As his arms reach deeper into the canister outside of a pizzeria in Morris Park, Jean Joachim looks away. “Sometimes you see dead rats,” he says. “Not at this restaurant though- they’re pretty good with the oil.” Joachim, a service technician works for Tri-State Biodiesel (TSB), a green energy start-up that collects used cooking oil from restaurants and converts it into biodiesel.
On Wednesday night, Joachim and his manager, Andrew McCloud are harvesting oilcans from Patricia’s. Famous for their brick oven pizza and Tuscan-style fare, the family-owned restaurant also dishes out a healthy serving of grease, 70 gallons a week to be exact. Not to its customers of course, but to TSB, which collects it for free and ships it to a refinery where it gets transformed into biodiesel.
To prevent restaurants from dumping oil into kitchen sinks, New York City requires businesses to install a mechanism to collect grease and provide proof of regular waste disposal through an outside collection service. Restaurants that do not adhere to the rules properly can be fined up to $10,000.
“ I used to have gallons and gallons of the stuff, just piling up in the back,” says John Defonzo, Patricia’s manager. “We have to comply with city bylaws, we just can’t dump the stuff anywhere.”
TSB takes advantage of the city waste requirements, by offering to collect the oil at routine intervals, or whenever restaurants request a pick up. In the Bronx, the TSB truck makes an average of 22 stops a day, collecting roughly 700 gallons of oil.
At a Sunoco station in the South Bronx, fleet trucks fill up on the recycled restaurant grease. The alternative fuel is offered as a blend (with petroleum) to improve vehicle efficiency or pumped outright as 100 percent biodiesel. The station has become the first in the city to sell biodiesel. But Dehran Duckworth, a sales manager at TSB says that that the idea of burning cleaner fuel is nothing new. “Engines were first created to burn vegetable-based fuel.”
Meanwhile, in the back alley of Patricia’s restaurant, ribbed plastic pipes are stretched and twisted from the TSB truck deposit filter. Muddy brown gobs of grease are sucked slowly out of the canister, and while Joachim dunks the ends of the green and black pipes repeatedly, McCloud monitors the deposit filter attached to the truck.
Over a roaring engine, he yells, “when all this stuff gets filtered at the plant you see all kinds of things-chicken bones, raccoons, you name it!”
Patricia Borgognone (for whom the restaurant is named after) considers her choice to go green a no-brainer. The restaurant owner and her partners signed up for the recycling program after being frustrated with the lack of responsiveness from a previous waste collector. “It’s for my grandkids, I care about the future.”
And the future may mean more recycled grease. Across the nation, alternative fuel producers like Tri-State Biodiesel exhaled a sigh of relief when Congress chose to extend the biodiesel tax credit in December. The incentive however, is only guaranteed for another year.
But TSB sales manager Duckworth remains hopeful. He believes that future opportunities for expansion are by no means limited. “New York City has approximately 30,000 restaurants. We only serve 3,000,” he says. “So we are really just beginning to scratch the surface.”