They are used to deliver eggs, bread, milk and other goods to supermarkets, convenience stores and restaurants around the country.
But plastic trays have become a hot commodity in South Florida and around the nation as thieves steal the plastic pallets, generally stacked up outside the store in a delivery area, and sell them to recycling facilities.
"They are making money," said Jim Rood, a private investigator working for Flowers Food to investigate the thefts. "They're getting paid for the plastic that they recover by the pound or by the piece."
Every year, thieves target the plastic trays used to deliver milk, bread and other goods, stealing the stacks stored at supermarkets. Investigators say these trays are being stolen at alarming rates. Large retailers report losing millions of dollars per year because of stolen trays and pass down the costs to consumers.
Thieves dropping the trays off at recycling facilities can get about 50 cents per crate and the recycling locations make $2.50 for each tray of ground-up plastic, Rood said. The trays are shredded into resin, placed in large bins and then resold.
"They know they are shredding good material," said Rood, a retired Baltimore cop. "And most of them don't take proper identification when people go in and sell it to them."
In Florida, it is illegal for any person to be in possession of any shopping cart, laundry cart, dairy case, egg basket, poultry box or bakery container with a registered name or mark. People in possession of any of these items can be charged with possession of stolen property, a misdemeanor offense.
As part of a new effort to crack down to this growing problem, companies are hiring investigators like Rood, who is currently working for a bread company, to halt its losses, about $3,000 a day.
"It's going on all over the place because the public is not made aware of it," said Rood recently while standing at a recycling center after police conducted a bust and arrested several people. "The industry as a whole loses about $500 million a year and that’s just the soda, the milk and the bread industry."
Dan Ferrin of Miami-Dade Police Department was at a recent bust at a recycling center where dozens of trays were found that belonged to different large retailers.
"It's a scheme that is costing a lot of money to a lot of these big major stores," Ferrin said. "These individuals know exactly which of these containers to take from these major stores. In turn, they bring them there, they scrap them until you can’t even tell where they came from."
Publix said it had to replace $2 million in plastic trays in a year, but the company recovered approximately $39,000 during a recent bust.
"These types of thefts can negatively impact operations," said Nicole Krauss, a spokeswoman for Publix. "They drive up the cost of handling the products and those cost are passed on to the consumers."
Law enforcement in South Florida has been busy trying to identify thieves and catch them in the act.
Homestead Police arrested two men, Osvaldo Aguila and Saul Hernandez-Oporto, on June 26 after surveillance video showed them allegedly stealing plastic containers behind a Sedano's grocery store. Investigators said they had 377 different types of crates in the truck.
Both Aguila, 51, and Hernandez-Oporto, 47, were arrested and charged with third degree grand theft each. Both men, who are facing up to five years in prison, if convicted, entered not guilty pleas.
An attorney representing both men did not respond a request for comment.
This summer in Miami, police stopped a van and found plastic trays and bins inside belonging to Tropical Supermarket and various companies.
Jamaison Schuler, a spokesperson with Dean Foods Company, said theft of merchandise is a concern for all manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
"Milk case loss or theft generates more than $30 million in higher operating costs for Dean Foods annually and will amount to $3 million in Florida alone," Schuler said, adding that McArthur Dairy, a member of the Miami business community supports law enforcement efforts to recover stolen goods and investigate the perpetrators.
Law enforcement says people should call 911 if you see someone with one of these trays, and especially a stack of them on an unmarked pick up, truck or other vehicles.