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ARGENTINA: Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Engine

Marcela Valente* - IPS/IFEJ

BUENOS AIRES, Jun 17 2009 (IPS) - A town in Argentina has launched a programme that requires restaurants and other food producers to hand over their used vegetable oils to be distilled into biodiesel, which will be used to run the city's vehicles and public transportation.

The Biodiesel Programme Credit: Courtesy of the Necochea city government

The Biodiesel Programme Credit: Courtesy of the Necochea city government

"We are preventing used cooking oil from reaching the sewers and polluting water sources, while saving fuel, creating environmental awareness and offering a project to a town that was dying," says Martín Issin, deputy secretary for production in the municipal government of Neochea and head of the Biodiesel Programme that manages the collection, production and consumption of this renewable fuel.

Necochea, a tourist town on the Atlantic coast, is 500 kilometres southeast of the Argentine capital, in Buenos Aires province. In the summer it receives thousands of visitors, but the permanent population is about 100,000.

Necochea isn't the one that is "dying," but rather the inland town of Ramón Santamarina, 65 kilometres away. The seemingly unstoppable desertion of the town led authorities to move the Agricultural School there.

The School was the site chosen for the municipal biodiesel processing plant, which reinvigorated life and activity in Ramón Santamarina.

"That's why we say this project has rescued productive potential and kept the rural population in place," said Issin.

Argentina is the world's third leading producer of biodiesel, after Germany and the United States, with more than 1.4 million tonnes a year. But production is concentrated in the hands of a few export-oriented companies, and does not supply local demand, which is set to increase beginning next year.

Argentina's 2006 biofuels law states that as of 2010 diesel fuel must be mixed with at least five percent biodiesel (plant-based), which produces lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

But experts fear it will be difficult to enforce the law because biodiesel producers prefer the more lucrative foreign markets.

Between 2004, when Necochea began its Biodiesel Programme, and 2008, the collection of plant-based cooking oil increased from 7.4 to 94.8 tonnes annually. "Collection is constantly increasing," said Issin, visibly pleased.

The town decreed in 2004 that all eating establishments must register as suppliers of used vegetable oils and request the collection of this waste product, in exchange for a decal placed in the window to show that they are participating in the initiative.

Hotels, restaurants, factories and cafeterias are subject to inspections and fines from the sanitation office, which regulates what is put down the drains. Participation by individual households is voluntary.

The programme today involves 700 businesses that provide used oil year-round, and 3,000 more during the summer season. The cooking oil is collected by a city truck that itself runs only on biodiesel.

The authorities decided to incorporate the re-use of empty agrochemical containers in the scheme. The otherwise polluting containers undergo a triple wash before being used in the process of collecting oil from the participating businesses.

"We are open all year, but the summer is when we work hardest. We have to call so they'll bring us more containers, because we end up with between 80 and 100 litres of oil per week," said María Isabel García, owner of the La Taberna Española restaurant.

"It's a success, because in Necochea now there are cars for hire that run on biodiesel," she added.

Gustavo Aguirre, head of the Hereford restaurant, commented that the plan is "a solution and at the same time a service…The municipal government sends us the containers and comes with the truck to take them away. It's good for us because we don't have to figure out how to dispose of the oil."

The oil is taken to the processing plant in Ramón Santamarina. There it is stored in a tank to be filtered. The organic waste is used for worm culture. The fluid oil is decanted and the water content is extracted.

Once the biodiesel has been distilled with methanol and caustic soda, the glycerol is separated out, a by-product that can be used as raw material to make soap, according to Issin.

The town's only fuel pump has been installed at the Agricultural School, and it supplies the school buses, the city's vehicles, and privately-owned vehicles, including the cars for hire.

"We are in the self-supplying category because the volume doesn't allow us to sell it. But we can save on fuel for our fleet," explained Issin. The municipal government has 70 vehicles, which run on mixtures of 50 to 100 percent biodiesel.

In a six-month test run using a mixture of 20 percent biodiesel, two buses from a Necochea public transportation company had "excellent" results, he said.

The town's production office presented the programme to the Argentine Carbon Fund, run by the national Environment Agency to facilitate investment in energy efficiency and development of renewable energy sources.

With Fund certification, the programme could have access to financing under the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, intended to mitigate production of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide.

With that prospect, the plant, which now employs five people, could be expanded.

The pioneer project motivated the government of Buenos Aires province in 2007 to launch Plan Bio, through which a couple dozen non-governmental organisations collect used cooking oil free of charge, and sell it to private refineries at market prices. The income generated is used by those groups to finance their social campaigns.

*This story is part of a series of features on sustainable development by IPS – Inter Press Service and IFEJ – International Federation of Environmental Journalists, for the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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