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From the grill to the gas tank

March 9, 2009

Sludge from the grill to be recycled

The gooey mess which sloughs from the grill at the UC may look like something that you’d rather just toss and forget about. But to Wendy Robins and Colin Clifford, it’s pure gold. Or more specifically, the yellow smelly gunk means that PLU will be paid $100 a year to sell its grease to the Arlington-based Standard Biodiesel, rather than pay a rendering plant $300 a year to get rid of the mess, said Robins, day operations manager for dining services at the UC.

That’s a much more environmentally friendly use for the grease tailings instead of the mess ending up eventually in dog food or makeup, in Robins’ opinion. She doesn’t even want to think of the UC grease ending up on her face. Aside from the extra cash, PLU receives a carbon reduction certificate from the company.

Now, the ochre-colored goo is stored in 50-gallon barrels on the UC’s loading dock where it’s picked up once a month by the Arlington-based Standard Biodiesel.

Each month, Standard Biodiesel driver Don Nisbet, accompanied by the company mascot, a black retriever mix named Biodiesel Belle, pulls up to the loading dock outside the UC. Just short of five minutes later, he’s sucked the slippery mess from the barrel to his truck, which carries, when full, about 1,600 gallons. It’s then taken back to the plant, the impurities (think hamburger scraps and old French fries) are taken out and the amber liquid is purified, catalyst added and a smidgen of diesel – and viola, an alternative, renewable clear yellow fuel.

In all, Standard Biodiesel collects grease from 4,000 Western Washington restaurants as well from a subsidiary company in Eastern Washington that collects grease from another 1,000 restaurants. This is in addition to collection grease from Walmarts from Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In all, 150,000 gallons of grease a month flows through the Arlington plant, which once the impurities are taken out, produces about 120,000 gallons of cleaned fuel a month, Clifford estimated.

But don’t call it biodiesel. At least not to Clifford.

“We don’t make biodiesel,” he said, acknowledging the bad PR biodiesel has had of late with the newspaper reports of rainforest destruction to make way for the planting of palm oil plants. “We make a renewable fuel.”

Companies, such as Ocean Spray, which wish to have a green patina in their business portfolio, have given the nod to the Arlington company and have begun to use the oil in their fleets. The popularity of biodiesel in general has skyrocketed, with the U.S. using 300 million gallons of the fuel in 2008. That number is expected to double this year, according to statistics from the National Biodiesel Conference in San Francisco last month.

Much of Standard Biodiesel’s fuel is not used in fleets (although Standard trucks, of course, use the fuel and the company has a public pump for the locals) but it’s mostly used to run boilers, Clifford said.

The company’s next big research push is trying to recover the grease from the grease trap in the drains in most fast food and industrial food companies, he said. Think the grease from the plates or that comes off through the dishwasher.

“It’s really disgusting grease,” he said. But it’s obvious he considers it an opportunity.

“Obviously, we’re not trying to solve the world’s problems,” Clifford said. “But we are trying to take grease out of the landfills. We believe sustainability is critical to us. And we want to create a fuel for regional use.”