Industry mulls system to verify used cooking oil composition

Angel Alberdi, Secretary General of the European Waste-to-Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA). [Photo by Sarantis Michalopoulos]

The waste-based biofuels industry is “actively working” to develop a system to identify the composition of used cooking oil, Angel Alberdi, Secretary-General of the European Waste-to-Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA), told EURACTIV in an interview.

According to Alberdi, this will supplement the supply chain checks in place under the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification and other certification schemes.

“The inclusion of waste-based biofuels in road fuels is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions in existing vehicles […] and our members are fully committed to ensuring the integrity of waste-based biofuels and to maximising the environmental benefits that they deliver,” he added.

Alberdi spoke to EURACTIV’s editor Sarantis Michalopoulos.

How much of the UCO biodiesel (UCOME) consumed in the EU are from European sources and from imports?

The use of waste-based biodiesel has increased in the EU since the introduction of incentives, which recognise its higher GHG savings, in a number of member states. The most conservative estimation indicates that there are at least an additional 1 million tons of domestic used cooking oil (UCO) to be collected in the EU. While the EU collection networks improve and further develop, the EU needs also to import UCO (as well as crop-based oils) as raw material for biodiesel production. Looking at global EU figures, we estimate that about the half of EU UCOME is produced from non-EU UCO.

According to Eurostat in 2018 the EU imported 530 million tons of petroleum oils. Anybody would agree that it is certainly preferable to import UCO to produce UCOME in Europe, the biofuel with the highest GHG saving as stated in the Renewable Energy Directive (REDII) than to import fossil fuels. Each ton of UCOME on the EU market implies both fewer fossil fuels and an equivalent +88% GHG reduction.

The UK and the Netherlands recently launched official investigations into companies which have allegedly been selling unsustainable biodiesel containing palm oil. Is EWABA aware of that? Are you following the developments?

Of course, we are aware of ongoing investigations in the UK and Netherlands. Without prejudging the outcome of the investigation, we are supportive of action against whoever breaks the rules and takes advantage of the immense majority of the industry doing the right thing.

Having said that, we cannot really speculate on the exact details of those investigations given they are ongoing. We are not aware of any substantiated sources stating that the investigations are related to less sustainable biodiesel containing palm oil specifically.  The letter from the Dutch ILT, for example, centres on unsustainable products being sold as sustainable but does not reference palm oil specifically.

Our view is that inclusion of waste-based biofuels in road fuels is the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions in existing vehicles, and our members are fully committed to ensuring the integrity of waste-based biofuels and to maximising the environmental benefits that they deliver.  We are already working with the ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) to bring as soon as possible improvements in the auditing of supply chains to further strengthen the system.

Are you convinced that the member states’ authorities will be able to properly monitor the RED II implementation?

Yes. Now more than ever, it is important that all parties work together to develop the processes and systems to deliver the objectives of REDII across member states.  This is in the best interests of consumers, the environment, industry and its regulators.

Imported UCO is allegedly often sourced from virgin palm oil. How do you make sure of the genuineness of imported UCO?

UCO by its nature is made from a range of different oils including palm, soybean and rapeseed oil. Its composition depends on the culinary preferences of the countries of origin. To ensure that waste really is a waste, the industry relies on the ISCC system and other certification schemes.

The ISCC requirements for waste-based biofuels are the same as for other biofuels but are necessarily more demanding because of the complexity of waste supply chains and the need to extend right back to the restaurant where the used cooking oil is produced.

With a rising demand for wastes as biofuel feedstocks, the industry is fully aware of the importance of robust supply chain certification processes.  The ISCC system is always under constant review and improvement, and EWABA is working closely with ISCC to continue to strengthen the robustness of its supply chain checks.

Given the fact that palm oil is much cheaper than UCO, creating a vast profit opportunity, is it plausible that virgin palm oil is adulterated to seem like UCO?

Palm oil is not necessarily cheaper than UCO. It depends on how market forces affect prices over time. It is safe to say that at the point of use in a kitchen fresh vegetable oil prices will always be much higher than the value of UCO because at that point fresh prices include the price of packing and transport whereas UCO has very little value given that it requires further steps such as refining or collection itself. Depending on markets it might be possible that at a specific moment the price of a sizeable shipping of UCO arriving at a biodiesel plant in the EU is marginally higher than crude palm oil in a plantation in Indonesia but jumping to conclusions based on this sort of comparison is dangerous and misleading and honestly sounds like “friendly fire” from industry competitors.

Having said that EWABA members are aware of such concerns, and are in consequence actively working to develop a physical test to identify UCO, to supplement the supply chain checks in place under ISCC and other certification schemes.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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