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The politics of grease

For something that initially strikes us as a relatively benign food byproduct and cooking aid, grease is more political than we might initially think. Poking around behind the scenes of our food-obsessed city offers an intriguing glimpse at the surprisingly dynamic afterlife of cooking oil.

Grease trap

Jason Loring, co-owner of Nosh Kitchen Bar, is working with Stephen Lanzalotta and other partners to open Slab. The hotly anticipated restaurant is built around the concept of Lanzalotta's famous Greek pizza. Loring says that he got $100,000 into the process of construction and a number of planning meetings deep with the city before he was informed that the restaurant would have to install a 1,000-gallon grease trap.

Loring says that traps of that size run between $5,000 and $8,000, not including the cost of installation. He was particularly frustrated, he says, by the fact that the requirement was brought up so late into the planning process. The origin of the requirement is confusing. The EPA articulated the standards, though the agency purportedly works with localities in order to determine appropriate disposal standards.

None of this was straightforward to Loring, who says that his depth of experience running restaurants gives him an advantage in dealing with the construction process. This sort of confusion could sink a new establishment before it even starts. Finally, after a great deal of back and forth, he was able to work out a variance with the city.

From bacon to bombs

Grease has had a political side in Portland since as far back as the war effort in the 1940s. LiveWork Portland editor Peter Weed found a war-era grease collection receptacle outside of his 1929 Portland home. This is not surprising. Portlanders, like everyone else in the country, saved their spare fats for collection so that they could be turned into glycerin for munitions. In this newsreel, Minnie Mouse and Pluto help to illustrate just how bacon fat is turned into weaponry. This site features pictures of Mainers a few hours north collecting fats for the effort.

Fat power

The relatively recent revival of sustainability consciousness has brought oil and fat recycling back into vogue—and made it profitable—once again. Maine Standard Biofuels (MSB) renders diesel gas from discarded cooking oil. The company collects and buys these fats from restaurants, which creates a financial incentive for the restaurants to recycle accordingly. In turning grease into a fuel for its own fleet and the fleets of trucks that deliver food and related products, MSB closes the loop on buying and eating local by replacing foreign oil with a locally sourced, recycled fuel.

MSB employs about 15 people, and it was on the receiving end of a biofuel-focused tax benefit through the end of 2013. The Biodiesel Tax Credit benefited the industry for a handful of years, helping a number of companies get off the ground and grow. While the benefit has since expired, when I talked with MSB owner Jarmin Kaltsas and company late last year, they had seen this possibility on the horizon and remained optimistic. According to Accounting Today, just last week "Senators Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have introduced bipartisan legislation to reinstate a tax incentive for the production of domestic biodiesel fuel."

Grease is something we often think about in the context of avoidance as a means of preserving our health and fitness. It remains ever-present in our lives, though, particularly for those of us who enjoy going out to eat. According to MSB, Portland restaurants produce 1,000,000 gallons of grease every year. 75 years ago that would have been a lot of potential munitions, and now it is a lot of potential sustainable fuel. The handling and disposal of this much oil inevitably leads to confusions about processes regarding regulations and related enforcement. And so grease isn't merely a byproduct or a cooking aid. Grease is political.

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