Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Some good grease....Wasted.

My university project at the moment concentrates on the idea of food waste. Specifically, mine is coffee waste and is dwelt on a great deal on my other blog. However, in the more general literature review, I've had to quickly learn a lot of discourse about food waste, both socially and in more pragmatic terms.

Project 5 of our Waste of the World programme concentrates on UK waste management strategies; that lucky team get to delve into the maze of inconsistent, contradictory recycling guidelines, where each and every local authority has its own set of rules. The bit that caught my attention was the celebration of a relatively new scheme using an Anaerobic Digester. There was a massive one built in Ludlow, which my Dad's Wasteless Society were heavily involved in. The idea was simple: get everyone's "green" waste - kitchen scraps, grass clippings, "organic" waste, collected in the local recycling scheme and put it in this Digester. It squashes it all, decomposes, and then the resulting gases and presumably some of the compacted waste can be used as fuel.

Get rid of the governmental strategy papers and funding bids and community cohesion plans and all the other bureaucracy surrounding these schemes, and what you get is basically a giant compost heap. Theoretically, it's a sound idea. Except the whole concept relies on the cooperation of the local community. To encourage people to recycle, the local council decided to only run a rubbish collection service every fortnight, but to collect the green waste for recycling every week. This not only stopped people composting their own waste for their private gardens, it also meant that they had plenty of non-compostable rubbish building up whilst only being able to dispose of it once a fortnight. As such, they started putting plastics, wood and all their inorganic waste in the green recycling bins, and hiding it under organic waste so that they could get rid of it. And of course, this waste going into the digester meant the machinery broke, and strangely enough, this stuff didn't decompose well either..... So much for well researched, joined up government....

Where I live, private recycling is very good; we have regular collections of paper, glass, and tin, the council gave out free compost bins as well, there is a huge "household waste recycling centre" up the road, and the two of us now produce less than half a black bag of non-recyclable rubbish a week. However, the same cannot be said of business recycling. It does not exist in Darlington. When I worked at the cafe, all the kitchen scraps, food past its sell by date, coffee grounds etc - all of it, despite being mainly recyclable or compostable, got chucked in the regular bins and collected weekly destined for landfill. We used to sneak the less disgusting bits home with us, just cos... well, because it seemed such a waste.
Worse still, I worked at a very busy pub in the middle of town, the sort of place that's open from 8am to 1am seven days a week. There was no facility to recycle the glass that the pub generated. Every day we'd fill one of the big green wheelie bins with discarded glass bottles, and the whole lot would end up in landfill, as would all the waste from every other pub in town. The amount of waste from those alone is unimaginable.

We do try and do our bit for the environment though, and we even help that pub with its recycling. We run our car off used vegetable oil. My husband converted the (diesel) engine on our old Peugeot to run off chip fat - it's not an overly complex thing to do, since diesel engines were originally designed to run off peanut oil in the first place. We get our fuel from the pub kitchen. The big fryers are emptied and cleaned once a week, and there is usually 30 litres of oil awaiting our collection in big buckets on Sunday afternoons. We take it home, and put it through a very fine filter set in a water butt in our garden (to get the chips out!) and then it is ready to go straight in the car. Of course, if for any reason there is no oil to collect (and while we're on the subject of food waste, pub kitchens are infamous. One of the most common reasons why there is no oil sometimes is that the chef has refilled the fryers and forgotten to put the plug back in the bottom and flooded the entire kitchen with 30 litres of grease...) - we can always buy vegetable oil straight from supermarkets and chuck it in the tank, but nowadays even that is expensive!

Free, recycled fuel is definitely the way to go, though. True, our car does smell of chips, especially when stuck in a traffic jam, and virtually every one of my husband's t-shirts has splashes of veggie oil down it, but these are small prices to pay, given we can smugly laugh at everyone else queuing up to pay £1.30 a litre for dino-diesel. Carl even got on TV, have a lookee at his video HERE.

Veggie cars are sustainable too. There is a lot of hand wringing by environmentalists over biodiesel using up precious grain crops that in turn push up world food prices, etc. Mass producing palm oil involves destroying rainforest and so on and so forth. But what no-one considers is how much oil is used, and then disposed of by cafes, restaurants, pubs up and down the country on a daily basis. This oil can easily be filtered and used as fuel, as we do. In our experience, most places are happy to give you their oil, as some have to pay to have it taken away. Or worse, they simply chuck it down the drain. I read somewhere that 300 tonnes of reusable oil is poured down the drain every day in the UK. Vegetable oil is a very misunderstood substance, I think. We found a few drums of the stuff at the Household Waste Disposal site, and asked if we could take it for the car. We were told we couldn't, because it had been classed as Hazardous Waste, and we'd have to pay for it and fill in loads of forms or something.... doh. Vegetable is not flammable unless under highly intense heat or pressure - if you drop a match in it, it will go out. If you spill it, it will biodegrade in a matter of days. How or why it could ever be hazardous I cannot fathom.

At the beginning of July we drove our veggie mobile all the way down to Buckinghamshire, to what is now the annual Biodiesel Buddies Barbecue. A guy has a field, and everyone who runs their car off chip fat (or tractor, landrover, or caravan, come to that) congregates there to discuss the merits of biofuel. As a veggie-oil-fanatic's WAG, I found myself cooking for 20 veggie geeks over a campfire. It was bloody brilliant. I made potjiekos and Trinidad Pepperpot and my infamous potato salad and rice and even very special campfire coffee. But I digress....

The 'convention' also involved others demonstrating their latest ideas for veggie burning efforts. Chug had an old Lister engine and was trying to run a generator off veggie oil. Others had Turk burners. Making biodiesel involves mixing veg oil with methanol and caustic soda, and the end result produces biodiesel and glycerin. The Turk burners allow you to burn that glycerin by-product, and one bloke was even seeing if he could use them to heat his house. Someone else had designed a system (for some reason, elegantly wrapped in a green velvet curtain) that allowed you to reclaim the methanol from the biodiesel so you could reuse it. We also had a compost toilet which was infinitely less smelly and more civilised than conventional portaloos, and even solar powered fairy lights- very pretty!

The Lister engine, a Turk burner and the methanol reclaiming drum.

For more info on all this, please have a look at the Biodiesel forums that inspired all this.

The possibilities with this fuel from food waste are endless. If Ludlow get their anaerobic digester working, you may even get cars running on reclaimed/recycled LPG from compost... or something like that. My understanding of the chemistry here is very vague, but I appreciate the concept. Food doesn't have to stop being useful after we've finished eating. Your car can eat the leftovers!


max said...

It's very nice blog, but you talk about the industry more than the food!!

Peter said...


It still about food and general relations to it.


Bel said...

well, thanks for the comments guys, but this was just a steam of consciousness rant, the rest of the blog is very much to do with food I'd say?!

Saim said...

Great post

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