Scenes from the Grease Wars

How sky-high energy prices and green chic turned Hub restaurants' used fryer oil into a prize worth fighting dirty for.

Last year, the country’s 275 rendering plants
processed enough fat to fill two lanes of tractor-trailers stretching from here to California. Without them, our landfills would be overflowing. So would our waterways: Before there was a glue factory on Spectacle Island, after all, dead horses were simply tossed into Boston Harbor. The renderers, by extension, have had a claim on being eco-friendly for years: “We’ve been green since before green was ever heard of,” says Bruno. Yet they have botched the job of highlighting that. When the National Renderers Association published an official history in 1978, it couldn’t come up with a better title than The Invisible Industry. By the time the group got around to publishing an edition it called The Original Recyclers in 1996, the scrap metal association had beaten it to the punch, trademarking that name four years earlier.

Stodgy though they may be, the established companies say that in addition to the necessary permits and licenses, they also have a certain wherewithal the planet-hugging startups lack. Anthony Martucci says that while his company can recycle all of the meat and fat that sometimes gets deposited into barrels, the green companies are generally only capable of reusing the grease. “We’re a full recycling company,” he says, claiming that some competitors are taking the other waste and “either throwing it in the garbage or dumping it down the drain.” And since rendering companies treat grease as a hazardous material, they spend a lot of money taking care of any accidents. When American had a spill in Boston earlier this year, cleaning up the mess properly cost $12,000. “A lot of these fly-by-night companies, I don’t know if they can write the check,” Bruno says.

Where the new companies do have a clear advantage, though, is in their skill at leveraging the rhetoric of the environmental movement. And “leveraging” is indeed the word—because while none of the companies are exactly lying about what they do with the grease, they’re also not always as community-spirited as they’d have customers believe.

Bio-Diesel Boston, for instance, does indeed brew biodiesel, making it in a $10,000 contraption in a shed in Jamaica Plain. But then it pours the biodiesel into bulldozers and other heavy machinery that helps the company’s owners make their real money in landscaping and construction. So while the restaurants are getting their grease recycled for free, they’re also subsidizing the fuel costs of other businesses.

Following the path of grease controlled by another biodiesel company is a trickier task. Green Mountain Biofuels touts its allegiance to the shop-local, save-the-planet ethos on containers that read, “For the community. For the environment. For the future.” It shares its mailing address, a post office box in North Conway, New Hampshire, with a company called MBP Bioenergy. Among its accomplishments, MBP helped Harvard start making biodiesel from its dining hall grease—just the kind of eco-friendly initiative that gets lots of play in the press. One article says Green Mountain is owned by a gentleman farmer named Al Landano, while another says its owner is Jim Proulx, the co-owner of a New Hampshire petroleum distributor. Neither mentions Paul Noonan, the man who actually incorporated the company here in Massachusetts. Noonan’s family owns J. P. Noonan, New England’s largest oil distributor.

The union between oil retailers and green entrepreneurs is not as incongruous as it might seem. Back in 2004, with an eye to expanding the use of bio-diesel, Congress passed legislation that gives oil companies a 50-cent tax credit for every gallon of biodiesel they make from grease (a credit raised to $1 this May). The perk has given oil companies a strong incentive to inch their way into the grease business.

Today, MBP Bioenergy gets the grease to make its biodiesel from the Green Mountain containers Proulx’s fellow oil man Paul Noonan set up outside places like Fenway Park. MBP then sells its biodiesel to oil companies, including the one owned by the Proulx family. When that biodiesel makes its way to the furnaces of area homes, it’s sold for roughly the same price as heating oil. That means the only ones obviously benefiting from the federal tax break are the oil companies, which get their grease from restaurants that think they’re sending it to an eco-friendly end. (Which, strictly speaking, they are—just not one anywhere near the Green Mountains.)

Even grease devotees with the purest of intentions can sometimes be less than virtuous in practice. For a moment after Keaney starts up his makeshift hybrid—while the grease is melting so it can be injected into the engine—the car runs on biodiesel, which he brews at home in his basement. He stores the concoction in a 55-gallon drum near the chemicals he uses in its manufacture: methanol, a highly explosive ingredient found in paint strippers; and sodium hydroxide, the caustic chemical known as lye. The process is so dangerous that two years ago, after an amateur lab in Colorado burned to the ground, the Centers for Disease Control issued a nationwide alert advising people to stop making biodiesel at home. Then there’s the fact that Keaney’s convertible Volkswagen (like all grease cars) is itself technically illegal, its vegetable oil fuel not recognized by the Environmental Protection Agency.