From Grease to Fuel

Recycling drive an effort to put discarded cooking oil into city vehicles instead of easily clogged sewers


Carolyn Jones | | Monday, December 29, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- The cooks of San Francisco, where sauteing is a sacred rite for some, now have a place to send their used cooking oil without turning the city's sewer system into a choked maze of congealed grease.

On Saturday, the city kicked off a four-day cooking oil recycling drive, during which residents can drop off their discarded olive oil, canola oil and other kitchen grease for eventual use in the city's fleet of biofuel vehicles. At the last grease recycling drive, over Thanksgiving weekend, San Franciscans unloaded more than 2 tons of cooking oil.

"It'd be a shame to send this stuff to landfill. We knew there's a better way," said Ray Lucas of San Francisco, who was dropping off several plastic bottles of cooking oil at the grease recycle bin at the Whole Foods market on Potrero Hill on Saturday morning. "We were actually keeping two bottles of used oil from last Christmas, hoping we'd find a place to recycle it."

Lucas and his wife, Lorraine, had made deep-fried Italian fritters called zeppole over Christmas, and the used oil had to go somewhere. If they had poured it down the kitchen drain, the oil would have coagulated and clogged the wastewater pipes. Kitchen grease is a major problem for the city's pipes, accounting for 50 percent of all sewer emergencies a year, said Tyrone Jue, spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

"Workers have to go down there and hack at it with pickaxes and jackhammers," he said. "It's hard as a rock. It's sort of like what happens with grease in your arteries."

Pipes clogged with kitchen grease cost the city $3.5 million a year in repairs, he said. Hoping to cut down on costs, the city started the grease recycling program in 2007 for residents and businesses. The city offers free grease pickup for restaurants, and so far some 500 - about 20 percent of San Francisco's total - have enrolled.

After it's collected, the grease goes to the city's wastewater treatment plant. There it is poured into tanks, where bits of food settle to the bottom and are removed. Then the oil is sent to a biodiesel manufacturing plant for further refinement. Eventually it will make its way to the fuel tanks of San Francisco's fleet of fire trucks, ambulances, Muni buses and other vehicles.

The city's first grease drive for residents was at Thanksgiving 2007, when it collected about a ton of oil from deep-fried turkeys, sauteed peppers and other treats from San Francisco's kitchens. The amount has doubled this year, although it's only a small fraction of the 65,000 gallons a year that ends up in the city's sewer pipes, Jue said.

Still, not everyone was sold on the idea of loading their cars with used cooking oil and hauling it to a grease recycling center.

"I'm way too lazy," said Shahin Garibaldi, who was shopping Saturday at Whole Foods on Fourth Street. "I'm just not going to do it, unless they came door-to-door to pick it up. Besides, we don't usually have that much oil left over."

Bill Choy, who was shopping with his 2-year-old daughter, Phoebe, said he didn't know about the program but would consider it next year.

"I deep-fried a turkey and ended up with 5 gallons of peanut oil," he said. "I had to lug it somewhere and it was a big pain in the butt."

Lisa Lo and Steve Zhou, shopping at Whole Foods on Fourth Street, said they already recycle cooking oil, by reusing it for other recipes until it's depleted.

"We don't pour anything down the drain," Lo said. "We just use it up."

The city has provided grease recycling bins at three Whole Foods parking lots and at the Costco warehouse at 10th and Bryant streets. Residents can drop off kitchen grease stored in leak-proof containers during the stores' open hours through Dec. 30. More information can be found atwww.greasecycle.orgor by calling 415 695-7366.

As the program becomes more popular, the city hopes to offer the service 365 days a year, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

"It'll take another year or two to see if it's making any difference with the city's sewer pipes, but people seem happy to have a place to get rid of this stuff," Jue said. "Obviously the word is spreading."

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