‘Used Cooking Oil’ in India Diverted to Food Chain; Public Health and Biodiesel Sectors Suffer

Man carrying tins of cooking oil in a street.
The Dialogue

‘Used Cooking Oil’ in India Diverted to Food Chain; Public Health and Biodiesel Sectors Suffer

As the world prepares to celebrate Biofuel Day on August 10 setting up new targets for renewable energy for a cleaner and greener earth, two dozen employees of Munzer Bharat, which is India’s largest ‘Used Cooking Oil’ (UCO) based biodiesel producer, stare at a bleak future.  

Navi Mumbai-based Munzer Bharat, a collaboration of Austria and India, has shut down its operations during the national lockdown to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. The plant may never start again. 

The reason: Not enough feedstock — UCO — is available in the market. The waste-to-energy plant has the capacity of converting 10 tons of UCO into diesel per day. It can collect just 5-6 tons per month now. 

Their supply of UCO is limited, even as the Mumbai metro region has the estimated potential to generate 300 metric tons of waste oils. 

“We are just maintaining our inventory at present. The fact is we could never reach full capacity since inception.  Things were expected to improve with increased awareness and compliance. It did not happen. Most food business operators continue to use oil repeatedly as no one is watching them,” Sanjay Shrivastava, managing director of Bharat Munzer tells The Dialogue.

Men in a factory in front of huge vats of biodiesel
Biodiesel plants are in jeopardy as they do not receive enough used cooking oil to run at capacity / Credit: The Dialogue.

His plant worth Rs. 27 crores (USD 3.7 million) was launched amid much fanfare in 2018 by the then-Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan. 

Unicon Fibro Chemicals, an Indo-Israel biodiesel maker, has also shut its UCO-based unit based in Gujarat.

“Most UCO-based biodiesel makers are struggling for survival due to a shortage of feedstock,” says Siddharth Pradhan, general secretary of Biodiesel Association of India (BDAI), who is also the director of Unicorn. 

There are about 33 UCO-based biodiesel units across India, as per India’s Repurposed Used Cooking Oil (RUCO) arm of India’s food regulator-Food Safety and Standards Authority (FSSAI). 

These firms started operation when the UCO-to-energy sector started taking shape in India in 2017-2018 with a push from the government with multiple objectives — to remove unhealthy oils from the food chain and convert it into clean energy and gradually replace fossil fuels with biofuels.   

"The primary source of biodiesel is palm stearin oil imported from Malaysia. Due to an unofficial ban on the import of palm oil from Malaysia in January 2020 following a diplomatic spat, the palm oil-based units switched to UCO deepening the crisis further," Shrivastava says. 

Why Should Oils be Discarded?  

Food business operators (FBOs) are supposed to discard vegetable oils after four times of frying or when its total polar compound (TPC) levels reach 25, say the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) rules. TPCs are associated with diseases such as atherosclerosis, hypertension, liver diseases, and Alzheimer's, FSSAI says.  

An electronic meter taking a reading over a vat of boiling oil on a stove.
Used cooking oil is dangerous to public health but is widely utilized to reduce expenses / Credit: Sahara Star.

The oils tend to be used repeatedly to reduce expenses. The heating of oils to their boiling points repeatedly results in the formation of free reactive oxygen (free radicals) which is responsible for oxidative stress causing elevated levels of glucose, creatinine, and cholesterol in the body, studies say.  

Repeated frying also alters Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFA) molecules present in the oil resulting in the formation of oxidized monomers, dimmers, and polymers which further break down into toxic Malondialdehyde which is linked to coronary heart disease and cancers

Diversion to Food Chain

The FSSAI rules came into force on July 1, 2018. Most FBOs are still not discarding as much oil as they are supposed to. Besides, they are not disposing of it as per the regulations. Most of the waste oil is repackaged and sold to roadside food joints and small-town markets. 

“Earlier, we used to get UCO from the hotels free of cost. Gradually, people linked with the spurious oil business started paying hotels Rs 30-40 for a liter of trash which limited our scope and revenues,” says Shrivastava.

Cooking oil mafias operate across India for many years. Police often bust their gangs (1, 2, 3) but they come up again due to high demand. 

FSSAI estimates India generates around 3 million metric tons of UCO annually and 60% of it goes back to the food chain, which poses a threat to citizens’ health. 

An Indian snack being fried in cooking oil that may be used.
Most of India's waste oil is sold to street vendors and small-town markets instead of reaching the biodiesel industry / Credit: The Dialogue.

“I am using this oil for many years, just like other vendors in this locality. It comes with proper packaging and costs around Rs 110, compared to other brands that cost Rs 160-170 per liter. I don’t know if this oil is the used one,” says Sant Ram who runs a Vada Paav (popular Indian snack) stall near a beach in Mumbai. 

Pandemic Woes

The coronavirus pandemic came as a double blow for biodiesel manufacturers as food establishments have been mostly shuttered since March 2020. Large gatherings and seminars are still banned. In most states, like Maharashtra, FBOs are open for half-day on weekdays only. Family dinners and weekend parties have stopped. 

Kersi Marker, Regional Head (West), Massive Restaurants Pvt Ltd, which operates various outlets across India including Masala Library by Jiggs Kalra and Farzi Café, says, “Most outlets are shut because malls are still closed. The UCO disposal is just 15% of what we used to dispose before the pandemic.”

“Oil consumption has dropped drastically but we still discard it as soon as its TPC reaches 20 and give it away to biodiesel makers as per the rules. Many hotels don’t. Enforcement and awareness can encourage them to follow the rules,” Salil Fadnis, Hotel Manager, Sahara Star, Mumbai, tells the Dialogue

Sushil Vaishnav, Managing Director of Delhi-based KNP Arises Green Energy, one among 19 UCO aggregators in India, echoes these sentiments. “Our oil collection has come down to a quarter [of what it was] as many restaurants are trying to make up for the lockdown losses. Since edible oil prices have increased, discarding oil would be their last priority.”

India's Biodiesel Targets

India’s energy security will remain vulnerable until alternative fuels are developed based on renewable feedstocks. As per the Biofuel policy 2018, India aims to blend 5% biodiesel by 2030. It currently blends a dismal 0.16% biodiesel, as per the United States Department of Agriculture report, 2020.  

Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas (MoPNG) claims India annually uses about 27 billion liters of cooking oil, of which 1.4 billion liters UCO can be collected from bulk food operators alone to make 1.1 billion liters of biodiesel. 

India consumes 102 billion liters of diesel annually. Official statistics suggest that over 5 billion liters of biodiesel are needed per year to meet the blending targets. Of this, 1.1 billion liters can be obtained from UCO itself. However, Indian oil companies procured only 105 million liters of biodiesel in 2019-20 which is 10% of the potential. 

Why is UCO-based Biodiesel Important?

UCO can be converted into biodiesel by a simple chemical reaction called transesterification which results in the production of fatty acid methyl esters with properties similar to diesel. 

Biodiesel has zero sulfur content and offers a significant reduction in carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon emissions. 

UCO can be a great source of biodiesel as it is available indigenously, at a low cost. Utilizing UCO helps reduce waste that would otherwise end up in a landfill or sewer pipes. A byproduct of biodiesel production is glycerol which can be used in the soap industry. 

Two chefs pouring used cooking oil into a container.
Regulations state that hotels should discard cooking oil after using it four times / Credit: Sahara Star. 

Policy Loopholes

The FSSAI rules apply to FBOs that consume 50 liters or more vegetable oil per day for frying. Hotels often record less than 50 liters of being consumed to bypass the rules. 

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and FSSAI are not serious about their mandate, according to biodiesel makers. “No agency or ministry is accountable for the issues associated with the UCO segment. Our pleas gather dust at various offices," alleges Shrivastava.

He adds, “Consumers are unaware of health risks and authorities are ignorant. Hence, hotels are using the same oil 10-14 times. Public health and biodiesel sectors are suffering due to a lack of political will.” 

Suggestions From Stakeholders

  • There should be clear ownership of the biodiesel business for better coordination among the stakeholders. A separate ministry for biofuel is the need of the hour.
  • Pollution control boards should be given the mandate to ensure UCO’s proper disposal. 
  • Registration of biodiesel makers and aggregators should be stringent.  
  • There must be a certification for hotels and restaurants which dispose of UCO as per rules. This will increase consumers’ awareness. 
  • In the EU, prices of ISCC certified biodiesel are higher than diesel. India also needs a certification system that will push the industry to maintain higher standards and get prices at par with the diesel, if not higher. At present, biodiesel is purchased by the government at around Rs 65 (USD 0.8) a liter, while blended diesel is sold at Rs 95 (USD 1.27).  
  • Biodiesel price must be evaluated frequently; fixing it for five years is unjust considering inflation.
  • “There must be a comprehensive and long-term policy for this sector. Frequent changes in import policy (for feedstock such as palm oil) hurts the producers and hampers India’s blending targets,” says Siddharth Pradhan. 

FDA Lacks Manpower

FDA Commissioner of Maharashtra Parimal Singh says that a "lack of human resources is a big challenge, but the government has promised to fill the post."

“We plan to expand outreach programs to housing societies and street food vendors to ensure that more and more UCO is discarded and reached to biodiesel makers. This will also create awareness among consumers about ill-effects of UCO," he said.

On the misuse of the 50 liter-limit Mr. Singh said that FDA can check footfalls and calculate the actual oil amount utilized by hotels. 

FSSAI's Response

“FSSAI is actively working towards finding safe and sustainable solutions for disposal of UCO under its RUCO initiative. One such area is utilizing UCO in the manufacture of biodiesel. We are also exploring other avenues to utilize UCO so that it doesn’t enter the food chain,” Arun Singhal, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of FSSAI says in an email response.  

He claims, “State FDAs are actively inspecting the consumption and disposal of edible oil by FBOs. Wherever the states lack adequate staff, the matter is continuously followed with them to create and fill these posts. We have introduced RUCO stickers as well that FBOs can obtain and display.”

“The sole responsibility of empaneling manufacturers and monitoring the biodiesel production is with MoPNG. FSSAI currently supports MoPNG by provisionally recognizing the biodiesel manufacturers. Pollution Control Board can also associate to ensure UCO is disposed of sustainably,” Mr. Singhal says. 

On the huge gap between India’s target and achievement in biodiesel blending, Mr. Singhal says, “Currently, the pandemic and increasing oil prices are posing a challenge in scaling up the biodiesel production. We have taken up MoPNG for finding workable solutions to scale up the production. The blending of biodiesel does not come under the purview of FSSAI.”

Petroleum Ministry's Response

Emails sent to newly appointed minister Hardeep Singh Puri and minister of state Rameshwar Teli didn’t elicit any response.

Requesting anonymity, an official says, “Feedstock availability for biodiesel is a challenge. Leveraging UCO can be a breakthrough for our blending targets besides diverting the unhealthy used oil from the food chain to a more productive purpose.”

This story was produced with the support of Internews' Earth Journalism Network and was originally published by The Dialogue on 5 August 2021. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: In India, much of the cooking oil that could supply the biodiesel renewable energy sector is reused; the tins they are sold in are also recycled / Credit: Meena Kadri on Flickr.

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