Grease trap and cooking oil waste management: Strategising for sustainable solutions

By Swaliha Shanavas

Waste & Recycling Middle East magazine organised a Round Table discussion that took an in-depth look at some of the major issues related to grease trap and cooking oil waste management in the region, and the ways in which we need to strategise for sustainable development. The key points raised during the discussion were the current situation related to food waste; key challenges in dealing with used cooking oil and grease trap waste; market challenges in cooking oil recycling; best practice; significance and current status of legislative and regulatory processes; and awareness and education. The outcome included key suggestions and pointers on actions for policy makers to consider in making the system work effectively. The participants underlined the need for relevant legislation that mandates all producers to adopt suitable measures to ensure that proper collection and treatment procedures are followed to deliver optimum results.

The Round Table discussion, sponsored by ‘Blue’ a division of Al Serkal Group, was moderated by Swaliha Shanavas, Editor, Waste & Recycling Middle East, and featured experts including Eng. Naji Al Radhi, Head of Waste Treatment Section, Waste Management Department, Dubai Municipality; Dr. Udayan Banerjee, Policies & Legislations Specialist, and Ibrahim Abdulmajid Ibrahim, Head of Recycling Facilities Section, Tadweer – Centre of Waste Management, Abu Dhabi; Fahad Al Kharusi, Head of Business Development Department, Be’ah, Oman; Sonia Nasser, Technical Director, Waste Management Authority, Ras Al Khaimah; Rafael Sanjurjo Lopez, Regional GM – GCC, Blue; Abdulraouf Alhousaini, Core Green Manager, Blue; Demiana Ramzy, Head of Regulations, Wastewater Authority, Ras Al Khaimah; Ranji Koshy, C&S Controller, HSEQ Dept., Etihad Airport Services; Mark Siddorn, Senior Manager – Waste & Recycling, MH Community Management, MERAAS; Balachander V., Hygiene Manager, Grand Hyatt, Dubai; Hamza Menikh, Senior QA Consultant, and Vivek Thaker, Asst. Equipment & Maintenance Manager, McDonald’s UAE; Bjorn Ostbye, Manager – Project Development, Lulu Group International; and Sheeba Tharayil, Quality & Sustainable Development Manager, Accor Hotels Middle East.

This is an important topic even in Oman at present, said Fahad Al Kharusi. “Just to give an overview, from 2013-2015 we started to put together the infrastructure required for waste management in Oman. Presently, we have in operation or in the construction stage twelve landfills, 25 transfer stations and more facilities coming up. We have outsourced the collection services and the management of all facilities to the private sector as we believe in the PPP concept.”

He elaborated on some of the key projects including a biogas project in Muscat, which is in the early stages; waste-to-energy to desalination project that has been finalised; and SRF waste to fuel agreement for the cement industry in the southern region of Oman. The regulations in Oman do not cover waste management yet, and since 2016 a team including Be’ah, the ministry of environment, ministry of legal affairs and a few international experts has been working to formulate the regulations to suit Be’ah’s “current operation contractual agreements”. The first draft is expected to be ready by end 2017.

Dr. Udayan Banerjee said they have been developing the Integrated Waste Management Master Plan for Abu Dhabi, which is in the final stages and soon they will focus on the implementation of the master plan to meet the strategic targets set out by the Federal Ministry. “Recently we developed the technical guidelines for licencing of used cooking oil for environmental service providers.”
While there are regulations in place for various other waste streams, they are now working towards regulating used cooking oil, he stated. All recyclables have some market value and “all the emirates should work collectively to regulate the movement of these recyclables,” he said. “We do have some kind of a regulatory measure where any waste moving from one emirate to another needs an NOC from their side, but still there is a lot of pilferage of the waste from one emirate to the other without bringing it to the notice of the emirates. These activities are economically driven, but the environmental consequences are being overlooked,” Dr. Banerjee emphasised.

For instance, large quantities of used cooking oil go downstream, but they get into wrong hands and re-enter the food chain where it is used as cooking oil, which is a health concern, he noted. “These are major areas we need to address through regulations. I would like to emphasise that all the waste management authorities together only cannot solve this issue and we need cooperation from other authorities such as the Ministry of Economy and Customs Department, because these kind of non-conforming products can be sold in the market and the waste authorities cannot control this activity.”

Recently, with new directions of the top management at Tadweer “there has been a change in approach, with many short term projects that are directly linked to our strategic goals set to take off,” said Ibrahim Abdulmajeed Ibrahim. The entity has just announced the EOI (expression of interest) for 4 major projects – Hazardous and Medical Waste Treatment in Abu Dhabi; Hazardous and Medical Waste Treatment in Al Ain; Tyre Treatment in Abu Dhabi; and Used Cooking Oil in Abu Dhabi, he said.

“The concept here is to encourage and involve the private sector in these types of projects. This is an effective model that would be a win-win situation for the government and private entities to achieve their goals. We expect to announce the RFPs soon and the projects are expected to take off within a year,” Ibrahim commented. In about ten to twelve months, they expect to have a facility of their own within Abu Dhabi for used cooking oil recycling, he added.

RAK Waste Management Authority will soon have four business units including wastewater and waste management. The authority is now responsible for grease trap and cooking oil waste as well, said Sonia Nasser. As part of the strategy for northern emirates she said they were looking at 75% diversion from landfill and “the Ministry of Climate Change and Environment will soon be signing an agreement with Masdar to build an incineration plant in Ras Al Khaimah.” They are considering RDF and composting and the Authority will soon announce four RFPs including a C&D project and PPP for composting, she said. They are also considering strategies for grease trap and cooking oil waste, she noted.

Rafael Lopez highlighted the need for regulation and enforcement in this critical area. “All the producers including big commercial kitchens should know what is happening to the used cooking oil leaving their kitchens. I believe a lot of it is being traded and put back into the food chain at present. We need to look at household collection of used cooking oil too. We have some pilot experience with certain developers in this area,” he commented.

There is no regulation as yet regarding used cooking oil, said Naji Al Radhi. “Dubai Municipality (DM) took the initiative to put in place the regulation on grease trap waste as we are involved in the project with Blue.” The first PPP has been successful and they recently announced the expansion of the project. The issue now is with used cooking oil and though certain companies had come forward to treat this waste, Al Radhi said the problem was with the collection system as those companies were not interested in operations.

One important aspect was the need for producers to ensure that the companies which collect their used cooking oil have been approved and authorised to engage in this particular activity by the respective government entities, said Rafael Lopez. Under the present classification of ‘used oil’ certain companies are authorised to collect lubricant oils, “but the producers are unaware that the licence is only for lubricant oil and NOT used cooking oil,” he emphasised. So, he said the first step should be to ensure that the company collecting the cooking oil is authorised to do so.
“Even in Europe it is not defined whether used cooking oil is a commodity or waste,” Lopez noted. For instance, he said in some regions of Spain it is considered as ‘waste’ while in others it as a ‘commodity’. In the former, the producer has to pay for the disposal; but in regions where it is a commodity, the material will be used for biodiesel, etc. “But then, the company has to prove that it is processed into biodiesel. Similarly, for the facilities that are coming up here, it should be ensured that the producers are aware that the oil collected is going into a processing facility and then it can be treated as a commodity and not as waste.”

In Dubai, for instance, trading of used oil is not categorised as ‘waste’ and even the producers of this material do not consider it as waste, since it has further use, Al Radhi commented. “This is a federal issue and needs to be solved at the federal level,” he said.

At present, there is a specific regulation in Abu Dhabi as per which used cooking oil has to be handed over to an approved environmental service provider who will be responsible for bringing it to the facility that will be in operation soon, said Dr. Banerjee. “Transfer of oil to anyone other than the permitted used cooking oil service provider is an illegal operation. As part of our NOC system for the commercial and industrial sector we will be closely monitoring this, and any transfer without the regulated channel will be considered as noncompliance and would face legal action,” he underlined.

“First, I think we need to bring about awareness among the public regarding the proper disposal of used cooking oil and problems related to improper disposal methods,” said Bjorn Ostbye also expressing that producers should not expect revenue from used cooking oil.

One can treat it as a commodity if they can get some value out of it, Lopez responded. “But the producers should ensure that the company that is collecting the oil is an authorised one, and is disposing it in a proper manner so it does not enter the food chain again.”

Blue conducted their own investigation and found that the persons responsible at hotels, restaurants, etc., just sell the used cooking oil and are not concerned about what happens to it thereon. “But it should be our business and a concern for the food authorities and government entities as it is a health issue,” Lopez underscored.

As per their study, “the black market is now handling about 80 percent of the used cooking oil. The traders are buying at a high rate and selling it to unauthorised companies that are exporting the material to other countries as lubricant oil. Nobody knows what happens to the material once it reaches its destination,” said Abdulraouf Alhousaini.

From a producer’s angle, Hamza Menikh said they have to first consider the right time to change the oil in the restaurants, as it is a health issue. For instance, he said, various cafeterias reuse the cooking oil for fifteen to twenty days, rather than two or three days. “There is no rule regarding this aspect in the UAE.” Some countries such as Qatar have adopted certain regulations wherein restaurants have to change their cooking oil based on the TPM reading, he explained.

The second challenge is regarding the destination of the oil. “I don’t have any figures, but our concern is that it is reaching people who are selling it to buyers overseas, who might then put it back into the food chain,” he noted. There were rumours that in some countries this oil was being repackaged and sold as fresh oil in the market, said Menikh. “At McDonald’s, we are accountable for this and at our restaurants we adhere to the rule of TPM. We measure the TPM level with a handheld metre at closing time and if it exceeds 24%, we discard it and use fresh oil.” They also convert their used cooking oil into biodiesel for which they have collaborated with a local company based in Dubai, he said.

At the moment they do not have any initiatives to deal with their organic waste, said V. Balachander. “Over the last three years we looked at various models, but nothing seemed suitable. For instance, what do we do with the compost we produce? The challenge for us is to find the right solution.” As for used cooking oil, he said they were selling it to traders at present.

In Bjorn Ostbye’s view, the technologies offered do not suit their requirements. With over 130 outlets that produce ton loads of organic waste daily, Lulu Group has had problems finding suitable solutions and they realised that with the technologies available they would not be able to realise their goals, Ostbye said, adding that even the grease traps that companies provide are not appropriate.

“We have been working on this for many years and we will go green in 2018,” he noted. They plan to do away with the compactors and adopt a sustainable method to treat the organic waste. The liquid (40%) would be separated and the water sterilised for use on farms, while 20% of the solids would be converted into animal feed and the remaining used for soil conditioning. The approval is still pending but “we will ensure that organic waste is recycled,” Ostbye stated.

“This is a problem we face in Oman,” said Al Kharusi. Major hotels, corporates, etc., are trying to find their own isolated solutions without coordinating with the authorities or waste management companies and despite their best intentions, he said those solutions fail and also create problems as they are not integrated with the larger plans for the nation.

He was in agreement with the views expressed regarding legislation, control, etc., but these measures need to be aligned with the market conditions, said Mark Siddorn, “because it’s all about the economics and companies would resort to measures that are in their best interests.” He said they produce a lot of organic waste at Meraas as most of their developments are F&B. “Our waste composition is about 38% organic. I’ve done a lot of research in the last 18 months trying to find a viable solution, but haven’t found one yet… If I take into account the capital costs and the savings from producing compost, landfill costs, etc., I still can’t make it economically viable. We want to be environmentally friendly, but at the end of the day it has to be cost-effective.”

As for grease trap waste and cooking oil, he said there were two problems. First, all the tenants (retail units) are required to handle it themselves. So there are issues along the line regarding the timely change of oil or cleaning of grease traps, etc., as everyone is trying to cut costs, especially considering the current economic state and the drop in footfall at various outlets, Siddorn remarked. Regarding the disposal, he said “it’s all smoke and mirrors; they will all tell you something you want to hear and that’s the difficulty. Unless you have the whole enclosed process from production to reuse that is controlled all the way through, you cannot solve that issue.”

The waste management companies should also be brought into the loop as they are at the moment only transporting waste to the landfill, he remarked. There was a need for more transparency and further discussions at similar forums and meetings with the respective ministries to find solutions, said Siddorn. And it was not just the government’s responsibility to find solutions, but also that of the private sector which should work closely with the government to achieve the desired results, he stated.

Ranji Koshy, who has been in the UAE since 1989, said things have improved now. “We segregate all the recyclables at out facility,” he said. They include about 920 tons of cardboard per year; about 220 tons of plastic; and nearly 10,000 litres of cooking oil per month; plus there is glass, aluminium, plastic bags, engine oil, etc. As for wet waste, they use compactors that have to be cleared every eight hours, said Koshy. They prepare around 70000 meals per day and there’s a lot of food waste coming off the flights, but unfortunately it cannot be given to the needy due to hygiene standards, he noted.

Regarding cooking oil, Koshy said they have the necessary equipment to check the grade and there are international level audits, so they have to maintain the “highest standards”. They engage a licenced company to remove the used oil and other recyclables, he stated, but “as a representative here mentioned, we don’t know what the rates are and where the oil and other material is going,” he said.

“As a producer of used cooking oil, we are in a difficult position – we are not so big that we can have solutions of our own, but not so small that we can ignore the issue. We have our CSR programmes and try to work with responsible third party solution providers,” said Sheeba Tharayil. Referring to the problem they face in Abu Dhabi, she said this has remained a grey area for a long time and “as hoteliers, we are producers, but what do we do with the material? We do not have huge storing facilities, so it becomes a problem; therefore, we try to dispose it off through the channel available. When it comes to such solutions, we are dependent on legislation.”

So with regard to legislation, what is the way forward?

From a UAE perspective, all the food control authorities and the department of economy should come together and put in place regulations clearly defining that all the used cooking oil should go to authorised facilities in the respective emirates, said Dr. Banerjee. “The waste management authorities are downstream. Upstream entities such as the food control authorities have to work toward this end. There should be a mandatory system to guide the producers to send the material only to permitted facilities for processing. Then the onus is on the different Government Agencies to follow through the entire value chain and see that the used cooking oil does not end up in the food chain again.

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