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Published: Aug 26, 2021 4 min read
Collage of a woman balancing on top of multiple milk crates stacked on top of each other
Money; Getty Images; Shutterstock

Thinking about trying the milk crate challenge dominating social media for views, likes and that sweet, sweet #fyp action? Depending on where you get the crates, and how aggressively laws are enforced locally, you could end up paying some serious fines.

It's pretty obvious that the viral challenge — which involves people stacking plastic boxes in various formations, attempting to climb on top of them and filming their precipitous falls — is dangerous. Doctors hate it, and TikTok itself is removing #cratechallenge content.

But it's also causing outlets like Mashable to ask "where are you getting all the milk crates?" Even the Food and Drug Administration weighed in on the supply angle, suggesting on Twitter that would-be participants like Conan O'Brien "return all those crates to the grocery store."

The challenge may be a joke, but milk crate theft is a real issue in the dairy industry. As of 2012, companies were losing an estimated $80 million a year due to people stealing their milk crates, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA).

"This latest trend puts the spotlight back on theft of official milk crates, which is a crime in many states and just wrong," says IDFA spokesman Matt Herrick.

Because they have to be extremely durable, most milk crates are made out of high-density polyethylene. In the past, thieves have recognized this and stolen the hard plastic crates so they could be shredded and resold at higher rates. A couple of years ago, there were entire milk crate/bakery tray rings in places like Baltimore. (Other people just randomly took them for home use.)

Now, illegally taking a store's crates — worth roughly $5 apiece — for the TikTok challenge could cost you.

Massachusetts state law calls for a $10 to $100 fine for taking or converting "a plastic or wire milk case or a plastic or wire container for milk products which has been indelibly stamped with the name of a milk dealer or association of milk dealers." If you violate Pennsylvania's milk container law, you could "be sentenced to pay a fine not exceeding $300 or to imprisonment for not more than 90 days." In Florida, a man was arrested in 2016 and charged with "possession of dairy crate."

The milk crate crime situation has evolved in recent years. Harrick says that as costs for high-density polyethylene have increased, retailers have gotten better at securing their containers. Stores have also begun selling storage containers that look like milk crates more regularly, decreasing demand for the real thing.

However, there are still supply chain concerns amid the pandemic.

"When milk crates are taken, it puts added burdens on milk processors and distributors as it not only costs money to replace them, but also logistical challenges to delivering milk," says Alex Walsh, associate vice president of regulatory affairs at the Northeast Dairy Foods Association. "These consequences can impact you, your neighbors, grocery stores, dairy product processors and dairy farmers."

So, a tip? Don't do the milk crate challenge. But if you insist, use crates you buy. That way you're less likely to get fined.

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