The Coming Turf Battle for D.C.’s Grease

Photo Credit: New York Times

On Friday, the Huffington Post published my story about DC Biofuels and its plan to create the first urban biodiesel plant on the East Coast. In short, DC Biofuels wants to take the used cooking oil from Washington, D.C.’s restaurants and make it into something truly valuable: biodiesel to fuel trucks and buses. I learned about it last week at a brown-bag lunch hosted by the DC Environmental Network, and left wondering if smelly old grease is on its way to becoming a valuable commodity.

Used vegetable oil is a messy material that restaurants long haven’t known what to do with; if poured down the drain it gums up the sewer, and traditionally the restaurant has paid to haul it away. Restaurants that make greasy fare, like fast-food restaurants and Chinese joints, can produce dozens of gallons of it a week.

These days, a proliferating number of enterprises will take a restaurant’s greasy leavings for free and try to make some money off it. In the D.C. area, the suitors include Greenlight Biofuels, Smarter Fuel and the American Renewable Fuel Institute. Another operator is Valley Proteins, which mostly converts old oil into animal feed. (If readers know of others, please mention them in the comments.)

Participants in the DC Environmental Network event groused that Valley Proteins isn’t a worthy recipient of played-out cooking oil because the company is using it for something other than fuel.

None of these enterprises have to pay for the leftover grease — yet. But as they get more established, how long will it be before the restaurants realize they could make a few bucks by selling it?

That would truly be a sign of our resource-constrained times.

Note: Thanks to reader feedback, this post has been modified from its original version.

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