Plastic supermarket trays worth MILLIONS are being stolen by gangs

Plastic supermarket delivery trays worth MILLIONS are being stolen by organised crime gangs and secretly recycled at plants that use child labour to sell abroad

  • Crooks steal the delivery trays from supermarkets and take them to companies who ‘turn a blind eye’ to their origin before shredding and shipping them abroad 
  • Bakers Basco, firm behind brands like Warburtons, carries out investigations to track down the missing trays often tracing them to recycling plants using GPS
  • Company claims some recycling firms where they find trays blatantly flout safe working practices and have witnessed the elderly and children working there

Millions of pounds worth of plastic supermarket trays are being stolen by organised crime gangs and secretly recycled at firms across the UK.

Crooks are looting the food baskets from shops and stores and delivering them to companies who ‘turn a blind eye’ to their origin, an investigation has revealed.

Once broken down by crooked firms often operating in backstreet warehouses, the plastic is untraceable and lost forever.

Criminals are selling chipped plastic for up to £1,000 a ton in this country and abroad.

The reusable trays are used to deliver bread and food to every major food supermarket including Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Iceland and Lidl.

They should be collected and reused by their manufacturer, but widespread theft mean the UK market has to produce more new plastic than it needs to keep food industry deliveries and transportation going.

Plastic trays like these are being stolen and recycled by criminal gangs across the UK, notably in the West Midlands, with millions going missing each year, an investigation has revealed

The organised trade in stolen plastic trays has largely gone unnoticed by the public, but is widespread across the UK and in the ‘hotspot’ areas of the West Midlands, including West Bromwich, Smethwick and Sparkhill.

The thefts often fail to attract the attention of police who say recovery is a civil rather than criminal matter.

One tray manufacturer said around 12 million baskets are made every year but just ten per cent are returned for recycling.

What are the recycled plastic chips used for? 

Recycled plastic chips can be used for a variety of purposes depending on their composition and grading.

Uses include as weighting in industrial hazard cones or other types of signs.

The chips have also been used to assist with drainage in landscaping projects including golf bunkers. 

Other uses include being used to make up work surface tops or to make building site hoardings instead of the traditional plywood.

He said: ‘The rest just disappear. The majority should be returned because they belong to somebody.

‘There are some recycling firms that we believe have just set themselves up to break down stolen trays.’

Bakers Basco Ltd, a consortium of leading bakers including Warburtons and Hovis, makes and supplies its members with universal bread trays and has a pool of four million in circulation every year.

Of those, 400,000 go missing annually – running to several million pounds over the years.

It has a dedicated national recovery team who work 24/7 to try to stamp out this activity using pioneering ways to trace and retrieve stolen or missing baskets.

The team have visited, spoken to and frequently seized equipment from thousands of locations and recycling operations across the UK. 

Three years ago it started fitting hidden GPS-enabled trackers which led it to descend on 14 recycling companies, including 12 in inner-city Birmingham and the West Midlands.

The company said its investigations and police information indicated some discreditable firms were potentially making thousands of pounds per day through the stolen baskets.

A Bakers Basco Ltd source said: ‘Clearly if you can make that amount of money you can do the same in Leeds, Glasgow, London wherever. This is not isolated to the Midlands, although it is a hotspot.’

If investigators can show repeated instances of trays ending up at the same recycling centres, Bakers Basco Ltd can apply to the civil courts for an order banning those firms from handling the baskets again.

Once ground up, untraceable plastic is sold on and often shipped abroad by recycling firms

If those companies breach that order their directors can ultimately be personally liable for any court imposed sanctions including custodial sentences, fines or damages payable to Bakers Basco.

The Bakers Basco Ltd source added: ‘The trackers have led us to backstreet, out-of-the-way premises, which we would probably never have found, were it not for our GPS technology.

Owners use GPS technology to track stolen trays  

Bakers Basco Ltd investigators have seized trays from some Birmingham recycling companies multiple times.

Between 2013 and 2018 it recovered 11,000 trays during 121 separate visits to two different sites operated by one company – and technology is catching the crooks red-handed.

GPS trackers allow Bakers Basco Ltd to identify the location of multiple trays.

In some instances, crafty crooks leave the stolen trays out in the open, or in disused premises for days to see if they are tracked down by recovery investigators.

If they are not, then they are carried off for lucrative recycling by the criminals.

They then sell on the broken down plastic – known as ‘jazz’ – to other recycling companies and legitimate plastic processors, who are made aware of this, in the UK or they send it abroad. 

‘Some premises are in what look like rundown warehouses and buildings, often with shutters down, behind locked gates, with what look like very expensive security cameras fitted.

‘In some cases there is no signage to indicate there is a business there at all.

‘We’ve seen some extraordinary sights – workers sitting on the ground sorting rubbish without gloves or boots, operating machinery without visible safety equipment.

‘We saw one Asian woman in her 80s sitting sifting through rubbish.

‘We’ve even seen children sorting rubbish. It is not uncommon for us to visit a recycling place and for workers to scatter and run away.’

In the West Midlands, baskets have been recovered from firms in the ‘hotspot’ areas of Smethwick and Birmingham before they have the chance to be destroyed.

One firm Bakers Basco Ltd had visited on 17 occasions since 2016 was Smethwick-based Arrow Recycling, recovering 841 trays before their destruction.

It led to the recycling firm entering into a formal agreement with Bakers Basco Ltd not to take possession of its equipment. 

An Arrow Recycling Ltd spokesman confirmed it had entered into an agreement with Bakers Basco Ltd not to take possession of its trays.

He said the company did not collect the trays itself, but had accepted them from ‘guys’ who had picked up cardboard and plastic from supermarkets.

Asked why the company had not asked for waste transfer notes from those delivering trays, the spokesman said the firm was now not accepting any trays unless they came from an official source with a waste transfer note.

He added that the company alerted Baskers Basco Ltd if it receives any of its trays.

Bakers Basco Ltd also used its GPS trackers to gather evidence against another Birmingham recycling firm, Capital Waste Management Ltd, based at Cape Yard on Grice Street.

The trays are taken to recycling companies where they are shredded and sold on for other uses

Recycling company’s health and safety woes 

In an unconnected incident, an Arrow Recycling worker was left in a coma when he was crushed by a falling stack of baled cardboard in April 2016.

Wolverhampton Crown Court later heard how Parvez Ahmed, 49, was left fighting for his life after around 400 kilograms of stacked cardboard fell on him, leaving him with a cracked skull and a brain haemorrhage.

A Health and Safety Executive investigation found the firm had failed to establish a safe way to stack the bales, which resulted in the unstable and overly heavy bales that led to the collapse.

The company, based on Cornwall Road, pleaded guilty to breaching the Work at Heights Regulations 2005 and was fined £160,000.

At Birmingham County Court last May, Basco presented evidence collected on five separate occasions where a quantity of plastic baskets was taken without permission, the journey each batch took, and when they arrived at Capital Waste Management Ltd’s premises.

Capital Waste Management Ltd agreed to enter into an order not to accept Bakers Basco’s equipment again and pay £7,500 in damages and costs.

Capital Waste was set up in April 2018 by sole director Mandeep Gill, 30. The company was dissolved last November having never filed accounts.

Elsewhere in the country, Bakers Basco Ltd rumbled an elaborate scam in which bakery workers stole 60 lorry loads of plastic trays worth £560,000 to recycle.

Paul Rogers, Robert Cooper and Paul Mathews were jailed for a total of more than ten years after being convicted at Burnley Crown Court of conspiracy to steal in 2014.

They plotted to take the trays from the plant in Bolton, Greater Manchester, where Rogers and Cooper both worked.

The pair then sold the trays to PM Plastics in Darwen, Lancashire, owned by Matthews, where the plastic was chipped for recycling as part of the cash-making scheme.

Despite the lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, Bakers Basco Ltd still has a number of live investigations in progress with the number of recovery visits up 112 per cent, year-on-year.

Paul Empson, General Manager of Bakers Basco, said: ‘Most people see recycling as a benefit to society: but sometimes, the exact opposite is the case.

‘This is a major growing problem for the UK’s transport and logistics industries around the unethical recycling of stolen plastic items that don’t need to be recycled.’

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