By MEGAN HARTLEY, Capital News Service
BALTIMORE - Recycling is turning a new leaf in Maryland - but not in the form of plastic bottles or rubber tires. This reclaimable is a liquid that smells like rotting French fries.
A plant operated by Valley Proteins, a family-owned rendering business based in Virginia with a plant at Curtis Bay in Baltimore, is collecting used cooking oil from businesses like fast food restaurants and grocery stores to turn into a fuel for industrial plants.
"If you have ever seen a grease fire in a kitchen you can see that it has a lot of energy," Gerald F. (J.J.) Smith, president of Valley Proteins, said in a telephone interview.
The recycled cooking oil is burned directly in industrial plant boilers or is sold to biodiesel factories that turn it into automobile fuel.
But this is not just a smelly way to turn a profit. The fuel is eco-friendly. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, food waste left in landfills produces the largest human-related amount of methane - a greenhouse gas 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
The burning of biodiesel from recycled cooking oil also releases less sulfur than petroleum or coal.
"There is virtually no sulfur and it is cleaner burning," said Smith. "Why put it in a landfill?"
The journey from the fryer to an industrial boiler starts with Valley Proteins' massive blue dump trucks. They travel round the clock to more than 8,000 businesses such as Wendy's, Popeyes and Giant Food in the Maryland, Virginia and Delaware region to collect grease from the rubber bins the company provides. Drivers will either pump or dump the used cooking oil into a covered storage tank depending on its viscosity.
"We can pump Chinese restaurant oil in all weather, but a place like Outback we have to dump," said Robert Hutson, general manager of Valley Proteins' Baltimore plant.
The trucks heat up the grimy contents and then pump it over two screens which sift out chunks of unintended garbage such as gloves or paper cups.
The trucks are cleaned and sent out again while the grease is put through a vacuum chamber that evaporates moisture, which is often involved in cooking but detrimental in burning fuel.
The grease then goes to a centrifuge where the solids are spun out and finally it ends up in storage tanks outside the facility that keeps the recycled oil at 130 degrees so that it does not harden.
Valley Proteins is no small operation. The private company has been in business for more than half a century and operates 13 plants with 1375 employees that recycle animal parts inedible for humans. Products of food rendering plants are usually used for things like soap and animal feed.
The idea of turning the already environmentally friendly operation into a fuel business began in the early 1990s, according to Smith. The company realized it could compete with its crop counterparts in the soybean industry.
The government subsidizes renewable fuels. However biodiesel producers get a lower subsidy for using recycled cooking oil than for the more pure soybean oil. But when it comes to industrial boilers, the government does not differentiate between renewable fuels.
Smith calls it a "sweet spot," in the industry. When the company converted their own boilers to use the cooking oil it cost about $60,000 for all the plants combined. They made the money back in about eight weeks.
But even with gasoline prices going up, the grease fuel market may be slow in taking off. According to Michael Li, assistant director of the Maryland Energy Administration, the product needs a purity standard for more companies to accept it. Right now it is more appealing to smaller companies who want to be on the "cutting edge" of things.
"It is probably going to be a niche market for a while," said Li. "I think there are a lot of consistency issues when it comes to how you filter it and what companies will put in their burners."
The Curtis Bay plant has been in operation since 1929 and was bought by Valley Proteins in 1984. A fire in 2002 ruined the incinerator where the larger animal parts were burned so the company then decided to specialize strictly in used cooking oils at the plant, which has 60 employees. "Animal feed and industrial fuel is about a fifty fifty business at the Baltimore plant," said Smith. "We service about five companies with the industrial fuel that use about a tractor trailer full a week."