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Recycling grease from Miami eateries aims to slow climate change

Filta service technician Richard Erin, 42, wipes off the vacuum-based filtration system after cleaning a fryer at Cerveceria La Tropical in the Wynwood section of Miami, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
D. A. Varela
/
The Miami Herald
Filta service technician Richard Erin, 42, wipes off the vacuum-based filtration system after cleaning a fryer at Cerveceria La Tropical in the Wynwood section of Miami, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Filta technicians visit restaurants, hospitals and stadiums to collect the cooking oil from fryers to be refined into biodiesel, which can help cut down carbon emissions.

Between sips of craft beer at Cerveceria La Tropical in Wynwood, diners and drinkers scarf down a seemingly endless array of fried foods: tostones, croquetas, empanadas, french fries, yuca fries, chicharrones, bacalao fritters and so on.

They might not realize their salty snacks are, in their own small way, contributing to a growing industry that could help slow climate change and limit the effects of sea level rise, extreme heat and rapidly intensifying hurricanes here in South Florida.

That’s because La Tropical is one of hundreds of restaurants, hospitals, stadiums, university campus kitchens and corporate cafeterias in Miami and across the region that recycle its used cooking oil so that it can be turned into a low-carbon fuel called biodiesel. In other words, the grease that fries your croqueta to crispy perfection today may power an 18-wheeler truck tomorrow.

Each week, technicians from a company called Filta visit La Tropical’s kitchen and collect the spent cooking oil from its fryers. On some visits, they filter the oil and return it to the fryer to be reused. On other visits, they haul the oil off to be recycled into biodiesel.

Filta service technician Richard Erin holds up two glass jars with the filtered cooking oil, left, and unfiltered oil, right, after using the mobile filtration unit at Cerveceria La Tropical in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
D.A. Varela
/
The Miami Herald
Filta service technician Richard Erin holds up two glass jars with the filtered cooking oil, left, and unfiltered oil, right, after using the mobile filtration unit at Cerveceria La Tropical in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

“When we filter the oil, we extend its life so that the restaurants and all these food services will use less cooking oil,” said Cristian Nechuta, who runs the Miami-Dade County franchise of Filta. “Once the oil can no longer be filtered anymore, we take it to a recycling facility.”

Used cooking oil is one of several raw materials, including animal fats and vegetable oils from crops like soybeans and canola, that can be refined into biodiesel. Biodiesel is often blended in with standard, petroleum-based diesel to cut its carbon emissions and reduce air pollution. Biodiesel releases about a quarter as much carbon and fewer toxic chemicals than standard diesel, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Today, however, the U.S. produces far less biodiesel than it would need to put a serious dent in the carbon emissions of the transportation sector, which is the biggest carbon-polluting industry in the American economy. Part of the reason is there isn’t enough of the raw materials — including used cooking oil — available to biodiesel refiners to ramp up production.

READ MORE:Sundial: Rescuing excess food in South Florida - and getting it to those who need it

“There is potential, but we have not taken advantage of it yet to any significant extent,” said George Philippidis, director of the sustainable energy concentration at the University of South Florida.

Companies like Filta are collecting more of the raw materials needed to make biodiesel and playing a role in helping the industry expand and cut carbon emissions.

Filta's South Florida franchises

Founded in the United Kingdom in 1996, Filta is an international company that operates in 15 countries with over 350 franchises. About a third of them are in the U.S., including three that serve Miami-Dade County, Broward County, and Palm Beach County.

Nechuta’s Miami-Dade franchise filters and recycles oil from commercial kitchens throughout the county. In addition to restaurants like La Tropical, Filta also works with hospitals like Jackson Health System and the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, universities like Florida International University and Miami-Dade College campuses, stadiums like the Marlins’ loanDepot Park and the Homestead-Miami Speedway and corporate cafeterias for companies like Telemundo, Royal Caribbean, FPL and the Burger King headquarters.

Filta service technician Richard Erin stands next to the mobile filtration unit at Cerveceria La Tropical in Wynwood, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The basic function of the service technicians like Erin is to provide mobile fryer management services to commercial kitchen customers.
D.A. Varela
/
The Miami Herald
Filta service technician Richard Erin stands next to the mobile filtration unit at Cerveceria La Tropical in Wynwood, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023. The basic function of the service technicians like Erin is to provide mobile fryer management services to commercial kitchen customers.

Last year, Nechuta said the Miami-Dade franchise collected 23,000 gallons of cooking oil to be recycled into biodiesel, which Filta claims will prevent about 230 tons of carbon emissions. (Filta doesn’t do the recycling itself, but ships the oil off to a fuel refiner in Louisiana.)

Nechuta said his franchise also filtered cooking oil for its clients, allowing them to use it for as much as 50% longer. He helped his customers avoid buying another 21,000 gallons of oil, which he claims saved 50 tons of carbon emissions.

All told, the carbon savings from filtering and recycling oil were roughly equivalent to taking 60 gas-powered cars off the road.

Bridge to zero-carbon future

In addition to biodiesel, used cooking oil can also be recycled into sustainable aviation fuel, a category of jet fuel that emits less carbon than the petroleum fuel nearly all planes use today.

Together, these fuels offer a short-term solution for cutting carbon emissions from trucks and airplanes. Biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel both can be blended in with standard petroleum fuel and both work with existing engines. That means they can start cutting carbon emissions today, as soon as they’re produced and pumped into fuel tanks.

Neither of these fuels will cut carbon emissions to zero. To do that, companies will have to develop entirely new categories of trucks and planes, which may be powered by electric batteries or a new category of hydrogen-based fuel. But unlike electric cars, which are already well on their way to becoming mass-market vehicles and represent 7% of new U.S. auto sales, electric or hydrogen-powered semitrucks and airplanes are still a long way off.

Filta service technician Richard Erin uses the vacuum-based filtration system to clean out a fryer at Cerveceria La Tropical in the Wynwood section of Miami, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.
D.A. Varela
/
The Miami Herald
Filta service technician Richard Erin uses the vacuum-based filtration system to clean out a fryer at Cerveceria La Tropical in the Wynwood section of Miami, on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.

Meanwhile, every petroleum-powered truck or plane made today will likely stay on the road or in the sky for decades to come. The only way to cut their carbon emissions — aside from flying and driving trucks less — is to make the fuel they use more green.

Search for feedstocks

Biodiesel represents a small fraction of U.S. fuel consumption. In most cases, it’s mixed with standard diesel in blends like B2 and B5, meaning that biodiesel represents 2% or 5% of the overall blend, although some pumps sell B20 (20% biodiesel) or even B100 (pure biodiesel).

Part of the reason is cost. Biodiesel is more expensive to produce than standard diesel, and blends with higher biodiesel levels tend to cost more.

“It doesn’t make business sense to use a more expensive product, unless you have other motives, like wanting to say that you use green fuel,” said George Vastardis, who owns Sun Biodiesel, a Kendall-based biodiesel wholesaler.

Still, federal tax credits for biodiesel sales have brought the cost of lower biodiesel blends, B20 and below, to about the same level as standard diesel.

Another obstacle is finding enough raw materials, or feedstocks, to make biofuels like biodiesel and sustainable aviation fuel.

“One of the primary hurdles of expanding the biofuel industry is the availability of non-food feedstock,” said Corey Lavinsky, a consultant at S&P Global Commodity Insights who studies biofuels markets.

It also matters which feedstock you use, because some produce more carbon emissions than others.

This climate report is funded by Florida International University, the Knight Foundation and the David and Christina Martin Family Foundation in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners. The Miami Herald retains editorial control of all content.

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.

Copyright 2023 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nicolas Rivero
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