Everyone can do a lot at home to protect the environment and our water supply. Recycling used cooking oil is a valuable step you can take at home. But it doesn’t have to end there if you decide to be an advocate for the environment and ask local restaurants, hotels, or other commercial kitchens if they recycle their oil. You can help hold them accountable and encourage responsible practices.
Kitchens in hotels and restaurants generate about three billion pounds of used cooking oil each year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If it’s not recycled, cooking oil can clog drains, cause backups, contaminate waterways, and harm vulnerable ecosystems or marine life, or congealed oil can take up valuable space in landfills where it contributes to global warming.
Restaurants typically work with a used cooking oil recycling company that provides tanks for storage the dirty oil until it can be collected by a vacuum truck. The oil is transported to a refinery, where impurities are removed through thermal and chemical processes. Then, the cleaned oil is sold to a company that makes products such as biodiesel, renewable diesel, or animal feed.
Where Things Can Go Wrong
The cooking oil recycling process sounds simple, but a lot can go wrong can and lead to used oil ending up in a landfill or, worse, in the sewer system. For example, the oil may be contaminated before the used cooking oil recycling company picks it up. If this happens, the recycling company may be unable to refine the oil properly and will have to landfill it instead.
Contamination can occur in a variety of ways:
- Rainwater can get into a tank left open outside.
- Restaurant employees may throw other food or packaging waste into the oil collection bin.
- Passersby with access to the collection bin might add litter, motor oil, or asphalt.
Restaurants can avoid this by using filters and locks on collection bins and training employees regularly on proper oil disposal procedures.
The price at which a used cooking oil collector can sell oil to a biofuel producer fluctuates. When the going rate is high, thieves seize the opportunity.
Watch for cars parked behind restaurants, typically at night, to identify potential thieves who steal used cooking oil before a legitimate company gets there to pick it up. Oil thieves may also show up in broad daylight, claiming to be contractors working with the used cooking oil company. Do not approach thieves yourself. If you suspect someone is stealing, alert the restaurant’s owner or manager, who can determine if it’s time to contact the police.
When they steal oil, thieves don’t want it to get contaminated—they won’t be able to profit from it. However, they are typically in a rush to avoid getting caught. They often damage tanks or spill oil on the pavement, where it can seep into a drain or groundwater and cause backups, known as fatbergs.
How You Can Help Stop Fatbergs and Environmental Damage
When you visit a restaurant, look for the grease tank outside. While some restaurants have started storing their oil indoors, many still keep used oil in large tanks or drums behind the restaurant in a fenced area or parking lot. The drums are metal cylinders with tops. Some much larger tanks look something like this:
Look around the tank. Are there any spills? If so, not only is that oil not being recycled, but it can contaminate pipes, contribute to fatbergs that block sewers, and, in the worst-case scenario, coat animals and plants with suffocating oil.
Tell the restaurant you suspect they have a leak and ask them to clean it up. Inform the manager you’ll return and dine only when the restaurant has cleaned up its cooking oil act.
If the bin and area around it look clean, that’s good news. The restaurant is using proper protocols to recycle oil. It’s a responsible restaurant to patronize with confidence.
You might also ask the restaurant manager if they’ll allow you to drop off your used cooking oil for recycling. Although recycling used cooking oil at home can be a great way to help the environment, it’s not something the curbside recycling trucks will pick up. If there are no recycling drop-off centers take oil near you, a local restaurant may be willing to take it.
You can also advocate for stricter laws regarding grease theft. The crime wasn’t taken seriously for many years, and law enforcement wasn’t always sure what to do about it. However, oil theft has become a big business often committed by organized crime, and it causes expensive losses. Some states, including California, have implemented stricter laws to protect used cooking oil. You can add your state to the list by contacting your local representatives and telling them you want them to focus on the grease theft problem.
Your voice counts. Paying attention and letting restaurants know that you are aware of their recycling efforts may ensure they recycle used cooking oil properly.
About the author
Jeff Yasinski is CEO of D&W Alternative Energy, a used cooking oil collection company based in Trenton, NJ, since 2009.