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Charting the path from stovetop to fuel tank

Plant manager Daryl Giesbrecht pours canola oil waste into a bucket at the Cowichan Bio-Fuel Facility in Duncan,B.C., on Tuesday.

Chad Hipolito For The Globe And Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

About half a block from city hall in the small Vancouver Island community of Duncan, residents can now discard their used vegetable oil in a metal bin, recycling the kitchen grease as easily as coffee cups, soda cans and newspapers.

The street-side receptacle is believed to be a Canadian first, marking an evolution both in recycling and the business of biofuels. Biodiesel makers have long targeted restaurants for kitchen oil and grease, offering to pick up the waste at no cost so they can turn it into a cleaner fuel for vehicles.

Residential cooking oil, however, is a largely untapped supply. In recent years several municipalities, including Toronto, have begun offering residents the option of dropping off used cooking oil at garbage and recycling depots. But getting to the depots can be inconvenient, and, in some cases, the oil isn't converted into biofuel.

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Offering home cooks an easier way to recycle greasy waste could not only yield millions of litres of oil for biodiesel producers each year but also keep it from clogging pipes and sewer systems, said Miles Phillips, president of the Cowichan Energy Alternatives, the non-profit organization behind Duncan's cooking-oil receptacle.

It's estimated that one million kilograms of fats, oils and grease are poured down drains and toilets in the Victoria area annually – about three litres per person.

"This grease builds up on the internal sides of sewer piping and creates blockages and those blockages cost, in big cities, millions of dollars to deal with every year," Mr. Phillips said.

For Cowichan Energy Alternatives, the Duncan bin is just the start. The metal receptacle, which opens like a mailbox, was placed near city hall just before Christmas, costing the town of 5,000 people $2,500.

Several plastic containers of oil and grease have been deposited into the bin so far. Cowichan Energy Alternatives will pick up the kitchen waste and convert it into biodiesel to fuel a local pump used by members of a biofuel co-op.

The organization hopes to place bins in communities throughout British Columbia and spark a provincewide effort to turn residential kitchen grease into biofuel. The town of Ladysmith, about 30 kilometres north of Duncan, has ordered a receptacle, and other municipalities on the B.C. island are contemplating signing up.

Cowichan Energy Alternatives plans to start talking to municipalities in the Vancouver area in the next few weeks. Mr. Phillips noted a network of B.C. biofuel players has the capacity to collect and process additional cooking oil.

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The rising value of kitchen grease has triggered an increase in cooking-oil thefts in parts of Canada and the United States, police agencies report. The recent growth of the biofuels industry has contributed to a spike in the price of "yellow grease," which is what kitchen oil is called after it has been cleaned and refined.

Yellow grease is a key feedstock in the production of biodiesel, which, under federal rules that took effect this past July, must make up 2 per cent of all diesel sold in Canada.

Theft of grease hasn't been a problem for the North Carolina town of Cary, which offers one of North America's only curbside residential cooking-oil recycling programs.

The program started in the summer of 2009. The municipality opted for curbside collection instead of a depot drop-off model because it believed the added convenience would encourage more residents to recycle oil and grease, said Donald Smith, Cary's utility pretreatment manager.

The town collects between 1,200 gallons and 1,500 gallons (between about 4,500 litres and 5,700 litres) of used cooking oil from residents annually. It sells the oil to a biofuel producer, receiving 25 cents per gallon. Some of that biofuel is used in the municipality's diesel vehicles, which run on 20-per-cent biofuel.

Several neighbouring municipalities are studying Cary's program, Mr. Smith said.

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When deciding what type of cooking-oil recycling program to roll out, Cowichan Energy Alternatives looked to places such as Brazil that have residential receptacles like the one now in Duncan. Supporting the bin program was not a hard sell for town council because of benefits to the environment and the wastewater system, said Duncan Mayor Phil Kent.

Eventually, some of that kitchen grease will make its way into Lynn Wytenbroek's 1990 Volkswagen Jetta – after it's reborn as biofuel.

Ms. Wytenbroek, an English professor at Vancouver Island University who lives near Duncan, is a founding member of Cowichan Bio-diesel Co-op. She said co-op members pay about $1.50 per litre, about 20 cents more than the current price of diesel fuel in the area. During the summers, she'll run her diesel car entirely on biofuels made from used cooking oil.

"My Jetta," she said, "runs beautifully on it."

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