Change minds, change fuel, change New York City


By John Bayles

Brent Baker has been called the Johnny Appleseed of Bio-Diesel, and it all began right in the East Village.

There’s a poster hanging in his Tri-State Biodiesel offices on E. 23rd St. with an image of Earth half-covered by a black, oozing substance, with the word “fuel” underneath. It’s a promotional poster for a documentary and the tag line reads, “The world is addicted to oil. We need an intervention”; it could just as easily promote the company whose wall it graces.

Brent Baker is an environmental activist cum C.E.O. His company, Tri-State Biodeisel, began picking up used cooking oil from restaurants on the Lower East Side in 2004, and today they service more than 2,700 customers in Manhattan and Queens.

They not only pick up the oil, they process it at a refinery in Red Hook, Brooklyn, then sell the fuel, so companies like Fresh Direct and Movers and Shakers can power their fleets in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way. Baker’s biodiesel can also fuel boilers for heating residential buildings, a good thing, since boiler emissions actually result in more pollution than the cars, trucks and buses that traverse New York City’s roads on a daily basis.

Baker said he was motivated to start Tri-State because it seemed to be the “next logical step” for an environmental activist who began handing out fliers with a simple homemade recipe for making biodiesel more than a decade ago on the streets of the Lower East Side.

“It was the next step to a more universal use of the fuel,” said Baker. “My line of thinking was I’ve gone out and I’ve educated people about this thing for many years, but they still don’t have the thing. And the company was the vehicle to deliver the thing to them.”

The “thing” is a clean-burning, cost-efficient and low-sulfur, alternative fuel. Baker’s company provides its fuel at or below the market price. And for most building boilers, there is no conversion necessary.

Baker was adamant in explaining that biodiesel fuel is a specific type of biofuel, a word he claims is often misused in the media or misrepresented by critics. Ethanol, the most commonly known biofuel, has received much press and criticism, which has led to a debate over its viability, primarily due to the rise in corn prices and the effect its use will have on farmers and wholesalers. But as Baker puts it, “Using biodiesel will not make your tortillas and beer more expensive.”

And Tri-State’s message and mission go beyond the benefits of simply using biodiesel.

“Ultimately, we see a United States that is recycling all of its waste,” said Baker. “All of the waste becoming energy or building materials or something of value. That is at the core of what we do. That is the path to sustainability.

“‘Sustainability,’ the word, means having enough to take care of yourself, and for the future generation to have enough to take care of themselves. It means creating a circular economy rather than linear one.”

Baker explained the notion of a linear economy. He said the diesel fuel people put into their cars or trucks today, could have been refined anywhere in the world. Then it is loaded onto barges, which use the diesel fuel, and then it is put into trucks, which also run on pure diesel, and then it is delivered to pumping stations all over the country.

The Tri-State model promotes a circular, sustainable economy, in that the oil is collected locally, refined locally and delivered in trucks that already run on biodiesel. In short, biodiesel is currently a best-fit scenario for urban areas and it’s perfect for New York City, in Baker’s view.

“We’re like the Saudi Arabia of cooking oil,” he said.

And while auto manufacturers in Detroit are trying to make somewhat-dirty cars less so, biodiesel goes a step further in Baker’s eyes.

“We’re taking the dirtiest trucks on the road and making them the cleanest,” he said.

In Baker’s neatly cluttered office, he has a string of name badges hanging from a bulletin board. He’s no stranger to the lecture circuit. There are presenter badges from all types of conferences, “green thinking” summits, biodiesel conventions and “save the planet” symposiums. Last Monday, he was at it again, in Wollman Hall at The New School of Design, as a presenter and panelist for the Design Green Now project.

He was asked what sort of advocacy his company is involved in. Baker said he wished he could devote more time to advocating. He brought up a bill currently collecting dust on the mayor’s desk, written and sponsored by two city councilmembers almost two years ago, that in effect would make it mandatory for all New York City buildings that have boilers to use at least 5 percent biodiesel.

“That’s the equivalent of taking 100,000 cars a year off the road; that’s three times what we got under the mayor’s congestion pricing,” Baker noted.

Baker told the audience to go to his company’s Web site and click on the action page and tell the mayor, “We want this done.”

“And you don’t have to bomb countries to get frying oil,” he added.

Baker said advocacy also means convincing companies to use less fuel, whether alternative fuel or not. He said it’s necessary to address consumption at the same time that we talk about alternatives. He said he loves the fact that the city’s Parks Department trucks all run on 100 percent biodiesel, as do the fleets of trucks that service Yellowstone National Park. However, he’s not seeing that same commitment across the board — say, with the megacorporations.

“It’s a good start,” Baker told the New School audience. “But if the people that were running these commercial fleets, if they were green advocates, then we would be doing a lot more a lot quicker.”

When told his remarks sounded very much like advocacy, something perhaps an activist would say, Baker laughed.

“Old habits die hard,” he said.

For more information on Baker and Tri-State Biodiesel visit the Web site www.tristatebiodiesel.com