Question: What should you do with used cooking oil? Should you:
a) Tip it down the drain, maybe just washing it down the plughole while you do the rest of the dishes or
b) Seal it up in a non-recyclable container and put it in the trash, with the rest of your landfill-destined garbage?
If you answered a) and you also live in New York, then you’re part of a problem that blocks the city’s sewers almost every day. In an amazing 60% of the city’s sewer blockages, the problem is caused by discarded grease, says Crain’s Aaron Elstein, and in Queens that figure is 80%.
“Experts say one reason Queens’ sewers get blocked so often is that a lot of food is prepared in the city’s most diverse borough,” writes Elstein, “where residents, who hail from 120 different countries, might not be familiar with the best grease-handling practices.”
It’s easy to blame the immigrants, but the decades-old sewer infrastructure in Queens plays its part, with pipes that are half the diameter of those elsewhere. The borough is also more susceptible to floods when sewers do get blocked because it’s a flood basin.
There are alternatives to just burying the grease, although only for restaurants which do a lot of frying. Last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio mandated that the city’s heating oil should come from 20% biodiesel oil by 2034, which gives restaurants a market for their used oil. That’s up from 2% today. That’s good news for New York’s grease processors, who have seen a 50% drop in prices over the past six years.
But not all oil can be turned into biodiesel. Only the oil from deep-fat fryers is usable without a lot of refining. That burned gunge left in the bottom of your own kitchen pans can only be dumped–but not down the sink or the toilet, remember.
And lest you thought that great balls of congealed grease blocking up the city’s sewers were the most disgusting thought this article would force upon you, think again: “Trap grease,” writes Elstein, “the icky assemblage of oily food scraps and water, typically isn’t repurposed for humans but is ‘sometimes turned into [puppy chow],’ [former city sewer chief Bob] Adamski said.” Think about that next time you catch a whiff of some cheap dog food.
Grease, then, is a serious business, not just for the trouble it causes when disposed of badly, but as a resource. The news for Queens is good, with $6 billion budgeted to fix up the sewer system. But no matter where you live, just remember that while fat may no longer be bad for your health, it is bad for your drains.