14 Feb 2019 22:02 IST

Do you want to eat food cooked in poison?

Instead of being reused for snacks, used cooking oil should be made into biodiesel and blended with fuel

Can you imagine a situation where yesterday’s by-product is today’s raw material in the same factory, for the same process?

That is what is happening in the snacks industry. Cooking oil, after the frying process is over, is re-used as cooking oil the following day. And that is no worse than selling cancer-causing cigarettes.

The norm that the medical guys advocate is, don’t use the same cooking oil more than twice. What this means is, it ought to be heat-cool-heat-throw out. But what happens in reality is heat-cool-heat-cool-heat-cool-heat..... it just goes on like that, with fresh oil added for topping-up. It lives perpetually until all of it is consumed, and the only way it reaches the drains is through the intestines.

Regrettably, each time you heat it, it becomes more carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. But who cares? The government ought to clamp down mercilessly on the snacking industry guys, big or small, if they cook cancer on their stoves, but that is another story.

Input for bio-diesel

Turns out that used cooking oil, or UCO, can be converted into bio-diesel. It is cheaper than crude oil-derived diesel and better in terms of properties. This is not a new concept elsewhere in the world but is still a novelty in India, where every resident consumes, on an average, 17.5 kg of edible oil a year. We are great snackers, always keen on namkeen, no?

When you convert UCO into bio-diesel, you kill many birds with one stone, says Shiva Vig, CEO and Director of a company called BIOD Energy Pvt Ltd, whose 100-tonne-per-day plant in Haryana, set up with an investment of ₹80 crore, has just gone on stream. First, with UCO-derived bio-diesel, you save on crude-derived bio-diesel and, hence, reduce the carbon footprint. (In bio-fuels, you first absorb carbon dioxide through the plants and then release it while burning, hence they are still carbon-neutral — or so goes the argument.)

Second, you dispose of UCO in a manner that is not harmful to health. Third, you possibly get cheaper fuel, though how the economics would change in a situation where bio-diesel is mass-produced and used is an open question. Fourth, bio-diesel pollutes less — a very important factor, especially in the cities.

Not a simple business proposition

So, there you are. All you need to do is to enter into an agreement with a bunch of namkeenwallas to ensure a steady supply of their UCO and convert it into useful fuel, which is cheaper than diesel. Marketing is no big deal at all — you simply sell the bio-diesel to the oil marketing companies (IOC, BPCL, HPCL) who are under obligation to mix a certain percentage of bio-diesel with regular diesel. A simple and straightforward business proposition, right? Not quite. Nothing is ever simple in life, especially in business.

First of all, the thousands of small snack-makers won’t sell you their UCO because, as I said earlier, they would want to use the ‘used cooking oil’, as their cooking oil. The bigger guys might — people like Haldiram and Bikaner, companies like Pepsi, and also the large hotels and restaurant chains. But guess what, to buy UCO from them, you would have to compete with the smaller eateries, the roadside dhabas, and snack-makers. These guys use the UCO in their kitchens, caring a damn if it’s against the rules to do so! And they may be paying a lot more than you can afford to, if you want your UCO-based bio-diesel business to break even.

Food safety regulations

The illegal after-market for UCO tilts the balance away from bio-diesel. As is common in India, the problem is not the law, but its implementation. From July 1 of 2018, the UCO regulations of the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) became applicable. But only if it is enforced properly will it result in any improvement in the situation, and in people’s health.

Complementing the heavy hand of the law that falls on the shoulders of the rule violators, there should be a solution based in economics. Oil marketing companies, now smiling under a regime of relatively low crude prices, could be asked to pay more for bio-diesel made from UCO. Today, these oil marketing companies have to blend 5 per cent bio-diesel with the regular fuel. This percentage could be raised to, say, 7 per cent, with the incremental 2 per cent reserved for UCO-based bio-diesel (just as a slice of renewable energy purchase obligation is reserved for electricity from solar plants).

Conversely, the government could fix a high price for UCO-based bio-diesel, and provide a financial incentive to the oil companies who buy it. The bigger, organised players in the namkeen industry should be prevailed upon not to sell to the after-market but only to the bio-diesel plants.

Above all, there should be a massive awareness campaign — as is done in the case of cigarettes — to sensitise people to the hazards of eating stuff from places that might be repeatedly using UCO. The question to put to people is: do you really want to eat food cooked in poison?