Turning waste into a valuable commodity
Reduce, reuse and recycle is a phrase we are all familiar with. Decades ago, people began to realize that there is no inherent waste in a process—waste is only the result of the inefficient use of resources. If there is an opportunity to turn waste back into a valuable commodity, it has the power to reduce environmental impact, cut costs, and present a business opportunity to sell it as a product or as an input to another process.
From Waste to Value
Fats, oils and grease (FOG) traditionally have been deemed a waste product and a difficult problem for wastewater treatment and sewerage systems. FOG has been the bane of the wastewater treatment industry for many years, as it would often end up being dumped down the drain. It also is one of the largest contributors to sewer clogging and overflow issues, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
One of my coworkers held a position where he was responsible for regulatory compliance at a national chain of highway truck stops. While you can imagine the large number of environmental regulatory issues one might face in such a position, grease disposal from fryers and grease traps ultimately was one of the most pressing problems he faced.
Renderers have collected used restaurant grease for use in products such as animal feed for years. Traditionally, they charged restaurant owners for the collection and disposal service. Restaurant grease, however, also can be used in the production of biofuel. The rapid development and use of biodiesel engines has created a high demand for cooking fats.
Today, the demand for grease in biofuel production is so high that the haulers pay the restaurant owners for their grease. Turning waste grease into a feedstock for biofuel is a great example of the conversion of waste to a valuable commodity.
The used grease from restaurant fryers—also known as “yellow grease,” which differs from the less-valuable grease collected from grease traps known as “brown grease”—is a commodity with regular market pricing tracked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the time I authored this article, the price of yellow grease was between $34 and $39 per hundredweight (100 lb), or about $0.34 to $0.39 per pound.
The Pursuit of FOG
Unfortunately, waste grease has become so valuable that it has resulted in theft and become the focus of organized crime.
A typical 55-gal barrel of waste grease weighs about 500 lb and will sell for as much as $160. The thieves do not get that much on the black market; however, some reports indicate that they receive from $80 to $100 per barrel, making it a tempting target. Because the grease is processed and eventually sold as fuel, the price of yellow grease rises with the rise of oil and gas prices.
Initially, yellow grease theft was for personal use, but as the demand for grease increased and the market price rose, more sophisticated thieves supported by organized crime began to emerge.
Cracking Down on Theft
Renderers are not standing still. Many are hiring security officers and working with local law enforcement to catch the thieves. Some renderers have been forced to install and use sophisticated security systems. One company, for example, has installed surveillance cameras on grease collectors to record a time stamp and collect a digital photo any time a grease collector is opened. Another company is using software that contains an algorithm that looks for anomalies in the amount of grease collected at certain types of restaurants. If the software detects unusual patterns in the amount of grease collected—indicating someone is stealing grease—the company can dispatch security officers to the suspicious sites to investigate.
Regulations and task forces also are popping up around the country. Earlier this year, a new law in North Carolina went into effect, making it a felony to steal yellow grease valued at more than $1,000. North Carolina joins other states and local governments with specific laws governing the theft of grease and oil. In some cities and states, special task forces have been created to find and track thieves targeting restaurant grease. In one publicized case, a Georgia task force caught organized thieves stealing grease from a regular route of restaurants served by one rendering company. When the police apprehended the thieves, they were found with a truckload of more than 12,000 gal of yellow grease with a market value of more than $33,000.
While it is unfortunate that this situation has created an opportunity for organized crime, it is good news that more grease is being kept out of drains and converted from a waste to a valuable product.
If FOG has taught us anything, it is that waste can turn into profit. I wonder what “waste” will become the next valuable commodity?