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Oakland’s used cooking oil is being turned into renewable fuel for buses and trucks

The project—a winner of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas—is an example of a circular economy that’s also driving down carbon emissions and air pollution.

Oakland’s used cooking oil is being turned into renewable fuel for buses and trucks
[Image: courtesy Neste]
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Founded in 1948 to secure its country’s oil supply, Finnish company Neste was a traditional oil business for the first 55 years of its history. But, in the 2000s, it changed course entirely to a more sustainable model. Now with renewable diesel refineries in Finland, the Netherlands, and Singapore, it’s the world’s largest producer of that type of renewable fuel.

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Neste uses its waste-as-a-resource method all over the world: It collects used cooking oils and animal fats from restaurant fryers and converts it into renewable diesel. In Oakland, California, the circularity of the model is most clear. Since 2019, it’s been in a partnership with the city, where it’s helping Oakland’s plans to reduce carbon emissions by nearly 56% by 2030, compared to its 2005 levels.

Here’s how it works. Neste’s collection partner in Oakland, Western States Oil, collects used oils and fats from about 110 restaurants, after they’ve cooked wings, hamburgers, french fries, and other greasy treats. Suppliers of the waste, who are paid for the service, include chains like Taco Bell and Buffalo Wild Wings, and local mom-and-pop eateries such as Luka’s Tap Room and TrueBurger. The project—the winner of the Enduring Impact (15+ years in business) category of Fast Company’s 2021 World Changing Ideas Awards—collected 750,000 pounds of used cooking oil within the first three months of the new system. Previously, the waste may have been used to make items like soaps and animal feed, or simply disposed of in a safe manner—as, well, waste.

[Photo: courtesy Neste]
Neste cleans and pretreats it, then transports it to one of its three refineries for conversion into renewable diesel. It’s transported back to Oakland, where it fuels the city’s diesel-powered buses, trucks, and equipment. “Their municipal fleet now runs off their own waste,” says Jeremy Baines, president of Neste U.S. “So they’ve managed to convert their whole fleet from burning fossil to being fossil-free.”

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Because this fuel uses “renewable feedstocks,” it’s not releasing new carbon to the atmosphere. “You take your school bus running on fossil diesel,” Baines says, “you switch it to renewable diesel—and overnight, it reduces the emissions by 80%.” (The 80% figure refers to the drop in greenhouse gas emissions when considering the entire life cycle of the materials.) In addition, it makes for a reduction in air pollution, due to no benzene or other toxic chemicals emerging from the tailpipes.

“This is not something aspirational anymore,” Baines says. “This is something that is actually having a profound impact on air quality and CO2 emissions in California.” Neste reports that its projects in California over the past decade have prevented more than 18 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Despite carrying the renewable raw materials halfway across the world, the company says its supply chain is efficient, and continues to invest in solutions to reduce its environmental footprint. As part of its commitment to carbon-neutral production by 2035, and to reduce its customers’ emissions by 20 million tonnes per year by 2030, Neste is looking to expand the cities and restaurants involved; consider new feedstocks, such as algae and municipal solid waste; and to build a refinery in the U.S. to cut transportation emissions. While expanding private fueling is a goal, powering larger vehicles makes the most impactful sense, since they are electrifying at a slower rate. “These will be running on liquid fuels for decades to come,” Baines says. “The choice is do we want them to run on fossil diesel, or can we put them on renewable diesel?”

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Of the circular model, Baines says: “This is not a one-off. This is really something that you can copy to other areas.” In the Netherlands, Neste’s next example of a circular model, called Fries to Miles, is also underway: It collects oil from 250 McDonald’s restaurants, refines it in Rotterdam, and the trucks that transport the materials back are powered by the same renewable fuel. The vision is to do that on a much bigger scale. “Sports fans cheering on the Chicago Cubs come to and leave Wrigley Field on buses powered by renewable diesel,” a Neste case study reads, “made from the stadium’s own used cooking oil.”