Recycled vegetable oil: Key to the Highway?

vegvolkswagen_2002_bug.jpg There’s much talk, high-level debate and lobbying over sustainability and biofuels these days, despite their miniscule market share and debate concerning what “sustainable” actually means. How all this well-intentioned theorizing, research and debate translates into real progress and positive change on the ground in agricultural communities and among biofuel producers remains to be seen.
While all this goes on, a grassroots “grease car” movement continues to grow in the U.S. and Europe as entrepreneurs and growing numbers of people who own all manner of diesel engine vehicles are installing or having vegetable oil fuel conversion kits installed; this despite discouragement from the automakers, the oil industry and government agencies.
The concept of using recycled vegetable oil as a fuel seems like a winner from the get-go, especially when you consider the difference it might make in rapidly growing urban areas all around the world, but particularly in fast growing cities of Asia, Latin America and Africa. Rather than having to produce an environmentally friendly biofuel from scratch, recycling veggie oil turns a waste product into a valuable resource, plus a ready-made source of raw fuel can be found in just about any market center in cities across the developing world.

Stomping on the recycled veggie fuel oil dream
Promoting the use of recycled vegetable oil as a diesel oil substitute stands out as a way to address a lot of the criticism currently being leveled against first generation biofuels made from food crops. Yet it’s virtually ignored, if not discouraged, by the powers that be.
Needless to say, oil companies probably have no interest in seeing a recycled veggie oil fuel movement emerge as even the smallest competitor to the existing stranglehold they have on fuel distribution. With national oil companies stealing their thunder on the exploration side and generally reticent to invest in refinery upgrades, distribution looks like their last stronghold.
Moreover, huge, high-tech driven oil and chemical companies probably don’t see much opportunity in the way of bringing added value or gaining a competitive advantage in the market for recycled vegetable oil fuels, and given its small size and grassroots nature, are content to ignore and try to discourage its development through political lobbying or more directly.
The auto industry is also against using veggie oil biofuels. Converting a diesel engine to run on veggie oil biodiesel, though relatively straightforward and inexpensive, violates auto manufacturers’ warranties, which effectively discourages any new or recently purchased diesel vehicle owner from doing so.
Similarly, the government doesn’t particularly care to encourage veggie oil fuel use and diesel engine conversions. At times government agencies have even come down hard on people who’ve been producing homegrown veggie oil biodiesel for commercial sale.
Under current regulations there’s no tax revenue base. Fuel sale taxes go to support road and traffic maintenance systems, and as veggie oil fuel sales aren’t yet taxed in this way, veggie oil fuel vehicle owners are free riders, explains the National Biodiesel Board.
“Grease to Greece” Rally… and Beyond
This hasn’t curtailed growth in a largely small enterprise, grassroots-driven movement to espouse veggie oil biofuels, however. Looking to promote awareness of cheap and environmentally friendly biofuels, eight teams on August 27 completed the “Grease to Greece” car rally, a 10-day, 2,500-mile trek that took them from London to Athens, according to news reports.
The “Grease to Greece” rally was the latest project of promoter and organizer 34-year old London native Andy Pag. The teams made the journey by collecting fuel from restaurants, cafes and fast food restaurants along the route. Pag himself reportedly paid only 500 British pounds for his used Peugeot 405 and spent zero on fuel to complete the trip, saving the equivalent of what he paid for the car, according to a Reuters report.
The race ended at the British Embassy in Athens with Ambassador Simon Gass presenting a “Golden Lard” award to the team that earned the most “Grease Marks” for collecting fuel.
“There is no reason why Joe Public cannot do this, save themselves a bit of money and help the environment because they are not using fossil fuels,” Pag told reporters after the finish.
Just think what a difference promoting recycled veggie fuel use could make in densely packed cities and urban areas, needless to say in agricultural communities, in the developing world where you can hardly walk down a street and not find a source of raw waste vegetable oil and potential recycled fuel.
Old, refurbished vehicles and two-stroke engine taxis and tuk-tuks are the norm in fast-growing, densely packed urban areas around the world – no warranty worries there– places where city residents are increasingly subject to worsening air and water quality, as well as higher and higher living costs.
RVO in the USA
taxi-line-PICT0074.jpg Despite the disincentives and the relative scarcity of diesel engine cars here in the U.S., there are a growing number of diesel vehicle owners making the veggie oil fuel conversion. A growing network of entrepreneurs and mechanics are facilitating the process by offering engine conversions and information about how to collect, clean and use recycled vegetable oil in diesel engine vehicles, as well as where they might go to source the raw waste product, which restaurant owners are still happy, on the whole, to have the stuff carted off their premises for free.
Out in northern California’s Ojai Valley, Joel Woolf built a name for himself as an ace diesel mechanic. Now, based on the success of Veg Powered Systems, a veggie fuel conversion business he and his wife stared, he’s known as the “Conversion Surgeon.”
“The point is that if biodiesel needs to be heated as well [just as veggie oil fuel does] and it involves using dangerous polluting chemicals in the production process, why would anyone use it over good old straight vegetable oil?” Veg Powered Systems’ spokesperson Jon Austin was quoted as saying in a TechNewsWorld report.
“Veg oil needs to be heated and that’s it– aside from removing the calamari and eggroll bits. Straight, pure vegetable oil is a much simpler, cleaner way to go.”
The Woolf’s aren’t the only ones contributing to building a recycled veggie oil fuel commercial ecosystem from the ground up. Here are links to a few others:
Greasecar Vegetable Fuel Systems
Automotive Technologies Gloett GmbH

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email: