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Nov. 5, 2007

Columbia Partners with Local Nonprofit to Convert Cooking Oil to Biodiesel

Ready, Willing & Able trainee Randy Harrell operates vacuum hose.
Ready, Willing & Able trainee Randy Harrell operates a vacuum hose.

More than 1,700 gallons of cooking oil are used annually by dining and catering services on Columbia’s Morningside campus. But starting last month, Columbia’s waste cooking oil, from Faculty House to John Jay, is now picked up and delivered to refineries to be converted into biodiesel.

To orchestrate pickup of Columbia’s waste oil from 16 facilities across Morningside campus, the University has partnered with The Doe Fund, a New York nonprofit that provides housing and employment opportunities to formerly homeless individuals.

As part of Ready, Willing & Able (RWA), The Doe Fund’s signature transitional employment program, the RWA Resource Recovery initiative offers free, on-demand pickup of waste cooking oil in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. Participating food service establishments can rely on fully licensed and insured pickup services and guaranteed compliance with New York City waste cooking oil disposal regulations.

“We currently have eight employees that actually collect the oil,” said Sabian Cheong, program coordinator. “Three employees have completed the vocational training program and were hired as supervisors, while the other five are still being trained.”

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Currently, RWA Resource Recovery serves 300 pickup locations, of which Columbia University is the first—and so far, the only—academic institution to sign up for the service. 

“This partnership, which started as a student initiative, is truly a win-win for Columbia,” said Nilda Mesa, director of environmental stewardship at the University. “Not only are we doing more to become environmentally sustainable, we are working with a local organization that is helping our neighbors and the environment.”

All waste cooking oil collected by the program is recycled into ASTM standard biodiesel, which burns 70 percent cleaner than petroleum diesel, according to Cheong. The RWA Resource Recovery program provides a way for food service establishments to help make New York City cleaner and greener, and at no cost to participants. The program is funded by HSBC Bank and other donors, including private individuals and government sources.

With less than a year under its belt, the program has already helped convert 142,600 gallons of waste cooking oil into biodiesel. In October alone, 40 new clients signed on to the program and 30,110 gallons of oil were picked up.

“The long-term goals for the RWA Resource Recovery program,” said Cheong, “are to reduce reliance on oil and create jobs for formerly homeless men, while keeping New York City cleaner by both recycling waste cooking oil and creating fuel that reduces harmful pollution. This new partnership with Columbia University is helping us achieve these goals.”

RWA Resource Recovery trainees prepare to collect waste oil from a
participating restaurant in Manhattan.
RWA Resource Recovery trainees prepare to collect waste oil from a participating restaurant in Manhattan.

This partnership is part of Columbia’s long-term commitment to reduce its total carbon footprint by 30 percent in 10 years, as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC strategy to make New York City more sustainable. Columbia is one of ten 2030 Challenge Partners participating in the Mayor’s plan.

Just over a year old, the Department of Environmental Stewardship works with other Columbia departments and offices to create a greener and more sustainable University. Current projects include creating green roofs, opening a recycling center in Lerner Hall and establishing a program to recycle unwanted furniture and equipment for reuse by other University offices and, when possible, nonprofit organizations. The University is also conducting a greenhouse gas emission inventory to assess its sources of emissions and develop a plan to reduce them.

— Story by Clare Oh. Photographs courtesy of the RWA Resource Recovery program.