Brent Baker has quite an appetite for the contents of Brooklyn’s deep-fat fryers. Roughly two decades ago, he was a fire-eater and activist, promoting biodiesel and helping to set up backyard refineries across the country from a tour bus (PBS called him the Johnny Appleseed of biodiesel). These days he’s the founder and besuited CEO of New York’s first biofuel provider, Tri-State Biodiesel, which, just five years after its humble beginnings in Baker’s East Village apartment, has a fleet of seven trucks to collect used grease from roughly 2,500 eateries, turning restaurant refuse into gallons and gallons of renewable energy.
New York’s spent fryer oil is more often seen as a nuisance than a resource. Since it’s notorious for clogging up city sewer systems, pouring restaurant volumes of “yellow grease” down the sink or in the gutter is illegal. Most restaurants pay to have it hauled away; dumpers face fines of up to $10,000—and, often, backed-up drains.
Tri-State takes this trash and spins it into liquid gold with a business model that’s uniquely New York: the city’s population density (and its penchant for fried foods) make it feasible to collect the necessary quantities of grease quickly and efficiently, burning minimal fuel in the collecting process.
Unlike petroleum, formed when ancient plant life was fossilized and compressed into oil, today’s biofuels come from 21st-century plant sources. Many, such as ethanol, rely for the most part on virgin crops, typically corn in this country, grown specifically for the refinery. Given the recent volatility in global prices for commodities like corn, a hungry ethanol market has been blamed for everything from food riots to the deposition of leaders in Haiti and Malaysia. Tri-State’s model, in contrast, keeps things local–dipping into the waste stream, not the food supply.
Along with a growing number of alternative energy companies, Tri-State trolls side streets for thousands of gallons of used cooking oil, everywhere from Aurora in Williamsburg to Flatbush Farm in the Slope, responding to dispatch calls or coming out for scheduled pickups (restaurants pay Tri-State $25 per collection).
“We consider restaurants to be partners in starting this new industry and we bend over backward to make this easy for them,” says Baker. “We really tried to understand this from the restaurant’s perspective, too. We polled hundreds of restaurants before we got started to find out what they wanted and we have a very low turnover rate, so it seems like we’re doing our job. We’re there when they’re full, even if it’s not when we’re scheduled, and we don’t do anything that would scare their sidewalk café customers. We show up in uniform so it doesn’t feel like we’re just randomly stumbling into someone’s kitchen.”
Baker, who has met with Al Gore, says that across political parties “a lot of people hear biodiesel and immediately think ethanol,” which they reject out of hand. “That’s sort of like boycotting split pea soup because you don’t like the sound of chicken noodle—we do things very differently.”
Born of post-consumer trash rather than industrially farmed monocrops, yellow-grease biodiesel cuts down on the environmental and economic costs of other biofuels like ethanol. At least on a small scale, yellow-grease biodiesel is much more efficient—no additional petroleum-laden fertilizer, pesticides or tractor fuel are needed. “Mining” happens with a kitchen and a hose. Who needs to drill the Arctic Wildlife Refuge when we’ve got an estimated 20,000 restaurants right here in the five boroughs?
Dan Studwell, sous-chef at Flatbush Farm, couldn’t be more thrilled to be a fuel source. “It seems crazy to me that we’re the richest nation on earth, but we’re behind a place like Brazil when it comes to alternative energy. [Yellow-grease] recycling really fits into what we do over here. We try to be an environmentally conscious place and it’s really satisfying to add cooking oil to the list of things that get reused somehow.”
By working with Tri-State, Studwell diverts roughly 2,000 gallons of yellow grease out of landfills and into fuel tanks each year. “I hope this is the beginning of a longer process. What if the tractors that harvested the food that we eat could run on biodiesel, on waste oil from right here? If restaurants could give back to farms, instead of doing most of the taking, that would close the loop in such a great way. This is a small step in that direction.”
“Using spent grease this way makes so much more sense than hauling it to a landfill,” agrees Annie White, director of Global Green’s Coalition for Resource Recovery, a network of businesses working to reduce the city’s waste stream. “It’s a great example of industrial ecology, an approach in which the waste of one system is the fuel for another, just like you find in nature.”
And the pickup is easy on restaurant staff. “I get a can from them and when it’s full, they come pick it up,” says Gaspare Villa, whose four restaurants, including Aurora on Grand Street, have worked with Tri-State for several years.
Nancy Hedeen of Juliette on North Fifth Street says that, like so many other big ideas in the neighborhood, music was the inspiration. “There was a band riding a veggie-oil-powered van this summer, and they stopped by to ask if we could fill them up. We did, and we got a huge kick out of it.” Now the restaurant works with Tri-State. “It’s recycling, which is great. We’d need to get rid of it anyway. Plus they come pick it up.”
Currently Tri-State trucks its grease to Connecticut, Pennsylvania, even Ohio, for conversion into pumpable fuel before bringing it back to New York for redistribution. But Baker and others are pushing for New York to open a biodiesel refinery in Red Hook, which could “close the loop” of production, and process up to 3 million gallons of biodiesel a year. Lest fears of the bad old days of Brooklyn oil refineries loom, rest assured that biodiesel refining is a relatively benign process, since the primary input is just fat. And because it emits less than a quarter of the CO2 and half the particulates of regular diesel, biodiesel is part of the Mayor’s PlaNYC air-quality improvement targets for 2030. The city’s working on the conversion of its heaviest trucks, and Parks and Rec vehicles have already been converted to run on alternative fuels, though they currently buy biodiesel from out-of-state.
Plans to refine biodiesel within the five boroughs have recently stalled and New York’s eco-oil barons are still forced to take their grease elsewhere to turn it into a gasoline alternative.
“The current outlook is very different than it was a few months ago,” says Baker. “All the components are in place, and the city is very enthusiastically supportive of this project, but given the budget crisis, the city really needs to hear from constituencies that issues like air quality and sustainability are important.”
In lean times, New Yorkers are looking for new ways to live off the fat of the land.
How to help: Call your local representative and tell them you support PlaNYC’s bioheat mandate to get biofuel into the city’s oil heat boilers, and the current conversion of the city’s fleet to biodiesel. If you’re a restaurant looking for pickup, go to tristatebiodiesel.com or let your local gas station know that you’d like to be able to put biodiesel in your car.
Saskia Cornes studies farming, literature and farming in literature as a graduate student at Columbia University. If she ever moves out of New York and buys a car, she hereby vows to run it on biodiesel.