Industry progress on UCO sustainability for UK biodiesel production – REA
The United Kingdom (UK) is one of the most successful European countries in utilising wastes for biofuels. As a direct result of policy, significant investments have been made to manufacture biodiesel in the UK from all sorts of wastes, that often otherwise end up in landfills.
“We’re keen to explain just why this fuel is one of the best environmental solutions we have at the moment," said Gaynor Hartnell, Head of Renewable Transport Fuels, Renewable Energy Association (REA).
According to the Renewable Energy Association (REA), significant investments have been made in the UK to be able to manufacture biodiesel from all sorts of wastes, from used cooking oils (UCO) to sewage grease (‘fatbergs’) and many others in between that often otherwise end up in landfills.
The REA also states that industry and government continue to “demonstrate the value” of waste-based biofuels and respond to challenges to these high sustainability credentials. In line with that approach, the industry has welcomed a recent report that has questioned whether biodiesel made from used cooking oil (UCO) is as sustainable as claimed.
We’re keen to explain just why this fuel is one of the best environmental solutions we have at the moment, with among the highest levels of greenhouse gas savings seen in road transport. Furthermore the industry is proposing even more rigor and transparency in auditing procedures, said Gaynor Hartnell, Head of Renewable Transport Fuels at the REA.
Better carbon savings with UCO
Biodiesel is a sustainable alternative to conventional fossil-derived diesel fuel. When it is made from wastes such as UCO, it achieves carbon savings of around 88 percent according to the most recent statistics from the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). This compares “very favourably” to crop-based biodiesel which only produces carbon savings in the region of 50-60 percent.
The UK’s RTFO “deliberately” creates an extra incentive for biodiesel made from waste in recognition of this. It also takes into consideration that processing wastes are somewhat more difficult than converting clean or virgin vegetable oils such as rapeseed.
As a result, the UK system has incentivised the use of 900 000 tonnes of biodiesel from wastes, equating to over 99 percent of all the biodiesel used in the UK.
According to REA, in Spain, where this extra incentive, known as “double-counting”, is not used, almost all the biodiesel is made from palm oil.
UCO not a driver of virgin vegetable oil consumption
UCO cannot be recycled into either the food or the animal feed supply chain due to the considerable food safety risks this poses. Demand for sustainable, low carbon, waste-based biofuel for transport in Europe is being matched by the efforts of Governments worldwide to ensure that the UCO generated by their citizens is being disposed of safely and not re-entering the food chain or the sewage system.
Not least of these being the Chinese State Government’s efforts to protect the food safety of its 1.4 billion citizens which include a life sentence for reselling of UCO to the food chain, and where well-known fast-food chains must prove that the UCO they generate can be traced to its safe disposal at a biodiesel plant.
Using these wastes for making fuel is helpful, as it creates a market for them. Without this market, they would have to be landfilled, or worse, end up illegally poured down drains where they create ‘fatbergs’ causing blockages. Some concern has been raised that giving UCO a value might actually encourage restaurants to use more oil, but REA says that this is “never the case.”
Whilst the bulk price of food grade palm oil and the value of UCO for biodiesel production may be similar, at the restaurant level the cost of buying in fresh cooking oil is high, whereas UCO has no value. Waste fats, oils, and greases (FOG) need to be collected, transported to a biorefinery, treated to remove moisture and impurities and transported again to a biodiesel plant.
It is these steps that add enough value to ensure that most UCO can be collected without a charge. Conversely, vegetable oils, once they have been extracted from the seed or fruit, need to be refined, packaged and distributed, meaning that they will always have far greater value than the UCO they are converted into at the restaurant. UCO can be collected from commercial businesses in the hospitality or food manufacturing industries safely and efficiently.
In the UK, Olleco has a national network of depots and processing facilities and supplies cooking oils and collects used oil across the UK. It is the first dedicated circular economy company to be granted a Royal Warrant by Her Majesty the Queen and to recognise its considerable innovation in establishing a national circular economy network was runner-up in the 2019 Circulars Awards – an initiative of the World Economic Forum.
Call for more “transparency and rigor” across the supply chain
Producing biodiesel from wastes can be far more complicated than making biodiesel from virgin crop-based vegetable oils. Fatbergs, one of the feedstocks used by Argent Energy Group are particularly challenging.
Restaurants are the main culprit of fats and oils getting into the sewerage system and when combined with materials householders should never flush down the toilet, the problem becomes massive.
The RTFO is directly responsible for the investment made by Argent Energy in this world-leading technology, which now FOG from sewers and water treatment works. It has been estimated that there are over 250 000 tonnes of this material in the UK sewerage system in any one year, enough to prevent 750 million tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHG), if turned into biodiesel.
Biofuels are internationally-traded commodities and the industry, already the most strictly audited for sustainability, is pushing for even more transparency and rigor across the supply chain.
REA points out that today’s standards are “good, but that’s not to say they can’t be made more robust”, and that the industry has been calling for stronger controls and assurances on the supply chain.
Over 200 representatives from the auditing industry and UCO and biofuels supply chain such as the European Waste to Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA) recently met in Shanghai, China to propose more frequent and rigorous audits and greater transparency for auditors during the ISCC certification process.
The ISCC Technical Committees made up of stakeholders from industry, Government, auditors, and NGOs continually review standards in order to address sustainability risks including those raised in the NNFCC report.
An army of auditors around the world regularly checks that ISCC Certified suppliers have appropriate procedures in place to make sure that UCO biofuel can be traced back to the restaurant that generated it.
The UK has made significant progress in increasing the amount of renewable energy to make electricity with over 30 percent now being renewable. Transport comprises less than 5 percent renewable energy, and a lot more progress needs to be made.
The RFTO has started the process and its focus on encouraging waste oils and fats to be a cornerstone has nurtured innovation and investment and has resulted in an industry to be proud of.