Brent Baker has quite an appetite for the contents of Manhattan’s deep-fat fryers. Roughly two decades ago, Baker was a fire-eater and activist, promoting biodiesel and setting up backyard refineries across the country from a tour bus. These days he’s the founder and chief executive officer of New York’s first biofuel provider, Tri-State Biodiesel, which, just four 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-worthy 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’s business model is uniquely New York: Manhattan’s population density (and, despite trans-fat laws, its penchant for fried foods) make it feasible to collect the necessary quantities of grease quickly and efficiently. While all biofuels come from 21st-century plant sources (unlike petroleum, which capitalizes on plant life dating back millennia, fossilized and compressed into oil), many, such as ethanol, rely for the most part on virgin crops, typically corn in this country, earmarked for the refinery from seed to harvest. 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.
Tri-State, along with a growing number of alternative energy companies, troll Manhattan’s side streets for thousands of gallons of used cooking oil, everywhere from Metrazur to Yankee Stadium, 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 backwards 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.”
Across political parties, Baker says, “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?
Camelia Casin, owner of Gavroche in the West Village, couldn’t be more pleased to be a fuel source. “I’d vaguely heard of biodiesel before, of making fuel from plants, but I never thought my restaurant would be involved. I have to say this is a great pleasure. I really support their cause wholeheartedly. I’m not so knowledgeable about [energy policy], but I like things to be as natural as possible, in my restaurant, in the world. My food is healthy for my customers, and [biodiesel] is healthy for everyone.”
Ross Gill, executive chef at Restaurant Home on nearby Cornelia Street, says he’s been using the service for two years and is similarly delighted: “We don’t have the space to compost, so when I found out we could do this, it was great.” Home’s beloved onion rings, crab cakes, shoestring potatoes, cornmeal-crusted oysters and deep-fried apple pie bubble to golden perfection nightly, and Gill collects the grease, about 40 gallons a week, in a barrel in the basement, which Tri-State empties every Thursday. ” It’s a winwin,” raves Gill. “Dealing with Tri-State is so easy, I don’t know why everybody in the city isn’t doing it.”
He’s looking to add a level of complexity: “My next step with Tri-State is I’d really love it if I could get my purveyors switched over, so that everything stopping at my restaurant is part of that full circle. That’s the dream. We’re not living it yet, but that’s my goal for the next year.”
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, Brooklyn, 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 Tri-Statebiodiesel.com, or let your local gas station know that you’ d like to be able to put biodiesel in your car.
Photo credit: Michael Harlan Turkell