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A Project with Sizzle

In Guatemala City, a small pilot project to produce biodiesel from recycled cooking oil has shown so much potential that its organizers are hoping to scale it up to help power a whole fleet of city vehicles—with clear benefits for the air and water.

At the Chicharronería “El Mañanero,” a bustling eatery located near La Palmita market in Guatemala City, the specialty of the house is deep-fried pork cracklings tucked into tortillas with guacamole, diced radishes, jalapeño peppers, and lemon. All that sizzling pork adds up to a lot of cooking oil, which used to go straight down the drain. Now it goes into 5-gallon plastic containers instead, and eventually makes its way into a gas tank, in the form of biodiesel.

Siomara Segura García, who owns the restaurant, was happy to find an environmentally friendly way to dispose of the waste oil—especially after a disaster last year in which the drainage system at El Mañanero became clogged and she had to shut down for three days. When she heard about a pilot project that would give her the chance to recycle instead, she jumped at the chance to participate.  

“It was such a nice project that it caught my interest,” she said. “We’re helping the environment. We’re helping generations to come.”

Segura García is one of about 400 small-business owners at six of Guatemala City’s municipal markets who participated in the project, called Reciclaceite (a combination of the words for “recycle” and “oil” in Spanish).

The project received a $50,000 grant under an initiative called Sustainable Communities in Central America and the Caribbean. The program—funded by the U.S. Department of State and run by the Organization of American States (OAS), through the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA)—has awarded a total of $1 million in small grants to support 22 projects in different countries.

Reciclaceite brought together several key players. Fundación Solar, a large nonprofit environmental organization in Guatemala, managed the overall project, while the municipal government of Guatemala City implemented the oil collection system. Empresa Eléctrica de Guatemala, S.A. (EEGSA), a private utility that supplies electricity to much of the country, contributed $25,000 in supplemental funding, and the Asociación de Combustibles Renovables (Renewable Fuels Association) provided additional support. The technical side of converting the used oil into biofuel was the responsibility of the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG), a private, not-for-profit institution with a strong emphasis on technology.

The oil recycling project also had a strong social component. Two young men participating in a city employment program for at-risk youth were hired to collect the oil from the market cooks, making their rounds in a pickup featuring the city’s trademark bright green and plastered with messages about the importance of recycling oil. (The project included a logo design and messaging contest.)

Another element of the project’s success has been the buy-in from the many owners of little market eateries who were willing to donate their used oil, according to Marta Ximénez de Rivera, who coordinates the energy division at Fundación Solar and advises the organization’s board on energy matters. “People have to be involved. If not, it’s not sustainable,” she said.

Initially, the project’s organizers faced some logistical and bureaucratic hurdles in setting up the collection and processing system. They also had to spend time educating the small-business owners about the recycling process, including what types of cooking oil could be used and how it should be stored.

“Collecting the first gallon was a whole odyssey,” said Héctor Ávila, coordinator for environmental innovation in the city’s Department of the Environment, who dreamed up the project. Now, he said, the city collects 100 gallons of used oil per week and sees significant untapped demand. “I don’t collect more because I can’t process more,” Ávila said.

The pilot project officially ended several months ago, but the city is continuing to collect the oil from participating restaurants while it looks for a long-term solution. Ximénez de Rivera figures it would take about $500,000 to build a biodiesel plant for the municipality, and she’s determined to help make that happen.

“This is a pilot project that we want to transform into a reality that will benefit the city on a larger scale,” she said. The idea is to start with a small, modular plant that can be expanded as the oil collection network grows.

For the time being, the used cooking oil being collected from the markets is processed and blended with regular diesel to provide enough fuel to operate six vehicles—four from the city’s parks department and two from the electric utility. They run on a mix of one-fourth biodiesel to three-fourths regular diesel, which cuts the vehicles’ emissions by 70 percent and represents the optimal return on investment, according to Ximénez de Rivera. Engines do not have to be modified to use this type of blend.

Marvin Alvizures, who’s in charge of the fuel supply at the city gas station where the biodiesel is stored and pumped, said the biodegradable fuel has proved to be trouble-free. “I thought there were going to be problems with the vehicles, but there haven’t been,” he said.

The waste oil is processed in a biodiesel pilot plant in a laboratory that is part of the UVG Chemical Engineering Department. The partnership with this “green university” ensured a high standard of quality and enhanced the project’s credibility, Ximénez de Rivera said.

Biodiesel can be produced from vegetable oil or animal oils and fats. When waste oils from the food industry are used, the conversion process begins by filtering the oil and letting it settle; alcohol and a catalyst are then added to break down the oil into smaller molecules. Additional steps remove any water and byproducts such as soaps and glycerin. The end product is tested for such characteristics as purity, viscosity, density, and acidity, to make sure it meets high standards, according to Cristián Rossi Sosa, who heads the UVG laboratory.

The UVG plant can process 200 liters (around 53 gallons) at a time, and the conversion from waste oil to biofuel takes three to four hours. The university processes waste oil from other sources as well, so it can handle only a limited amount of oil collected from the markets.

If the city could build its own plant, Ávila said, it could vastly increase the amount of waste oil it collects, not only from other markets but from restaurants and hotels across the sprawling capital. The hope is that the plant could eventually produce at least 4,500 gallons of biodiesel per month, enough to help run the city’s entire fleet of diesel-powered vehicles. That not only would have environmental benefits; it would also put more young people to work, Ávila noted.

But even on this small scale, the project is beneficial, according to Gamaliel Zambrano, director of the university’s Center for Industrial Processes. First, he said, reducing the amount of cooking oil that is discarded into the sewer system significantly helps reduce groundwater contamination. And using biodiesel cuts air pollution.

While the effects on emissions may represent just a “drop in the bucket” in terms of overall traffic in Guatemala City, the city government is setting a strong, positive example, Zambrano said. “It’s a drop that contributes, and contributes a lot,” he said. “That example can actually be replicated.”

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