How waste cooking oil can drive Hong Kong's campaign for cleaner air

Edwin Lau says a new regulatory regime for waste cooking oil will offer Hong Kong the chance to ramp up production of biodiesel, which can be used to power vehicles, generators

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 July, 2015, 9:30am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 October, 2016, 5:45pm

Ten months after the tainted oil scandals in Taiwan and Hong Kong, our government has recently proposed regulating edible fats and oils as well as waste cooking oil to protect public health. Edible oil suppliers will be required to prove that the product meets statutory standards (although the proposed standards are not as stringent as in some other places), while waste cooking oil should only be collected by those who have registered with the administration, so that the reprocessing of the oil can be easily traced.

The proposed policy aims to prevent waste cooking oil and other substandard oil entering the food chain, which is a belated step in the right direction. While waiting for the government to establish the law, it would be helpful for a professional body to launch a voluntary accreditation scheme to monitor the edible oil suppliers and waste cooking oil collectors and recyclers.

With such a scheme, restaurants and food factories could be sure they are buying edible oil safe for human consumption, while selling or giving their waste cooking oil to accredited collectors only, to uphold their corporate environmental responsibility.

While waste cooking oil is generated every day, consumers and restaurant operators seldom think about its final destination - even when it may find its way back to our dining tables through illegal means. Restaurant and food operators just want to get rid of their oil to free up space, so any collector who offers a good price will get it, and not many will bother about what happens to it, in Hong Kong or elsewhere.

For many years, there was virtually no statutory control on waste generated by the food and catering industry, which demonstrated beautifully the government's laissez-faire policy that top officials are so proud of.

There are three biodiesel producers that have been operating in Hong Kong for years. They all try to collect waste cooking oil locally and recycle it to produce biodiesel for vehicles, machines, boilers and backup power generators for data centres, hospitals, and so on.

However, they often grumble that it is very difficult to purchase waste cooking oil here as they find it hard to compete with other collectors who can offer much higher prices as they make higher profits from their operations. In a profit-driven society, no wonder food scares such as the so-called "gutter oil" and "industrial lard" scandals happen from time to time.

A government study estimates that Hong Kong generates around 16,000 tonnes of waste cooking oil annually, of which 5,000 tonnes is exported. Local biodiesel producers claim a combined annual processing capacity of 160,000 tonnes, which is way beyond the amount generated in the city.

Unfortunately, the demand for biodiesel for local commercial use and government vehicle trials is very limited, so they either have to suspend collection or sell surplus biodiesel to places outside Hong Kong.

To prevent people consuming tainted oil, we should recycle and reuse waste cooking oil locally. Studies have shown that different blends of biodiesel can reduce certain air pollutants when used in engines or boilers.

To demonstrate the government's commitment to improving our air quality and protecting public health, all diesel-powered government vehicles should use B5 fuel, a blend of 5 per cent biodiesel with Euro 5 diesel, and stipulate it as the standard fuel for all franchised buses. In addition, boilers in hospitals, laundries and hotels, and backup power generators in government and commercial buildings should use B5 or a higher blend. The government should also require oil companies to provide B5 in every fuel station to facilitate wider participation by the private sector and individuals.

If the government takes the lead to create demand, all our waste cooking oil could be reused locally, which would only be good for public health, the environment and the circular economy.

Edwin Lau Che-feng is head of community engagement and partnership at Friends of the Earth (HK)