Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Q&A: Where do you get waste vegetable oil?

A while back, I received the following question:
Hey, I just wanted to say hello and ask you if you have any suggestions about procuring the vegetable oil. My bus is about ready and I heard there are good establishments to get oil from relatively painlessly. Any advice is appreciated.

Supposedly there are organizations who will sell the oil- already filtered for cost but this is anecdotal. I am perfectly happy climbing in the grease traps and sucking it out and filtering it myself, but I need to know where to actually get it.

Sadly, when I replied to the email address Adam gave, my reply bounced. Here is my answer:
Hi Adam,

Gosh, that's the million-dollar question: where do you get vegetable oil?

First, a few warnings about dumpsters:
  1. Once oil is placed into a dumpster, it legally belongs to the company that owns the dumpster. If you pump oil from the dumpster (even with the restaurant's permission), you are stealing. There have been prosecutions of people running their cars on veg oil who pumped oil from dumpsters in Texas and other states.
  2. Can you really, guarantee that some brainiac hasn't decided to dump their old engine oil into that "oil only" dumpster? You can't filter engine oil out of veggie oil, and I guarantee that engine oil will cause damage to your engine.
Now, on to your question: where do you get used oil?
Most restaurants pay a waste removal service to dispose of their used fryer oil. If you offer to pick up their oil for free, most restaurants will be happy to help you out.

What you want:
  • Vegetable oil without animal fats that has been used at relatively low temperatures (~300-350F). Preferably canola or soy oil.
  • Absolutely no hydrogenated oils - the words "creamy fryer shortening" on oil containers are a tip-off that their oil is hydrogenated.
Best places to try:
  • Mexican restaurants that only use fryers for making tortilla chips
  • sushi restaurants that use fryers for making tempura with vegetables and fish
  • vegetarian or middle eastern restaurants that use fryers for making falafel and french fries
  • chip factories (only approach them if you can handle the volume - otherwise, they will drown you in oil)

Tips to prevent you from ruining it for the rest of us:
  • Be professional, polite, and dependable - the restaurant is depending on you to remove their oil. If you can't do it reliably, they'll wish they had could just pay Waste Management to do it. Establish a day/time to get the oil, and stick to it. Even during the winter.
  • Get the manager's name and contact info; give them yours.
  • Be clean: bring a tarp, lots of rags, rubber gloves, funnels, and lots of absorbent material in case of spills. Leave your workspace (their kitchen or alleyway) as clean as you found it.

If all of this sounds like too much work (and it is a lot of work), try, or look for a biofuels co-op, conversion shop, or other vegetable fuel organization near you.

I hope this helps.

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