PORTLAND, Maine — Call it McFuel.
While activists, businesses and City Hall have recently clashed over the possibility of using tar-sands oil to heat buildings and power vehicles, a tiny Portland company is producing environment-friendly fuels from the grease found in fast-food hamburgers.
Maine Standard Biofuels refines diesel fuel from the used cooking oil restaurants discard each day. At its plant off Riverside Street, inside 10,000-gallon tanks painted by local art students, the company turns out about 350,000 gallons of fuel annually. It can then be burned as a substitute for heating oil or in diesel engines, sometimes with a blend of conventional fuel.
And the 11-person company pays restaurants for the privilege of getting rid of the slippery stuff.
“It’s quite a commodity,” Standard President Jarmin Kaltsas said, noting that the company has recently been paying around $2.30 per gallon of “yellow grease.”
Founded by Kaltsas in 2006, Standard collects its raw material from more than 500 restaurants throughout New England, almost double the number just a year ago, he said.
The restaurants range from fast-food joints to popular mid-priced eateries including Portland’s Sebago Brewing Co. and El Rayo Taqueria and Cantina. “Basically, we serve anyone with a Fryolator,” Kaltsas said.
One of his newest suppliers is Restwend LLC, an Augusta-based operator of 14 Wendy’s restaurants in Maine.
Since December, Standard has been collecting about 25 gallons of used oil a week from each restaurant, Restwend Director of Operations Jeffrey Marshall said.
Previously, Restwend had been relying on Baker Commodities, a national company that recycles cooking oil and “animal byproducts” in a dozen states.
But after months of negotiations, Restwend switched to Standard because “the opportunity to do business locally was a really important factor,” Marshall said. “We wanted to be a good citizen.”
Standard is the only cooking grease recycler in Maine, according to Kaltsas. “We want to keep this oil, this energy resource, here in the state,” he said.
Producing fuel from grease benefits the environment because the process recycles waste, requires few natural resources, and creates a diesel fuel that is less-polluting than traditionally produced diesel, according to the company’s website.
At the other end of the production line, Standard sells its wares to customers that include large truck fleets such as Oakhurt Dairy’s, motorists who drive up to the fuel pump outside the plant, and about 100 heating-fuel clients.
Kaltsas said that his company’s heating fuel and engine fuel both are priced competitively with traditional fuels, and sometimes cost a bit less.
On a recent day, Standard was selling its heating fuel at $3.60 a gallon, about the same as the going rate for conventional fuel. A nearby garage was selling diesel motor fuel for $3.40 a gallon, while Standard was selling its version at $3.25.
Standard’s refining process separates grease into different chemical components, including glycerin, a natural compound that forms the basis of many cleaning agents. Standard purifies its glycerin and markets it as Wicked Strong Soap, a heavy-duty liquid cleaner that is sold (or sometimes given) to restaurants.
“It’s sort of fitting that we’re producing a degreaser that’s made from grease,” he said.
Marshall, too, sees some irony in the recycling of a common kitchen waste product.
“This is basically stuff that was getting buried somewhere, but now it’s getting a second life,” he said. “French fries live on.”