The glamorous world of cooking oil recycling. "Sorry about the mess," Libby Rodgers says as she hoists herself into her big dark blue Ford pick-up. "I basically work out of my truck." Rodgers nods toward the back seat, which is piled high with paperwork, folders and business equipment, "Back there's my office." The truck rumbles into life as Rodgers turns the key in the ignition and we pull out of the airplane hangar-sized building that houses Rodger's fledgling business - Lookout Mountain Biofuels. Rodgers is on her way to collect waste vegetable oil from local Prineville restaurants that she will refine into biodiesel to run everything from the truck she's driving to area farming equipment.
Rodgers, a Crook County native, began the process of building her own refinery about one and-a-half years ago. She began refining waste vegetable oil for her own personal use about three years ago. Rodgers will soon begin refining the waste oil she collects for commercial sale to area ranchers and farmers along with a few individuals who will use it to power their vehicles. Rodgers is young, petite and blonde and works full-time as an outdoor guide.
She also coaches the local high school's girls' soccer team. During her lunch hours and before and after work hours, Libby collects barrels of waste oil which can weigh anywhere from 250 to 500 pounds, and brings them back to her facility to later begin the refining process.
"I really have always had an interest in renewable energy, fuel sustainability and being subsistent," says Rodgers. "I also want to give back to my community because it's the community I grew up in and they gave a lot to me," she adds later.
Matt Ernst grew up in Summer Lake and now runs a new business out of Redmond collecting waste vegetable oil from area restaurants to turn into biodiesel. He has a full-time business collecting and recycling railroad ties and collects used vegetable oil on the side. Ernst contacted Rodgers and proposed that the two work together in an effort to keep their businesses afloat. According to Rodgers, the eventual goal is for Ernst to concentrate mainly on the collection aspect while she focuses solely on producing biofuel.
Barney Prine's Steakhouse & Saloon in Prineville is one of the businesses currently benefiting from by Rodgers' Lookout Mountain Biofuels collection services. Next to Rodger's clean oil barrels sits an EC Restaurant Services container - black plastic and about the size and shape of a garbage dumpster. Barney Prine's owner, George Lewis, says that that the container was just dropped off and that to his knowledge, he never made an agreement with the business. He also doesn't know when the last time the container was emptied.
With the increase in fuel costs and demand for alternative fuel sources, waste vegetable oil has become a highly desirable product. Both Rodgers and Ernst now face competition, not only from individuals who collect waste oil to make their own biodiesel, but also from large corporate businesses willing to pay restaurants for the waste oil that they used to have to pay someone to get rid of.
Two large out-of-town companies that provide collection in the Bend area are EC Restaurant Services out of Harrisburg and Encore Oils, a subsidiary of Portland/Salem giant SeQuential-Pacific Biodiesel. Sasha Friedman, a SeQuential Biofuels staffer, says that Encore Oils pays businesses a base rate of approximately 35 cents per gallon for waste oil. The collected oil is then shipped to the SeQuential-Pacific Biodiesel facility in Salem where it is refined into clean-running biodiesel and then sent back out for distribution. Encore Oils offers a contract service in which they provide containers and regular collection for their customers' waste oil. Encore Oils and SeQuential-Pacific Biodiesel also work with local biodiesel co-ops to provide additional alternative fuel because the co-ops are sometimes unable to produce enough fuel for all their members, says Friedman. Currently, Encore Oils and SeQuential-Pacific work with local Bend co-op Bend Biofuel. Friedman says that Encore Oils provides its business partners with a solution to their problems of disposing of waste oil as well as inconsistent pick-ups from independent contractors who fail to collect oil at the agreed upon times. According to Friedman, independent contractors have not been an issue for the companies.
"We work together with [the local businesses]," says Friedman. "After all, we're all fighting the same fight."
But Rodgers and Ernst say that corporations like Sequential threaten to put independent contractors like themselves out of the biofuels business - resulting in less competition in the marketplace and a less efficient collection and refining process based hundreds of miles away. Not exactly the blueprint for a green business. For Rodgers and Ernst, it's less about these big businesses working with the local contractors and more about keeping the industry and its products local.
"People try to buy local produce and everything," says Ernst. "Well this is the same thing. This is a good local [industry] to support and I'd like to see it all stay local."
Rodgers agrees. "Why ship [the waste oil] over the Cascades or anywhere else when we can already do this locally?" she says.
According to Rodgers and Ernst, the large companies are not always the best option. One problem may be the size of the collection containers. While Rodgers and Ernst provide customers with individual 55 gallon drums that are collected on a regular basis and replaced with clean, empty barrels, some of the larger businesses provide containers about the size of a garbage dumpster. According to Rodgers and Ernst, instead of being replaced with clean, empty containers, these plastic "dumpsters" are piped out of - often leaving messy grease spills behind. Also, because the containers are pumped from the top, all the food particles that have settled to the bottom of the container are left behind, says Ernst.
John Nolan, owner of the Victorian Café used to have his oil collected by Redmond Tallow Company. He now uses EC Restaurant Services. Nolan says that he gets paid about $45 for the amount of waste oil in large plastic dumpster provided by the company. Nolan says that the oil is collected every two or three months. He has not had any problems with the service.
"I'm fine with going with individuals," says Nolan about his choice to go with EC Restaurant Services. "It's more about the consistency and having it done cleanly and efficiently with me ... the money's not really an issue."
Cost-wise, a 35-pound bulk container of soy cooking oil (hydrogenated with trans-fat) at Costco lists for $29.86. This means that businesses would receive about $1.52 for the same amount of waste cooking oil from places like Encore Oil. For a full 55-gallon drum of waste oil, a business would receive about $19.25.
Mike West from Bend Fish Company has also been offered money to sell his waste oil exclusively to an out-of-area commercial operation but says that the amount of money gained is so nominal that he chooses to continue to give the oil away to a local individual. West says that the least expensive oil runs around $26 for a 36-gallon container. The healthier oils can cost as much as $40 for the same volume, or about $1.11 per gallon. However, with the continued increase in costs of cooking oils, restaurants may soon be forced to choose payment over supporting local industry.
Rick Orazetti from Cascade Lakes Brewing Company says he has been getting calls almost once a week from farmers, individuals, co-ops and large businesses all wanting to collect waste oil. Orazetti says that Cascade Lakes Brewing Company gives its waste oil to local farmers for biodiesel production.
"It's a commodity that's definitely becoming valuable with the price of fuel on the rise," says Orazetti, "We want to keep it local if we can."
Back in Prineville, Libby Rodgers climbs into her truck and wipes her hands off with a sanitary wipe. She's just finished loading a barrel of oil into her truck and replacing it with a clean barrel at one of the businesses she collects from. The whole process takes about 10 minutes. When I ask her later about competing with larger companies for waste oil, she sighs and shakes her head.
"I really want to encourage people not to sign these contracts with these people that are not local," she says. "I want to encourage supporting local business and [Matt and I] are for real - we're businesses and we're doing this to make a living."
In the state of Oregon, if you drive a biodiesel-run vehicle on the road you have to pay a tax of $0.24 per gallon.
* In 2006, 250 million gallons of biodiesel were sold in the US. In 1999, only 500,000 gallons were sold.<P> * Biodiesel produces about 50 percent less emissions than standard diesel fuel.
* Biodiesel can be operated in any diesel engine with little or no modification to the engine or the fuel system.
* Biodiesel can be used as a pure fuel or blended with petroleum in any percentage.
Biodiesel 102: The Idiot's Guide to Refining Biodiesel
1. The waste oil is collected, filtered (to remove any food particles and water) and then dehydrated
2. The oil is heated to its processing temperature and the alcohol and a catalyst are blended into the oil
3. The byproduct - glycerin - is removed
4. The fuel is then washed (Libby uses a water system) to clean the fuel and then dried
5. The fuel is filtered again
6. The final product is ready for use