Olive oil is fueling a truck that's making the rounds of restaurants in Oakland these days. It's GTECH Strategies' alternative-energy vehicle in a pilot campaign to collect waste cooking oil in a concentrated area.
The project has nine Oakland restaurants contributing so far.
Ting Yen stores about 35 pounds of used oil a day in the basement of Sushi Fuku on Oakland Avenue, including contributions from the owner of Oishii Bento across the street. He had previously contracted with a private company that paid him for the oil but he liked GTECH's local pitch.
"At the beginning I said, 'OK, I can do this.' It's a college town where a lot of people are very aware of the environmental issues. We're so little we couldn't do much, but it is one thing we can participate in."
The truck picks up oil every week and delivers it to Fossil Free Fuel in Braddock, which has it recycled to fuel vehicles that have been converted from diesel. Refuel Oakland is a piece of GTECH's larger Refuel program of collecting waste oil from restaurants throughout the area.
"It's a great program and we knew there would be some interest among our member businesses," said Alex Coyne, operations manager at the Oakland Business Improvement District -- an entity that manages the assessment district that Oakland businesses voted to establish in 1999.
"We started going door to door to promote this among our members in late 2010 and early 2011," he said. "It's not much different than what the business owner experienced before. Some gave up getting a payment for their oil. They recognize that consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and they expressed a desire to do right for the environment."
Sara Innamorato, GTECH's communications specialist, said the Refuel Oakland project is designed to "become a model that can be implemented in other business districts throughout the greater Pittsburgh area."
Fossil Free Fuel, which also collects from restaurants directly, gets variable amounts from GTECH. It sells oil fuel at its Braddock site and has plans for more locations, said Asa Watten, its CEO.
"We work with partners who are installing equipment that will create a larger demand for the supply we currently take in," he said.
In fact, biofuel is the main driver in the larger world of cooking oil collection. It has become so competitive nationwide that theft is a big problem for businesses that depend on payment for their oil, said Tom Cook, president of the National Renderers Association.
"There was a point when the value was pretty low and our members charged restaurant owners," he said, "but the value has gone up. We have members who are hiring investigators" to fight theft. "People have been caught. At first, nobody was going to get excited about someone stealing grease from the back of a restaurant, but some people are coming in with big tanks.
"There are more markets for [used oil] now. More non-profits are getting into it, but I have nothing negative to say about that because there's a lot of grease to be picked up."
When it is rid of impurities and moisture, the oil is processed into what rendering companies call yellow grease, he said. In addition to being turned into biodiesel, it is used to enhance animal feed for feed lots and farms and as fuel in boilers.
With so much market demand, why is GTECH doing this?
Ms. Innamorato said GTECH's interest is in keeping the waste as a local resource and to help green social enterprises. "Plus we can generate revenue for our organization through the sale of the donated oil, and it goes back into our other program areas," she said. "The other part is the community piece."
GTECH installed a drop-off bin at Frazier Farm, a community garden in South Oakland, from which it picks up oil that individual households donate. They stipulate that donations be vegetable or olive oil only -- no rendered animal fats. The donation can be left in any plastic or nonbreakable container with a good lid. The best container is the one the oil originally came in.
"We get funding for residential oil recycling outlets, which no one else is doing in the area," she said.
GTECH also has oil donation bins at Construction Junction and Whole Foods.
Ben Sciulli, owner of Milano's Pizza on Fifth Avenue, said he was paying $100 every three months to have a company take his oil and has since heard that hauling companies pay restaurants for oil.
"That's probably why this guy isn't in business anymore," he said, laughing. Letting GTECH have it was "a no-brainer, plus I'm OK with recycling and the environment."
Vic Bovalino, director of operations for a restaurant group that includes Burgatory, Fuel and Fuddle, Joe Mamas and Uncle Sam's Subs, is not participating in GTECH's project but the company they use -- Darling Delaware International -- has biofuel recyclers on the other end, he said.
Although there is payment for the oil, the restaurants have to pay the company to clean their grease traps, so "in our world, the net effect is zero but it is a lucrative business for them," he said. "Restaurants are among the greatest producers of biofuels."