The search for renewable sources of fuel has been ongoing for decades, but now the spotlight is on the catering industry, as companies are urged to recycle today's waste cooking oil for tomorrow's fuel. Anna McNamara investigates.
Imagine a planet independent of fossil fuels. A self-sustaining world where the likes of the USA, United Kingdom, China and Russia fuel transport with recycled cooking waste? Politically, environmentally and socially, the implications of widespread biodiesel use are profound. Yet such a change appears to be starting in an unlikely place. Across the country, and around the world, a growing number of caterers are recycling their waste cooking oils into fuel.
This is not an entirely new concept; in the UK a handful of farmers have been using small plants to create their own biodiesel for farm machinery since the early 1990s. However, it's over the past two years that the potential of biodiesel is beginning to be recognised. Argent Energy plant operates the UK's first large-scale biodiesel plant, which opened in Motherwell, Lanarkshire, in April last year and can produce 50 million litres of biodiesel per year. And Biodiesel Filling Stations UK notes a steadily increasing number of petrol stations selling biodiesel on the forecourt.
The process of purifying waste cooking oils and recycling them into biodiesel is expensive, but as dwindling oil reserves continue to push up pump prices, biodiesel will be seen as a more attractive and environmentally beneficial alternative. And it all depends on caterers recycling their waste. At present, only a minority have their waste oils collected for recycling, and this has to change. The technological and logistical support also needs to be in place to simplify the recycling process.
Traditionally, caterers had three options when disposing of their waste cooking oils. The first, and easiest, was to dispose of it into the sewerage system. However, this causes pollution and attracts vermin, and the practice was made illegal from 1 January 2006.
The second option is to mix waste cooking oils with enzymes before disposing of it into sewerage systems. Enzymes break down the waste cooking oils, which can then be disposed of into the sewers. The problem with enzymes, however, is that no one is entirely sure of their efficiency or their long-term environmental impact. There are several examples to indicate that the fats, oils and greases reform further down the sewerage line, causing similar problems.
Finally, there's the grease trap (also known as a grease interceptor or separator). This removes the waste cooking oils into a separate container, and it can then be disposed of with the rest of the rubbish. However, grease traps vary in quality, require constant maintenance and are rarely cleaned.
So what's changed? Now several companies provide fully automatic grease interceptors that are much simpler to maintain, and have a much smaller kitchen footprint. Fats, oils and greases are separated into an external container before it reaches the sewerage system. Grease Guardian is one company that has now partnered with several collection agencies to ensure that grease can now be collected free where its grease trap is installed.
Aside from reducing dependency on fossil fuels, biodiesel produces fewer carbon emissions. North East Biofuels, a consortium of petrochemical specialists, recently concluded that biodiesels could reduce carbon emissions by up to 94% compared with fossil fuels. Biodiesel Filling Stations UK affirms: "The main environmental advantage is that biodiesel is carbon-neutral, so using 100% biodiesel in your vehicle means you're not adding to the global warming crisis."
Long term, what impact will this have on the catering industry? Increased use of biodiesel should soon see petrol stations purchasing from biodiesel distribution and recycling centres, which in turn should buy waste cooking oils from caterers. This could, potentially, open up another income stream to major restaurants.
Yet the implications could go further than that. As oil prices continue to rise, why shouldn't major caterers simply purchase or establish their own recycling operations? Major caterers could become self-sustaining and carbon-neutral by recycling waste cooking oils for fuel.
The crusade to reduce global warming and dependence on fossil fuels shows no sign of losing momentum, nor can it afford to. Through recycling waste cooking oils, caterers now have an opportunity to make a significant difference to the future of this planet.
Anna McNamara, Grease Guardian Products
0845 300 8831