hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires




Liquid gold

Use of restaurant oil as fuel sets off ‘grease wars’ around region

Contributing writer

The barrel of used cooking oil behind a local restaurant wasn’t much to look at.

But it was enough to light up the face of Eric Ovitt, a driver for one of several cooking-oil collection companies fighting over the region’s new “liquid gold.”

Ovitt pulled his combination tanker truck and flatbed behind New Way Lunch on Route 9 one day this summer and peeked under the lid.

It wasn’t a big haul: 35 gallons. But it was just one stop on his route. And all those gallons -- from the large-volume Chinese restaurants to the smallest sub shops -- add up.

From his home base in Hudson Falls, Ovitt drives around five days a week, collecting used grease at restaurants from Troy to Lake George and pumping it into his 1,500-gallon tanker.

Collection companies like the one he’s associated with, Environmental Energy Recycling Corp., pool the oil and sell it for use as fuel in power plants and vehicles, usually as biodiesel. Others sell some of the grease for use as a fattening agent in animal feed.

Only five years ago, restaurants were paying $1 per gallon to have it taken away. But now, as gas prices have risen and states have pushed for greater use of biofuels, collection companies are paying the restaurants $1 or more per gallon. And the companies, in turn, can take in $3 per gallon for a cleaned-up product known as “yellow grease.”

“It’s amazing how much demand there is for this now,” Ovitt said.

That makes for sometimes testy competition with the other big collector in the Glens Falls area, Baker Commodities, a national animal rendering company that has been in the business a long time.

Ovitt, in fact, had just won over a customer from Baker. Farther up Route 9, he pulled into Frank’s Pasta & Pizza. He pulled out new barrels from the back of his truck and slapped the stickers for his company, EERC, on them.

Baker Commodities has been around for 20 years, while Environmental Energy has only been competing in the area for less than a year. Ovitt said their name is starting to get known, however.

From grease to green fuel

Environmental Energy is the collection arm of Associated Restaurant Owners for a Sustainable Earth. The group promotes itself as being more “green,” particularly because of the work of its partner, the Alternative Fuel Foundation. The foundation is working to expand a program it runs in the Boston area through which restaurants donate their oil to help fund alternative energy education programs.

Bill DiDio, the owner of Frank’s Pasta & Pizza, said he wanted to try these new kids on the block.

“It seems like a progressive company,” he said. “It’s a good thing they’re doing.”

At another stop, there was confusion over which company was supposed to pick up the waste oil. Quick phone calls to the Environmental Energy salesperson and a talk with the owner inside revealed that the restaurant was still a Baker client but that the company was welcome to make a bid.

The waste-oil companies are also making more an effort to visit smaller towns to get new clients, Ovitt said.

Environmental Energy recently went to a restaurant in Granville that didn’t know anything about getting money for their used cooking oil.

“They said, ‘We’re just throwing our grease away,’” Ovitt said.

Another restaurant in Lake George used to give its used oil to a farmer, but the farmer doesn’t want it anymore, he said.

The collection companies also stop at golf courses, ski areas, hotels, bowling alleys, hospitals and colleges, all of which are big producers.

Baker Commodities is always trying to get more customers too. The company tells restaurants north of Albany that it’s been in the area the longest and has the infrastructure to do a better job, said Vince DeMarco, the company’s Albany branch manager.

“Whenever there’s new restaurants, we try to be the first one there,” DeMarco said. “It’s first come, first served.”

Rendering companies, which have been collecting the used cooking grease for years, are now positioning themselves as being just as environmentally conscious as new outfits like Environmental Energy.

DeMarco said Baker, as an animal rendering company that uses all parts of its slaughtered animals, has been a recycler since before the concept became popular.

“Everybody’s on this ‘green’ thing,” he said. “We’ve been green for so many years.”

Several other waste-oil collection companies also serve the wider region or parts of it, including Western Mass Rendering Co., Darling International and Mopac Rendering.

Growing demand, higher prices

For several years now, as gasoline prices have surged, the value of humble barrels of used cooking oil everywhere has boomed.

Waste oil is suddenly a profitable commodity as people seek to turn it into fuel, and those sticky barrels tucked away by the trash bins are no longer something eateries have to pay to get rid of.

In 2000, yellow grease, which is processed used fryer oil, was trading at about 8 cents per pound, or about 61 cents per gallon.

Today, it’s going for 43 cents per pound, or about $3.27 a gallon, said Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association.

So a restaurant with 150 gallons in barrels out back has a product worth about $450 on the market once it’s processed.

In the past decade, the idea of biodiesel has taken off. The number of gallons of biodiesel being used has increased from 10 million gallons in 2001 to 222 million gallons in 2010, after spiking even higher before the recession hit, according to figures from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Biofuel uses plants – or in this case, waste oil originally made from plants -- as fuel to help break reliance on fossil fuels. The federal government and some states have pushed the use of corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel, but proponents say even a waste product like used cooking oil helps to reduce the need for fossil fuels like oil and natural gas.

To help offset the cost of biofuel, the federal government offers incentives to spur the production of biodiesel. Those incentives apply regardless of the product used, so the government programs boost the reuse of waste oil too, Cook said.

At the same time, some states have passed laws requiring that a certain percentage of the fuel used within their borders be biofuel,

Benefits and pitfalls

Biodiesel enthusiasts say the fuel is much less polluting than conventional diesel, with lower emissions of sulfur dioxide, hydrocarbons, particulates and carbon monoxide. Biodiesel from used restaurant oil is usually a blend of yellow grease with regular diesel fuel.

But biodiesel’s value in reducing pollution is limited, because even if all the animal fats and greases were converted into fuel, they’d provide no more than 5 percent of the diesel fuel the nation currently burns, Cook said.

Some scientists also skeptical of the energy benefits of biofuels in general, and especially of corn-based ethanol, which they say requires more energy – for growing corn, shipping it and processing in into fuel – than it yields as fuel.

Supporters say biodiesel made from restaurant oil, however, requires a relatively low energy input to be converted into fuel, because it’s essentially a waste product from cooking.

The demand for used restaurant oil has gotten strong enough to trigger “grease wars” both locally and nationally, with collection companies fighting over clients – and accusing competitors of stealing their grease.

Although theft from someone’s property is already illegal, some people still figure waste cooking oil is simply trash and take it for their own use or, in some cases, to sell it. So some states, like California and Virginia, have written laws to specifically outlaw taking it.

DeMarco said some waste oil has been disappearing locally.

“There’s a lot of theft,” he said. “Our biggest thing right now is we’re actually paying more money to design containers where the grease isn’t stolen. Because, when you’re paying a customer for their oil and somebody steals it, it’s like somebody taking money out of the register.”

He said he’d actually come upon someone about to take his oil.

Green marketing for eateries

The Alternative Fuel Foundation, the nonprofit arm of Environmental Energy Recycling, is hoping some businesses in the region won’t mind giving up the extra cash and will instead donate their oil to help the environment even more.

The foundation will soon be asking businesses to donate their used cooking oil as a way to fund sustainability education programs and create biofuel.

The foundation has an arrangement with an alliance of environmental and biofuel companies called Greenworks Holding to process all its oil into biofuel, much of which is used at power plants, said Bill Fiore, the foundation’s executive director.

Participating businesses will forgo payments for their waste oil, but they’ll gain a tax deduction and will be featured on a new Web site (locallygreen.org) and smart-phone application (LocallyGreen Restaurant Finder) that promotes them as a green business, Fiore said.

The money the foundation gets from the donations is given to school and university environmental projects.

Fiore said the foundation didn’t just want to collect the oil and get in a bidding war with competing companies.

“That really never ends,” he said. “We wanted to come in with a unique proposition. And we also wanted to do something admirable with the used cooking oil.”

Although some oil collected by other companies ends up in animal feed, Fiore said it’s better used to cut emissions.

“The primary mission of the Alternative Fuel Foundation is to offset carbon emissions that would otherwise be generated by traditional petroleum usage,” Fiore said.

Smaller restaurants, he said, probably wouldn’t miss the relatively small amounts they get from selling their waste oil – amounts that might total only a couple hundred dollars per year.

But they would gain from new foot traffic resulting from the Web promotion, Fiore said. Some also could benefit from a tax deduction of up to $5,000, he added.

The program has taken off in Boston, and now the foundation is starting to tie as many as 2,000 businesses in this region into it, Fiore said.

The effort will allow restaurants to get credit for a number of green initiatives, including: having their oil used for biofuel, donating the oil, being a drop-off site to accept consumer donations of oil, serving eco-friendly food and promoting their initiatives through the foundation’s Web site via a YouTube video.

The Web site and smart-phone application will have a restaurant locator and show a number of green leaves representing the number of green initiatives at each participating restaurant.

The local eateries will join about 11,000 others in the program. The foundation, now concentrated in the Northeast, also is expanding to the Southeast, the Midwest and California.

Are restaurants going to donate? They do in Boston, but the foundation’s sales director, Mark Gross, admits the economy isn’t helping and that some businesses are too small to benefit from the tax deduction.

“It’s tough,” Gross said. “Especially in this market, people want the cash.”

But Fiore said the typical restaurant produces so little oil that the amount of cash being lost is insignificant.

Fifty gallons per month at 50 cents per gallon only gets the business $300 for the year. Bringing in new business through the program should be worth at least that or more, he said.

Your Ad could be Here