. Black-market recyclers set up plastic grinders inside, and loading docks offer easy access for vans pulling in with stolen plastic and leaving with 2,000-pound bags of ground pellets.
Not all operations are so obviously illicit, however. Sheriff's officials said they have found that many legitimate recycling operations — including those with government contracts — also process stolen plastic.
So-Cal Plastics in Anaheim was raided in June; officials said they found $450,000 worth of stolen plastic on site that day. The owner, Hector Palacios, pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property.
Juan Arellano, owner of New Horizons Plastics on Stanford Avenue in South Los Angeles, was arrested a few months earlier. In his warehouse deputies found large stacks of pallets with the logos of firms such as Trader Joe's, Domino's Pizza and Anheuser-Busch.
Arellano, who also had a contract with the city of Los Angeles to process its broken garbage bins, said he didn't know the pallets at his yard were stolen. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty to possessing stolen property, officials said.
In the last year, the task force has turned over 47 criminal cases to prosecutors. More than 50 people have been charged with possessing stolen property, and most have pleaded guilty. The team has recovered more than $6 million in stolen plastic.
And yet, some beverage company officials said, it has done little to stem the tide of thefts.
"They're doing a lot, but we're still losing 1,100 milk crates a day," said Bill Kroese, the director of safety and loss prevention for Rockview Farms. In his view, the state has done too much to encourage recycling, without doing enough to make sure recycling laws are being followed.
"Anyone can just buy a grinder, set up shop and start grinding up plastic," he said.