Now You’re CookINg
No longer just the fringe fuel choice of hobbyists, waste cooking oil has
moved front and center in the biodiesel explosion, and cities are leading
the way with innovative programs.
By Hamida Kinge
Illustration by Fogelson-Lubliner
ith his smart spectacles, dark brown hair Waste oil recycling promises major environ-
and crisp jeans, Josh Eriksen may look mental benefits. A study by the National Renewable
like the clean-cut guy next door, but he Energy Laboratory has shown that biodiesel
isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s just finished significantly reduces emissions of carbon dioxide,
a pick-up of several five-gallon containers of waste the most prominent greenhouse gas, as well as
vegetable oil that once fried tempura at a local emissions of diesel particulate matter and toxic
sushi restaurant. compounds. And a 2004 report by the International
Standing in front of his home in Alexandria, Energy Agency calculated that the U.S. produces
Va., he describes how he spent $850 on a biodiesel enough waste cooking oil to make 500 million gal-
conversion kit for his 1985 Mercedes sedan two and lons of biodiesel a year.
a half years ago; he has fueled his car on waste oil While city, state and federal biodiesel fuel use
ever since. “I think that kit has paid for itself four isn’t new, in the last two years municipalities have
times over by now,” Eriksen says [his name has been begun to recycle and consume waste oil, once the
changed for the sake of privacy]. He won’t need to domain of do-it-yourself hobbyists like Eriksen.
buy regular diesel any time soon — and has even From start-up programs in some smaller Southern
considered going into business with a friend con- cities, to the Bay Area’s sophisticated “closed loop”
verting cars to biodiesel, possibly buying a truck to plan, to New York City’s recent bioheat mandate,
pick up and sell the waste oil. cities are grabbing their slice of the grease pie.
Biodiesel is a non-toxic, renewable fuel source
that diesel engines can burn with little or no The Southern BIY (Blend-It-Yourself)
modification. It can power anything from a car to Movement
an airplane, and can even fuel domestic and com- In Alexandria, Eriksen finds restaurants and other
mercial boilers. It consists of methyl esters created businesses offering their waste oil by scanning
by mixing virgin vegetable oil, waste vegetable the Vegetable Oil Exchange Web site. The Web
oil, waste animal fat or a combination of the three site is not the product of the grassroots waste oil
with methanol (another byproduct of the process, subculture, but rather a program of Montgomery
glycerin, is often used in soaps). County, Md.’s waste management department. Its
According to the National Biodiesel Board audience extends throughout Maryland, parts of
(NBB), production of biodiesel reached 250 million Virginia and even Pennsylvania. In addition to the
barrels in 2006 in the United States. That makes Vegetable Oil Exchange, the program provides a
it the fastest growing sector of the renewable fuel central location where local residents can drop
market. Manufacturing plants have been around off their waste oil; the county then turns the oil
for decades but are now multiplying at breakneck over to a company that converts it into biodiesel.
speed, and so too are waste oil recycling companies, Rick Dimont, manager of the county’s hazardous
capitalizing on the industry’s growth. waste and waste reduction program, says they’ve
by Hamida Kinge
Illustration by Gary Fogelson
Waste oil from frying food can be converted into biodiesel.