Used Cooking Oil and the Environment

oil and grease collection

The environmental impact of used cooking oil recycling

A used cooking oil recycling company such as ReGrease collects used cooking oil (UCO) from restaurants, hotels, stadiums and food processors. They bring the used oil to their plant and screen it to remove solids and burned foodstuffs and then heat it to remove water. Once it is sufficiently purified it can be sold to a biodiesel manufacturer to be made into biodiesel, renewable diesel or SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel).

According to the EPA, the environmental effect of improper used cooking oil disposal and petroleum disposal are very similar. That is, they are both toxic and once they are in waterways they can destroy habitats for aquatic life as well as for animals. They can coat the feathers and gills of birds and fish and prevent them from breathing, much as the oil from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989. It can also coat feathers and skin and prevent mammals and fish from managing their body temperatures.

On a brighter note, used cooking oil, when recycled properly, doesn’t just prevent this type of damage to animals and the environment, but it can contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gases by replacing traditional diesel fuel with biodiesel and renewable diesel. These cleaner burning biofuels can reduce greenhouse gases by 74% as compared to regular diesel, when viewed on a full lifecycle basis.

What are greenhouse gases?

Greenhouse gases act like a greenhouse in that they trap heat. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide collect in the atmosphere and trap radiation and sunlight that has bounced off the surface of the earth. This heat and radiation would otherwise continue into space. The rapid rise in Greenhouse gases over the past century has contributed to the speed and intensification of climate change.

The most notable greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide (C02). Carbon dioxide has increased about 90% since the 1970s according to the EPA caused mainly by fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes. Other greenhouse gases include methane, nitrous oxide and water vapor along with industrial fluorinated gases.

Though natural cycles and fluctuations have been documented over the past 800,000 years, our current era of warming is attributable to human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels. The largest source of greenhouse gases is transportation, followed by electricity production and industrial activity. However, recycling used cooking oil can help mitigate these effects.

What are Biodiesel, Renewable Diesel and Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)?

These three fuels are the primary products derived from used cooking oil that we recycle. 

Biodiesel is a renewable, biodegradable fuel made from used cooking oil, animal fats and other plant-based oils, such as rapeseed, palm, soy or sunflower. It is fuel composed of fatty acid methyl esters made from the transesterification of fats and oils. This is how it works:

A triglyceride molecule has three fatty acid moieties linked to a glycerol residue. Reaction of a triglyceride with an alcohol is known as transesterification. Transesterification produces fatty esters and glycerol. In production of biodiesel, a triglyceride is reacted with methanol. The methyl esters formed are the biodiesel.

Biodiesel is blended with petroleum diesel to make different formulations of biodiesel, typically labelled as B5, B20 up to B100 where the number represents the % of biodiesel in the blend.

Biodiesel has higher lubricity than regular diesel which means it can reduce the wear on an engine. It also contains almost no sulfur and does contain more oxygen than petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is blended with petroleum diesel because biodiesel  can thicken up at low winter temperatures. Biodiesel production increased from 2009 to 2022 where it seems to have peaked largely due to the production of renewable diesel displacing biodiesel.

Renewable diesel is a fuel made from oils (eg. used cooking oil, soybean oil, animal fats) that is chemically identical to petroleum diesel. Renewable diesel can be used as a replacement for petroleum diesel which is why it is referred to as a “drop-in fuel”.  It is not a requirement to be blended with petroleum diesel.

Renewable diesel can be made from a number of different processes. Traditional hydrotreating is the method used most often in commercial settings today. Hydrotreating involves reacting the feedstock (eg used cooking oil) with hydrogen under elevated temperature and pressure. 

Production of production of renewable diesel begin to skyrocket in 2018 and is on a rapid trajectory. In the US, almost all renewable diesel is consumed in California as their LCFS system (Low Carbon Fuel Standard) provides attractive financial incentives for the sale of renewable diesel there. Production capacity in the US is concentrated in Louisiana and Texas.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is an alternative fuel made from fats and oils that reduces admissions from air transport vehicles. Currently SAF must be blended with Jet A-1 to a maximum of 50% depending on the type of feedstock used (oils, biomass, woody biomass, municipal waste) to produce it.

SAF is made from hydrocarbon molecules through a process called hydrodeoxygenation.

Oxygen originating  from renewable raw materials is removed with the help of hydrogen. Other impurities are removed in this process. Hydrocarbons are then isomerized to fine-tune the properties of the end product. During this process the hydrocarbons are branched to create the desired properties.

In sum, these three fuels are important to the overall effort to reduce greenhouse gases and slow climate change.

Is used cooking oil recycling a big business?

Surprisingly, used cooking oil recycling is a very big business. The market for UCO worldwide is expected to reach 12.3B USD in 2032. In 2022 the market size was estimated at 6.2B USD in 2022. These represent basically what is recycled today which largely comes from restaurants and institutions.

Towns and cities are only beginning to get into the used cooking oil recycling business by setting up collection points for households to drop off their used cooking oil. That market likely dwarfs the size of the used cooking oil disposal market today. The solid waste management department of Houston, TX provides a number of locations where household cooking oil can be dropped off for recycling.

Who buys used cooking oil?

UCO companies like ReGrease will purchase used cooking oil from commercial kitchens such as restaurants, casinos, hotels, and stadiums. ReGrease is a regional company serving Houston, San Antonio and Austin, TX.  The industry has a few nationwide/international companies and a larger number of regional companies. Regional companies are located close to their clients and are adept at providing prompt, quality service for used cooking oil collection, 24/7 emergency service and grease trap cleaning.

Many grease collectors offer a rebate to restaurants if they provide a large volume of high quality used cooking oil to their collector. Used cooking oil collection companies will not pick up oil from homes or residential areas, however. The quantities are too small, and home cooks will need to drop their oil off at local recycling centers, or dispose of it in the trash.

Regional companies do the first steps of purification to meet the standards required for sale of refined used cooking oil to the biodiesel manufacturers.

Where can I dispose of household used cooking oil in Houston, Austin and San Antonio?

For Households:

For residences in Houston

Houston TX has a number of drop off locations for used cooking oil. This map shows you all of the locations in the Houston area.

For residences in Austin

Austin recycles 12000 pounds of grease annually.

For residences in San Antonio

San Antonio Recycling directory

For Restaurants/commercial kitchens:

Call ReGrease at 888-475-6057.

How do you choose a good used cooking oil recycling company?

Like choosing a lawyer or a doctor you have to do your homework. Choosing your grease collector is important to a restaurant, hotel, stadium or mall because they can impact the quality and financial performance of your kitchen(s). 

First, what is their reputation for service? Read the Google reviews for Texas grease recyclers and check the ratings. Are they on-time, easy to work with? 

How long have they been in business? There are lots of fly by nighters. Look for a 10-year track record.

Do they have adequate liability insurance? Can you see a copy of the insurance? $1MM per incident is the minimum.

Will they maintain your grease trap as well as pickup your used cooking oil? 

What are their storage solutions for used cooking oil? Is it convenient, safe and does it fit into your kitchen or space?  Are they locked and secure?

Grease theft is a growing problem in Houston and the Texas Triangle. What will your Texas grease recycler do about it?

Do they offer automation? Ask them why you would want it and what it will cost. If not today, you may want it in the future. 

Do they provide 24/7 emergency service? 

Do you have the phone number of the CEO? Can you reach him/her at any time. You don’t want to have to go through a phone bank if you have an emergency at 1:00 am.

Weighing these factors will help you choose a top performing used cooking oil recycling company.

Ready to get started?

We invite both existing & prospective clients to join in our recycling movement to promote a cleaner and greener future. Contact us today to begin new service. We look forward to serving you!

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