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Increasing EU imports of used cooking oil could have unintended consequences – NNFCC report

The dominant feedstock for biodiesel consumed in the United Kingdom (UK) is Used Cooking Oil (UCO). Its use has increased significantly within the European Union (EU) – between 2011 and 2016 there was a 360 percent rise. Sourcing and importing from outside the EU is the only option for increasing supply. But with no current globally agreed on standards for UCO, this could have unintended and significant environmental consequences, a new National Non-Food Crops Centre Ltd (NNFCC) report finds.

EU biodiesel production and imports 2011-2017 (graphic courtesy USDA Foreign Agricultural Service).

Biodiesel is a class of transport fuel which includes Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO) and Fatty Acid Methyl Esters (FAME), produced from either vegetable oils or animal fats. Intended as a replacement for fossil-derived diesel, FAME biodiesel forms a significant component of the total renewable fuels supplied in the United Kingdom (UK).

Between April 2017 and April 2018, nearly half of the 1 600 million litres of renewable fuel supplied in the UK was biodiesel.

According to a recently published report by consultants National Non-Food Crops Centre Ltd (NNFCC), the dominant feedstock for biodiesel consumed in the UK is Used Cooking Oil (UCO). The report ‘Implications of Imported Used Cooking Oil as Biodiesel Feedstock‘ notes that the utilisation of UCO as a feedstock for HVO and biodiesel production has increased significantly within the EU.

Between 2011 and 2016 there was a 360 percent increase in its use, rising from 0.68 million tonnes to 2.44 million tonnes in just 5 years.

To meet the growing demand for UCO, sourcing and importing from outside the EU is the only legitimate option for increasing supply. However, as there are no current globally agreed standards for UCO, suppliers are only required to meet the operator’s specifications, resulting in a wide variety of qualities and chemical compositions.

Cold flow, GHG and sustainability

The current import of UCO and UCO-based FAME biodiesel (UCOME) to the EU and UK are predominately from China, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In 2018 alone these 3 countries exported more than 500 000 tonnes of UCO into the EU, with around 15 percent of this delivered to the UK. This reliance is set to continue, with the imports of Chinese UCO into the EU increasing by 5.6 percent in Q1 of 2019 when compared to Q1 of the previous year.

Due to the reliance on palm within the Chinese, Indonesian and Malaysian food industries, their resulting UCO and UCOME are likely to fundamentally differ to that generated within the EU. Unlike European-grown oilseed rape, palm oil is high in saturated fatty acids – the resulting UCO will, therefore, have comparable fatty acid contents and chemical properties.

This will impact the performance of the produced biofuel; palm oil has a high pour point meaning that, without the addition of cold flow improvers (CFIs), the biodiesel produced from palm UCO will likely gel in colder temperatures, causing engine failure.

However, estimates of UCO capacity and availability within these countries are inherently difficult to validate and, the report points out, without a proper understanding of the current volumes of waste oil generated, it is almost impossible to substantiate the greenhouse gas (GHG) savings associated with the feedstock.

Furthermore, it is difficult to assess if additional wastes and/or the use of unsustainable virgin materials is being indirectly stimulated as a result of the EU’s policy support for imported UCO.

Thus the authors conclude that if the use of imported UCO is to continue, then confidence in its supply chain should be paramount; the certification process of UCO – specifically when sourced from outside the EU, where it is likely to be used as an animal feed – should be robust, helping to ensure that the feedstock meets necessary levels of traceability and sustainability.

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