New cooking-oil pickup program getting cooking

By John Bayles 

Last Friday, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were at Russ & Daughters Appetizers on East Houston St. to put their political will, and a little elbow grease, behind a new program making it easier for restaurants to recycle their used cooking oil. The two pols got their hands dirty and performed the first pickup of oil at the legendary catering spot to kick off the Go Green! Cooking Oil Recycling Program.

The program is being run by the Lower East Side Ecology Center, in partnership with the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization that finds work for formerly homeless individuals and ex-prisoners. Businesses are provided with containers to store the used oil, and the Doe Fund’s RWA (Ready, Willing and Able) Resource Recovery Team picks the oil up free of charge and sells it to producers. The producers convert the oil into clean-burning biodiesel that can run in any diesel engine while emitting far fewer emissions than standard fuel.

Tara DePorte, the Lower East Side Ecology Center’s program director, said she approached the borough president with the idea of the oil-recycling program. The Ecology Center’s hopes were that businesses would take advantage of the hassle-free pickup service as an introduction to another program they operate, Eco Biz, which is designed to make local businesses sustainable and more environmentally conscious. DePorte said the oil recycling is a “no-brainer” since restaurants have to dispose of the waste somehow. Also the pickup is free, and there is an opportunity for tax credits at the end of the year to “sweeten the deal.”

“Then we can come back to the businesses and say, ‘This worked well for you, are you willing to try another initiative?’ ” said DePorte.

The Ecology Center started Eco Biz last year, which among other things, trains young people, a mix of high school students and college interns, to pitch the program to businesses in the community. And it was the fresh-faced youngsters that sold Nikki Russ, co-owner of the legendary Russ & Daughters, on the program and its myriad benefits.

“I thought it was great that students, young people, were involved,” said Russ.

On the same day Russ & Daughters signed up, so did 14 other businesses. A team of students, DePorte and members of the Lower East Side Business Improvement District spent one afternoon canvassing the entire neighborhood, reaching out to more than 100 businesses, dropping off information, in English as well as Spanish and simple Chinese. In addition to the 15 businesses that signed up, another 40 or 50 showed “definite interest,” according to DePorte.

Russ said she was a bit surprised at first when she was informed Russ & Daughters would be the ones to kick off the program.

“We’re not a restaurant,” she said. “We’re known for our smoked fish and caviar, not frying foods.”

She said Russ & Daughters’ cooking oil use was “insignificant” compared to average restaurants; the only dish Russ & Daughters fries is a potato latke, which is done so “by definition,” she noted.

But Speaker Silver said he wanted the nearly 100-year-old “institution” of the Lower East Side to set an example for other food purveyors in the neighborhood.

In a joint release issued last week with Silver, Stringer said, “We are thrilled to add this free recycling service to our Go Green! initiatives on the Lower East Side, East Harlem and Washington Heights/Inwood. Recycling keeps cooking oil out of the waste stream and — after it has been converted to biodiesel — helps reduce air pollution.”

But the program also allows for maximum flexibility in terms of scheduled pickups. DePorte said during “latke season,” for example, Russ & Daughters might need a 55-gallon container, which RWA would provide at a moment’s notice, free of charge.

DePorte looked at other used cooking-oil pickup programs, but said that when oil prices fell, some started charging small fees for pickup.

Both Russ and DePorte remarked on the new program’s backing from Silver and Stringer.

“The more the city and its citizens are promoting these programs, and getting behind them,” Russ said, “the programs will become more user-friendly to everybody.”

Russ also brought up Silver’s busy schedule in Albany and the current budget season and said, “The fact that he took time to [come to the Lower East Side] and promote this program, says a lot.”

DePorte agreed, sort of. She said it certainly showed a commitment on the speaker’s part. But in true advocate form, DePorte is looking for more in terms of political will and the need to address climate change in a hurry. Next up, she said, she hopes to reach out to Stringer and Silver over the next year, and get them to make a commitment to providing biodiesel at filling stations in the city.

“The political will is very important,” DePorte said, “because they can really help us get that grassroots message to a broader audience; and, certainly, we hope there is more than just press conferences.”