Used cooking oil runs cars and heats homes
Fried food may be good for you after all.
Brent Baker, environmental activist and founder of Tri-State Biodiesel, has cooked up a juicy recipe that transforms used cooking oil into an environmentally friendly fuel for transportation and home heating.His Hunt’s-Point-based company has grown to become the largest supplier of biodiesel in the Northeast, operating 10 trucks, and collecting recycled oil from 3500 restaurants across the city. Most of the company’s 35 employees are graduates of Sustainable South Bronx’s environmental job training program, according to Operations Manager Henry Dotson.
Last year, said Baker, Tri State was able to produce about a million and a half gallons of biodiesel, enough to fill two and a half Olympic size swimming pools.
Baker began promoting biodiesel in 1995 when it was first introduced to the United States. After years spent making the fuel in the backyard of his Lower East Side apartment, Baker became known nationwide as a biodiesel pioneer when he created his own manufacturing company in 2004.
The idea behind his company is simple, says Baker: Tri-State picks up the used cooking oil from restaurants, free of charge, and then coverts it into an environmentally friendly fuel.
“We have a very loyal customer base,” says Baker. “They like us so much because we provide them with a free service.”
While Sami Bghaya, owner of Simple Café in Brooklyn, enjoys saving a few bucks, it’s the environmental benefit of having Tri-State take her fuel away that attracts her. “There are other companies that offer free pickup, but I sleep easier at night knowing I’m not contributing to the destruction of our planet,” she said.
Offering a list of benefits that trump the old school fuel, biodiesel serves as an alternative to petroleum-based diesel. It is produced from domestic sources, reducing the nation’s reliance on imported oil. Unlike fossil fuels, it’s renewable. And it cuts both emissions that lead to global warming and emissions that increase the risk of asthma and other lung diseases.
Baker envisions a 40 million gallon a year industry in New York, replacing more than 950,000 barrels of oil. The city, with its thousands of restaurants, is “the Saudi Arabia of cooking oil,” he told The Villager, when the Greenwich Village weekly profiled him.
But how can the oil used to fry a chicken finger fuel our cars? First, the cooking oil is trucked to Tri-State’s Barretto Street plant, where all the food scraps left behind from cooking, like bones or egg shells, are removed. Then the raw material goes through several steps of refining.
After it is purified, it goes through a further refining process that changes the chemical characteristics of the oil. The result, certified biofuel, is combined with ordinary petroleum diesel. Biodiesel can be used alone or mixed in any amount with petroleum diesel fuel. A 20% blend of biodiesel with diesel fuel is called “B20”, a 5% blend is called “B5” and so on. The product can then be distributed and used in any diesel-run equipment with no engine modifications necessary.
“Anything that runs on diesel fuel can also use biodiesel,” says Baker. “It’s a low-emission fuel that can power boats, construction equipment, boilers—almost anything.”
Serenity Movers, on Worthen Street in Hunts Point, fuels its trucks with Tri-State biodiesel, and is proud of it, says sales manager Maxwell Tobias. “They contribute to us being a green company and help us save some money along the way.”
Without funds for advertising, Baker has successfully promoted the biodiesel industry by word of mouth for over a decade. Tri State may not fuel as many customers as Exxon Mobil, but the company is growing.
Tri-State now collects oil from one of every five restaurants in New York City.
This year the company was responsible for providing the fuel that powered the Tribute in Lights, the shafts of light from Ground Zero that symbolized of the World Trade Centers towers.
“That was certainly a feather in our cap,” says Dotson. “I’m proud to work for this company.”
Baker has big plans for the future of the biodiesel industry. He wants to build his company into a nationwide business catering to companies across the United States.
“We see this as a viable business in all major urban areas around the Unites States,” says Baker. “And we want to build those businesses.”