Oil and water may not mix. But oil and revenue most certainly do.
On their quest toward zero waste, many retailers overlook oil as a potential source of profit. In most of their commercial kitchens, used cooking oil is woefully wasted or simply thrown out.
It needn’t be, according to alternative energy experts. Just ask Whole Foods Market  or Buehler’s Food Markets.
Each week, Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods repurposes around 1,000 gallons of waste cooking oil from 28 of its stores in the Northeast. The company sends the oil out to be refined, and then uses returned product to power a 70,000-square-foot commercial kitchen facility, which produces food for 62 Whole Foods locations throughout the region.
“This project has helped us to not only minimize waste, but also to support our goals for finding cleaner energy sources, while easing the burden on the local electricity grid,” said Kathy Loftus, global leader of sustainable engineering, maintenance and energy management for Whole Foods Market. “We couldn’t be more excited that what began as a vision is now another real life demonstration of our core values of supporting and enriching our communities and the environment.”
Indeed, the benefits are many. Along with lessening the environmental impact, the chain also anticipates saving approximately 20% of the energy and waste disposal costs at the commissary.
Lifecycle Renewables of Marblehead, Mass., is the biofuel business that refines Whole Foods Market’s oil. It combines the retailer’s 1,000 gallons of weekly waste with that of other regional producers, including restaurants, food manufacturers and even a Norwegian Cruise Line vessel that frequents a local port.
Once processed, around 12,000 gallons of the clean, usable oil is returned to Whole Foods to power its cooking facility each month.
“To warrant having such an extensive system in place, a supermarket should have a minimum energy demand of 250 kilowatts. That is when it starts to make good economic sense from a scale of perspective and utilization,” said Rory Gaunt, Lifecycle Renewables’ CEO. “Those with lesser energy demands can still make the decision to sell their oil to be turned into a renewable energy like biofuel.”
Recycling Waste Cooking Oil
Willow Tree Poultry Farm, Attleboro, Mass.-based maker of white meat chicken pies and salads, is one of many food makers that sells waste cooking oil to Lifecycle Renewables. The entire process is simple and salubrious for all involved, said Alex Cekala, controller at Willow Tree.
“In this industry, like any, it’s all about creating cost efficiencies, which goes hand-in-hand with recycling,” said Cekala. “We used to pay to have our waste cooking oil hauled off with the garbage, but now we receive around 75 cents per gallon for it and we have peace of mind knowing that it is being repurposed.”
Despite the many inherent benefits of biofuel, few retailers currently have waste cooking oil recycling programs in place. It’s not that oil reclamation is new; neither is turning the waste material into biofuel, biodiesel and other energy sources.
Rather, the alternative fuel industry is just now introducing options that make sense for supermarkets.
“Repurposing used cooking oil into fuel that produces heat and electricity is a relatively new use,” Gaunt said. “Making this possible has required making modifications to equipment. There also had to be enough people interested in not just blending the refined oil into biodiesel to produce petroleum, but to be used as a sole fuel source to power entire facilities.”
Buehler’s Fresh Foods, Wooster, Ohio, uses reclaimed cooking oil or “greasel,” as its staff affectionately calls it, to power two company vehicles, a 2003 Volkswagen Jetta TDI and a semi-truck.
Buehler’s website lists several benefits of using “greasel” in place of diesel. It gets the same MPG as regular fuel, it’s less costly than refining biodiesel and it possesses lubricating properties that actually increases engine life.
“Biodiesel entails chemically altering the oil whereas biofuel only requires a simple cleansing process,” said Gaunt. “It is recognized by the EPA as a greener fuel because it takes a fraction of the energy to produce biofuel.
“And, because we use less BTUs in the process of making biofuel, we can produce it for less money, and therefore we can put more of the money back into the hands of those producing oil by paying them more for their waste oil up front.”
For supermarkets with large food-making facilities, like Whole Foods, there are additional options available. The same biofuel that is used to create heat and electricity can also be used in backup generators in the event of a power outage. This, added Gaunt, is an invaluable layer or protection for a business with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of food in coolers and freezers.
Sidebar: Redefining 'Fat Free'
Along with recycling its waste cooking oil, Willow Tree Poultry Farm challenged Lifecycle Renewables to find a way to recycle the chicken fat rendered during cooking. Lifecycle Renewables responded with a custom set of equipment that collects and stores the fat.
And, it was free.
“Lifecycle Renewables paid for the equipment and until they recoup the cost, they get our fat for free. Then, they will start paying us for the fat,” said Alex Cekala, controller at Willow Tree. “It’s a win-win for both of us. And for the planet.”
Developing similar equipment and systems for the supermarket and food manufacturing industries are virtually limitless, Rory Gaunt, CEO at Lifecycle Renewables.
“Most conversions from waste to energy are simple,” he said. “The challenge is finding the most effective methods that provide the greatest return on investment for all parties involved.”
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