Industry progress on the sustainability of UCO and other wastes for biodiesel production
The UK is one of the most successful European countries in utilising wastes for biofuels as a replacement for fossil fuels in our road vehicles. As a direct result of UK policy, significant investments have been made here to manufacture biodiesel from all sorts of wastes, from used cooking oils to sewage grease (‘fatbergs’) and many others in between that often otherwise end up in landfills.
It is right, however, that the 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 questioned whether biodiesel made from used cooking oil (UCO) is indeed 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.
Biodiesel is a sustainable alternative to conventional fossil fuel diesel. When it is made from wastes such as UCO, it achieves carbon savings of around 88% . This compares very favourably to crop-based biodiesel which only produces carbon savings in the region of 50-60%. The UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation deliberately creates an extra incentive for biodiesel made from waste in recognition of this and the fact that processing wastes is somewhat more difficult than converting 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% of all the biodiesel used in the UK. In Spain, where this extra incentive, known as “double-counting”, is not used, almost all the biodiesel is made from palm oil.
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 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 they would have to be landfilled, or worse, poured illegally into the drains where they create ‘fatbergs’.
Some concern has been raised that giving UCO a value might actually encourage restaurants to use more oil, but 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 oils and fats need to be collected, transported to a bio-refinery, 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 used cooking oil they are converted into at the restaurant.
UCO can be collected from commercial businesses in the hospitality or food manufacturing industries safely and efficiently. 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.
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 are particularly challenging. Restaurants are a 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 in this world-leading technology, which now takes fats oils and greases from sewers and water treatment works . It has been estimated that there is over quarter of a million tonnes of this material in the UK sewerage system in any one year, enough to prevent three quarters of a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases, 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. Today’s standards are good, but that’s not to say they can’t be made more robust, and 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 met in Shanghai on 2nd July 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 check 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% now being renewable. Transport comprises less than 5% renewable energy, and a lot more progress needs to be made. The Renewable Transport fuel Obligation 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.
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Notes to editors
 Implications of imported used cooking oil (UCO) as a biodiesel feedstock. NNFCC 20/06/2019. https://www.nnfcc.co.uk/files/mydocs/UCO%20Report.pdf
 The average carbon saving for UCO source: Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) Statistics. Carbon and sustainability data of renewable transport fuel: United Kingdom, 15 April 2017 to 14 April 2018. Published 1 March 2019. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/782484/rtfo-year-10-report-6.ods
• Other carbon saving levels from the RTFO statistics
• When made from tallow, the carbon savings range from 83% – 92%
• When made from “sewage system fats oils and greases” i.e. fatbergs, an 82% GHG saving is achieved.
 “Olleco is awarded the ultimate seal of approval” 14th May 2019 press release. https://www.olleco.co.uk/media/2019/05/14/olleco-is-awarded-the-ultimate-seal-of-approval
“Olleco reaches the top two at the world’s leading circular economy awards in Davos”. 21st January 2019 press release. https://www.olleco.co.uk/media/2019/01/21/olleco-reaches-the-top-two-at-the-world-s-leading-circular-economy-awards-in-davos
 See https://argentenergy.com/raw-materials/water-waste-fogs
 The agenda, papers and an article from this conference can be found on https://www.iscc-system.org/trainings-events/regional-stakeholder-committees/waste-residues-and-advanced-low-carbon-fuels/
The link to the proposals from the ISCC TC Working Group on Strengthening the Implementation of ISCC Requirements can be found on https://www.iscc-system.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/10.-Working-Group-Actions.pdf
About the Renewable Energy Association (REA)
The REA is the UK’s largest trade association for renewable energy and clean technologies with around 550 members operating across heat, transport, and power. The REA is a not-for-profit organisation that represents renewable energy and clean technology companies operating in over fourteen sectors, ranging from biogas and renewable fuels to solar and electric vehicle charging. Membership ranges from major multinationals to sole traders.
For more information, visit: www.r-e-a.net