Donuts to Diesel: SFGreasecycle

As someone who keeps containers of bacon fat, duck fat, chicken fat, lard and butter along with rank-and-file bottles of olive oil, sesame oil, chile oil, grape seed oil and good ol’ peanut oil always handy by her stove, I was delighted to learn a new term this week: FOG.

No, not the lovely mist that sweeps over our city from the sea.


Unfortunately, in addition to carrying flavor and adding texture, these staples of the kitchen can be as bad for our sewer system as our bodies. Multiply thousands of restaurants by dozens of gallons of FOG and very quickly, the mess builds up.

A program launched this past month by San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission, SFGreasecycle, will attempt to alleviate the headache of FOG disposal while linking to Gavin Newsom’s mandate to use 20% biodiesel in all city vehicles by the end of the year. There are still a few weeks for us to reach our goal.

Around the world, the dumping of FOG into sewer systems has become a serious problem. New landfill regulations prohibiting the burying of liquid fats and municipal directives on hazardous waste, animal by-products and waste oils make FOG disposal increasingly complex and expensive for restaurants and catering companies (not to mention the much larger amounts from abattoirs and food processing plants). An entire industry has risen up to separate, collect, store, treat, transport, buy, sell and dispose of FOG. The next time you wonder how pet food gets its calories and flavors, well, just remember the deliciousness of french fries and potato chips.

SFGreasecycle hopes, through education and incentives (like free pick-up) to reduce the amount of FOG flowing into the city’s pipes. Reusing it as fuel for its fleet of municipal vehicles is another excellent benefit. Will it cut down on emissions? Well…that depends….

Grease Goddesses’ hatchback.

Bumper stickers aside, the heated debate about whether the use of biodiesel results in a positive impact or a negative one overall confuses most of us. There’s an abundance of mind-numbing technical reports, polarized rhetoric and big-business greenwashing. Much of it comes down to what you measure and how. Another point of argument occurs between those who believe any minimization of petroleum helps slow our current self-destructive spiral and those who, reminding us that gas motors still equal emissions, believe bikes and solar panels are the better answer.

To help you sort out the issues and how they relate to your cooking and eating and driving pleasures, visit these websites:

  • Learn more about the SFGreasecycle program, including a participating restaurant list, FOG facts, before and after photos of fat-clogged sewers, and lots of links to sites on climate change, biodiesel facts and supporting organizations. The sound effects of the homepage alone are worth a click. My favorite, though, is the FOG map, showing hotspots in San Francisco where food-service establishments caused the most “multiple grease blockages” over the last two years. (But please, enough with the un-readable, un-typeable web-o-matic compound names!)
  • From the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality comes a useful list of ways to reduce FOG in your own home or apartment.
  • Scott Gregory, who combines his work from atmospheric science and engineering, offers an admirable summary of diesel history, climate impact and one of the EPA’s studies on biodiesel emissions. His website offers my two favorite sentences in all my reading on the issue: 1) Inventor Rudolf Diesel’s warning, circa 1911, that “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum and the coal tar products of the present time,” and 2) Gregory’s own pithy conclusion, “There are good reasons to use biodiesel, but emissions improvement is not the most compelling argument. I prefer the ‘thumb your nose’ at the oil industry argument.”
  • The environmental journalists at Seattle-based Grist gathered three experts to offer their views on the biodiesel controversy: Ana Unruh Cohen, director of environmental policy at the Center for American Progress; David Morris of the Institute for Local Reliance; and Number One Biodiesel Skeptic, David Pimentel, professor emeritus of entomology at Cornell University.
  • Here’s the recent story in SFGate describing the Public Utilities Commission’s launch of the program. In addition to General Manager Susan Leal’s colorful descriptions of the problem of fats in the sewer system (“It’s sort of like a heart attack in our sewers,” Leal said. “It’s like a blocked artery.”) there’s blood-pressure-raising reading in the comments section that illustrates much of the confusion and polarization around biodiesel.
  • The crew of the Unifried Bus have put together a friendly, informative website about how they outfitted their engines for oil. In addition to photos that clearly convey the “Julia Butterfly-Burning Man” aesthetic of their approach, there’s a plain language comparison of Biodiesel Emissions compared to Other Fuels Fuel Types that takes into consideration the entire fuel cycle, or a “well-to-wheel” analysis. They also offer tips for other biodiesel drivers from their own experiences.
  • For a view from the industry itself, here is an explanation from the official site of the National Biodiesel Board. Their membership includes state, national and international feedstock and feedstock processor organizations, biodiesel suppliers, fuel marketers and distributors, and technology providers.
  • And, finally, for the hard-core, here is the 118-page Comprehensive Analysis of Biodiesel Impacts on Exhaust Emissions (Draft Technical Report) that was conducted at Harvard with Ford Motors as part of the EPA’s Biodiesel Emissions Analysis Program.

And you thought your arteries were clogged.

Author: Thy Tran

San Francisco-based writer specializing in history and culture of food.

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