EU lacks ‘complete overview’ about used cooking oil origins

The current Renewable Energy Directive does not distinguish between domestically collected UCO and imported UCO. [Vershinin89/Shutterstock]

The European Commission does not have a “complete overview” of the origin of used cooking oils used for the production of biodiesel consumed in the EU, but appears set to tighten the rules, according to sources close to the matter.

EURACTIV has learnt that this information is currently not reported by the member states.

Used Cooking Oils (UCO) are double-counted under the EU’s renewable energy directive because they can help decarbonise Europe’s transport sector.

But the current directive does not distinguish between domestically collected oils and those which are imported from third countries. And critics suggest some of it contains palm oil, which the EU decided to phase out in order to slow deforestation in tropical countries.

Last year, the UK and the Netherlands launched official investigations into companies which have allegedly been selling unsustainable UCO containing palm oil.

“All biofuels have to meet the same sustainability criteria independently of the origin of the feedstock. Currently, the Commission receives only data from the voluntary schemes that have been recognised by the Commission,” said sources said, who asked not to be named.

However, the same sources added that the schemes do not cover the entire market and that it is not certain that all biofuels certified by the schemes are consumed in the EU. UCO-based biofuels are also promoted in third countries.

“This situation will change, however, as the Commission has been empowered by the Renewable Energy Directive to put in place a Union database that will allow it to centrally trace all biofuels consumed in the EU,” the sources said.

EURACTIV was also informed that the Commission will further tighten the auditing approaches applied for biofuels produced from UCO by setting out detailed certification rules in an implementing act.

“It should also be noted that the revised Renewable Energy Directive needs to supervise the work of the certification bodies which are conducting the audits under the voluntary schemes. These measures will further improve the robustness of the system,” the sources said.

Differentiating UCOs?

For József Papp, a small collector of imported used cooking oils based in Hungary, there should be a distinction between domestically collected and imported UCO.

“Our view is that the EU should support the production of biodiesel from waste (used cooking oil) and ban the production of biodiesel from fresh oil (palm oil),” he told EURACTIV.

He said fresh oils are normally unable to compete with used cooking oils because they are more expensive. But if the price of fresh oil is low, it can be used to make biodiesel just the same, because refineries don’t make the distinction.

Moreover, according to Papp, there is a moral issue when it comes to merchants who create pollution by importing fresh cooking oil into the EU on ships and then do not use it for its intended purpose.

“With traders importing oil into the market, prices fall, so local companies who trade in used cooking oil are forced to work at lower margins,” he said.

But the European Waste-to-Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA) does not share that view.

Asked if domestically collected UCO should be differentiated from imported UCO considering that the latter’s origin is not fully traceable, EWABA’s Secretary-General, Angel Alberdi, disagreed.

“This question is tendentious as it asserts a false statement. Existing certification schemes make UCO one of the most highly regulated commodities in the world in terms of traceability to the source of origin, be it a street food vendor in China or a fast-food chain with hundreds of restaurants across Europe,” Alberdi said.

Alberdi added that the rules are the same for all used cooking oils, whether imported or not, as all players have to comply with certification schemes approved by the European Commission from the point of origin.

He said the EU’s renewable energy directive (REDII) includes provisions to revise and further improve existing certification schemes and to set up a single pan-EU database to track all market transactions and the sustainability profile of all biofuels and bioliquids consumed in the EU.

“Even if the REDII requires that this database would start at the point of production, we understand that the Commission is seriously considering starting at the feedstock point of origin, and we welcome this development,” said Alberdi.

“This database would encompass all liquid and gaseous fuels within the REDII renewable transport target. That is because if there are any issues in auditing the supply chain, these can affect any sector, any technology, and any feedstock,” he emphasised.

Alberdi insisted that the inclusion of waste-based biofuels in road fuels remains the most effective way to reduce carbon emissions in existing vehicles.

“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.”

EURACTIV also contacted the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification System (ISCC), which argued that its supply chains are already fully traceable.

“Every bath of UCO certified under ISCC must be kept separated in the mass balance ensuring traceability back to the point of origin (e.g. the restaurant). The country of origin of raw materials (including UCO) is a mandatory piece of information that must be stated on each ISCC sustainability declaration or Proof of Sustainability (PoS),” said Sascha Wüstenhöfer of the ISCC.

Wüstenhöfer added that ISCC is in an ongoing process to further strengthen the certification process, particularly in waste and residue supply chains.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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