When we think of the damage oil can do, we often think of the large spills at sea and the heart-breaking images of birds covered in black gunk. But there's another kind of oil problem. And it's lurking in your kitchen.
The criminal is used cooking oil and, as one Philadelphia community has learned, it can cause big problems at home.
On a recent cold winter morning Hani White bundled up her two young kids and trekked out into their South Philly backyard.
The kids leaned over a big oil barrel in her backyard and helped tilt a small water bottle to pour oil into the barrel. White is Indonesian by birth and her family, like many people in her immigrant community, uses a lot of cooking oil. No really, a lot.
"We using it to fry tempeh, we using it to fry tofu, chicken, and even we fry vegetable with it," White said.
Until recently, that used cooking oil went down kitchen sinks, where it clogged pipes and risked massive blockages in sewer systems.
An environmentally-friendly approach
These days, Hani White's used cooking oil, along with the slick stuff from other Indonesian kitchens, takes a different, innovative path.
A local recycler shows up to suck the used oil out of the barrels once they're full.
Hani White is with The Indonesian Disapora Network of Greater Philadelphia and as a leader in her community, she's helped launch a pilot recycling program with the Environmental Protection Agency to recycle used cooking oil. She says she's glad the waste is being put on a path to creating green energy.
Usually we just throw it out with the trash or we just throw it out on the pipe," said White. "Then we realize it's clogging up the pipe and between women and mothers, we start talking and like 'Yeah, we actually need like some kind of a way that we can trash it safely.'"
Lena Kim, who works for the EPA, says the program grew organically. She says when she heard Indonesian women complaining about the cost of fixing clogged pipes, she knew she could help.
"At that time EPA was focusing more on a push to do outreach to communities that had less information on the environment," Kim said. "So things clicked in my mind and I thought, 'Wait a minute!' This is a perfect opportunity to do some outreach and give them info on how to treat their cooking oil."
Kim says there's no other residential cooking oil recycling program like this in the city.
"What the Water Department said - which was great - was, 'We do this for commercial. It's required commercially where they have a certain percentage that's recycled. But residentially, 'hey if the EPA wants to try this, we would love it and let us know how it goes.'"
About a dozen barrels like the one in White's backyard are sprinkled around the South Philly neighborhoods where Indonesians live. Most are in places of worship. Kim says anyone can bring their used oil to the barrels, as long as they come at the appropriate times.
What happens next?
The local recycler that picks up the oil is called "Eden Green Energy." The 6-year old company is housed in a large chilly building in South Philly full of huge vats of oil.
Lorenz Coates is Eden Green's operations manager. He lays out in simple terms what happens to the oil.
"We collect used cooking oil," Coates said. "We de-water it and take the solids out and once that's done we put it off to the bio-diesel plants."
In addition to the oil from the Indonesian community, Eden Green was already processing oil from local restaurants, hotels, universities and casinos.
Coates says he was drawn to the process after he'd already had a career in a very different line of work.
"I worked as hairdresser for 20 years. When I had my daughter I started to pay more attention to the environment and fuel and energy needs of this country."
Contributing to the 'fatberg'
Why make such a big deal about used cooking oil?
It's not just your home's plumbing that's at stake, says Charles Haas, the head of the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering at Drexel.
"When it gets into the municipal sewer it can react with other materials - particularly other flushable products to form mass accumulations."
Haas is about to take this nice story about immigrants and innovation down a really gross path.
"There's a word that's reasonably used called "fatberg" which is an accumulation of grease plus wet wipes and other things that get washed down. That have formed massive blockages in municipal lines."
Haas says, if recycling isn't available, it's acceptable to put used oil in a sealed container and toss it in the trash. He points out that there's another environmentally-friendly component to this: the used oil can be turned into a valuable commodity.
"The technologies for biodiesel production from these greases are fairly well established. It depends on the particular process, but there are technologies out there that have been able to recover as much as 80 percent - just on a volume basis - so for one gallon of oil you would produce eight-tenths of a gallon of diesel."
Protecting the environment is a top priority for Beny Krisbianto. He's pastor at the Nations Worship Center, another oil drop-off point.
"On Sunday we have sometimes 200 people and I encourage all of them, 'Hey guys, don't throw your oil in the trash don't throw your oil to the sink, and bring the oil."
Within the Indonesian community the idea of saving used cooking oil is catching on.
If this pilot works out in South Philly, there's hope other communities around the region will be inspired to start similar oil recycling programs.
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