Response exceeds expectations on recycling cooking oil

Lorenz Coates, operations manager of Eden Green Energy, pumping household cooking oil into a truck at a gathering at JC Bake Shop in South Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Lorenz Coates, operations manager of Eden Green Energy, pumping household cooking oil into a truck at a gathering at JC Bake Shop in South Philadelphia on Tuesday. (YONG KIM / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 18, 2014

When Sage Piszek heard that the first barrel of used cooking oil was full, he was puzzled.

Already? Maybe rain had somehow seeped in.

But when he checked, it was full ... of oil.

That told Piszek that the project in South Philadelphia's Indonesian community, the first of its kind in the region, was working.

On Tuesday, officials - including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's regional administrator - and community members gathered for a ceremonial pump-out of that first barrel.

Piszek, sales manager of the oil recycling company Eden Green Energy on Federal Street, told them the project was "almost like a miracle. We found the right community."

Hani White, a project organizer, said used cooking oil used to be something no one wanted. "Now, it's becoming biodiesel, soap, and compost, and coming back to us."

Across the nation, as gasoline prices have risen - and as incentives to meet renewable fuel targets have grown - used cooking oil has become highly sought-after.

Business and institutions such as the Eagles, schools, and casinos, which used to pay to have the oil carted away, now sell it to companies that turn it into biodiesel.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, biodiesel home-brewers are turning out small batches for use in their oil-burning furnaces and trucks.

Household recycling has been slower to take off. It's hardly worth sending trucks from home to home.

"We flirted with the concept of residential recycling a year ago," Piszek said. They couldn't figure out how to do it. Until they teamed up with White, chair of the Indonesian diaspora Network of Greater Philadelphia.

Indonesians typically cook with a lot of oil, deep-frying fish, chicken, turnovers, tofu, tempeh, and the crackers known as krupuk. White said her mother, cooking for a family of four, might use several gallons a week.

In Indonesia, many people just pour the oil down a household drain. In Philadelphia, the drains started clogging and backing up. It was the women who made the connection to the oil. Some were continually using plumbing snakes. Others called plumbers, and it was getting expensive.

White saw it as "a community problem that costs a lot of money." For many people. Philadelphia's Indonesian community is one of the largest in the United States - about 3,000 people, said Andi Sjamsu, the network's vice chair.

About the same time, Lena Kim, outreach coordinator of EPA's Asian Pacific American Council, was trying to find new groups to work with. The pilot was begun.

Cooking oil isn't just a household problem. Even when it's in larger city sewer pipes, it can react with other materials to not only clog a city's underground arteries, but also cause massive blockages, dubbed "fatbergs."

Last year, under a street of a London suburb, a 15-ton blob of congealed fat - and other unmentionables - that was the size of a city bus had to be blasted out with water jets. It was so big, it damaged the pipes.

The Philadelphia project's organizers decided to place oil barrels throughout the community. But where?

Nationwide, thefts of the icky stuff have soared. In 2012, in the back of the Chestnut Street restaurant Buddakan, police found a white van with a reservoir system so elaborate they feared it might be some sort of explosive. But no. It held purloined cooking oil.

The organizers picked 13 locations, mostly in houses of worship - Muslim mosques and Buddhist temples. Who would steal from such places? (Actually, two barrels are missing already, Piszek said.)

Next: How to get the families to participate. Organizers decided to get the children involved. They held training sessions and the children made posters: "Oil down the sink? Don't be a fink, or the earth will stink."

They hounded their parents. "My daughter, it's like having the police in my home," Merlin Lamson said, smiling.

Anya Bakhri, 11, declared her parents good at recycling oil. "It's very different," she said. "We think of recycling cans and paper, not oil."

Now, worship services are preceded by gatherings at the barrel, where people empty their jugs and tease each other - "your oil smells like chicken, and mine smells like french fries."

"It's so much fun," White said.

The houses of worship stand to benefit, too. They expect to get 50 cents a gallon.

Eden Green takes the oil to a processor to be made into biofuel. But before that, food particles are separated and used to make compost, which White picks up once a week. Eden Green has donated a 20- by 70-foot garden plot to the community.

Some of the oil also is used to make bars of soap; a few were distributed as door prizes Tuesday.

Eden Green figured the company might get 100 gallons of oil from the community in a year.

But now, less than five months into it, it's collected 75 gallons - including the oil taken from the tank Wednesday at the JC Bake Shop on Snyder Avenue, one of the few drop-off points that isn't a house of worship.

EPA regional administrator Shawn Garvin told a knot of giggling children that while people often refer to youths as the nation's next environmental stewards, "you are current environmental stewards."


sbauers@phillynews.com

215-854-5147 @sbauers

www.inquirer.com/greenspace

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