Friday goes inside Blue, the company that recycles the fat, oil and grease that comes out of Dubai’s eateries… and there’s a lot of it.
Ahead of Earth Day tomorrow, Anand Raj OK visits a Dubai facility to find out how it is turning the waste churned out by the city’s restaurants into something you can clean with
RRafael Sanjurjo Lopez’s analogy could not drive the point home better. ‘Think of the city as your body,’ suggests the regional general manager of Blue, the waste management arm of the Al Serkal Group. ‘Now think of the city’s sewage system as the arteries in your body and the waste products that flow through the drain as the bad cholesterol in your blood. ‘What happens if cholesterol accumulates in the arteries and blocks it? A heart attack, right?’ He pauses for effect. ‘That’s what we are working hard to prevent.’
Rafael’s analogy works on another level – the waste products that he is talking about are fats, oils and grease, or FOG, in industry speak.
We are not talking about a few milligrams. We are talking around 50,000 gallons of this muck – which would fill 1,200 bathtubs – generated by the city’s food outlets daily, which, if not intercepted at the point of origin, would flow into the city’s sewers. The result: pipes clogged with this stinky waste – a major ecological and civic issue.
The idea for a waste treatment plant for FOGs was the brainchild of Nasser Bin Abdul Latif Al Serkal, the chairman of the Al Serkal Group, 25 years ago, on a trip to the US. He saw how grease traps were preventing FOGs from entering city sewers and upon his return to the UAE, decided to start a cleaning company, which led to the development of the recycling plant.
At the time, the plan involved raising awareness among restaurant owners about the problem, then enforcing an interceptor – called a grease trap, a plumbing device that intercepts FOGs before they enter the waste water disposal system and diverts them to a tank. An authorised cleaning company then siphons this waste and transports it to a recycling or treatment plant.
Initially, Al Serkal’s plan was to collect the FOG and transport it to a sewage treatment plant to be treated and disposed of.
‘But he [Nasser] soon realised that there should be a better way of disposing of the waste and wondered how it could be recycled,’ says Rafael. Many deliberations later, in 2009, the Al Serkal group joined hands with Dubai Municipality and set up Envirol – which today is the only waste FOG treatment plant in not just the UAE, but the entire Middle East.
Seated in the plant’s office in Al Awir, the odour of FOGs wafting in frequently from the treatment area is overpowering, nauseating even. ‘Getting the plant operational and starting treatment of waste was not easy because we had to start from scratch,’ says Rafael. ‘Dubai Municipality provided the land – 1,000 m2 – for the office and plant, put in place regulations regarding waste traps, maintenance and transport of waste, began enforcing those rules… while we got moving on making the plant and arranging for a proper collection system.’
The Envirol team held seminars and presentations raising awareness about the problem of waste FOGs and educated the big players in the market on how the waste is treated and recycled. The next year, 2010, the plant was operational. So, what exactly happens here? ‘Let’s start from the source,’ suggests Rafael. ‘Imagine you’ve had dinner at a restaurant. There could be some food scraps, such as pieces of bread, meat fats, sauces, curries, oils, butter, margarine…
‘When the used dishes are washed all this waste would go directly into the sewage system via the drainpipe.’ A small amount of such waste flowing into the sewage might not cause a huge problem. ‘But in a city such as Dubai, which boasts around 10,000 restaurants, commercial kitchens, labour accommodation kitchens, hospital kitchens…,’ Rafael throws his arms into the air. ‘Imagine the amount generated.’
Before I can even hazard a guess, he offers figures. ‘We collect around 50,000 gallons. Every day.’
He pushes an Envirol report towards me that says that FOGs cause around 70 per cent of all drain line problems and odour issues in a city. ‘Anyone who has had a kitchen plumbing problem knows pipes can get clogged easily when waste like this is trapped in them. And once clogged, waste water backs up into sinks and toilets and poses major public health and ecological issues.
‘In the case of a city, such problems cost the government millions of dollars a year, not to mention potential health hazards,’ he says.
To prevent this, restaurants and other food outlets, heeding the advice from Dubai Municipality, collect the FOG in grease traps.
Authorised grease trap cleaning companies bring the FOGs to the plant to be treated and recycled. Dubai Municipality has licensed 28 accredited waste companies to transport oils and grease from restaurants and hotels to the recycling plant.
Generated by the city’s food outlets, this MUCK, if not intercepted at the point of origin, would flow into the city’s sewers. The result: pipes CLOGGED with stinky waste – a major ECOLOGICAL and civic issue
The FOG is then subjected to a complex treatment process that involves mechanical and physical separation of the waste, filtering and treating it biologically before dehydrating and decanting the waste to produce water, refined oil and fertiliser.
‘About 70 per cent of the recycled product is water, around 20 per cent manure and 10 per cent oil,’ says Rafael. ‘The water is used for irrigation, the oil for making soap and detergents and the solid manure, which is completely organic, can be used as fertiliser.’
Some of the manure is then converted into compost.
Getting the plant on stream and ensuring the process proceeded smoothly was no easy task.
One of the first steps was analysing the kind of waste generated and to create a plant suitable to tackle the refuse.
‘Setting up a plant like this in, for instance, Spain, Singapore or Hong Kong, is relatively easier because the kind of
FOGs generated from restaurants there would be pretty much similar… there is a certain uniformity of waste generated.’
But the conditions in Dubai are different, he says. ‘Remember there are some 200 nationalities here and hundreds of restaurants catering to various nationalities because the kinds of foods eaten are so very different.’
We step outside the office to have a look at the plant and the processes involved in treating the FOG.
‘That 1,000 gallon tanker you see there,’ says Rafael, pointing to a truck backing up to empty part of the day’s FOG into the receiving area of the facility, ‘could have picked up FOG from about 100 restaurants. And very likely because of the kinds of food they are serving – Indian, Pakistani, Mexican, African, Argentinian…. Some would use olive oil, another palm olein, yet another coconut oil or soya. The sauces would be of different consistencies and the ingredients diverse.’
All these were factors to be taken into account when Envirol set about creating the plant; it had to be one that could treat just about any kind of FOG.
‘The waste coming out of the grease traps is quite like slush, like paste. On a winter’s night, if you leave a mug of that stuff out in the open, it could solidify into a chunk in just a few hours,’ he says. Seeing me cover my nose to keep out the odour, he says, ‘we’ve been tackling the malodour issue. It’s already down around 80 per cent from what it was initially.’
Dubai Municipality collects a fee of Dh1.5 per gallon of FOG as a dumping fee.
‘We can cover our expenses with that. But there are a lot of investments, for instance, odour reduction. We are also working on
‘Remember there are 200 nationalities here and HUNDREDS of restaurants, every one generating a DIFFERENT kind of waste. Some would use olive oil, another PALM OLEIN, another coconut oil’
energy efficiency, maybe the installation of solar panels. We want to be aligned with the government and work towards achieving their environment goals.’
Hassan Makki, director of Dubai Municipality’s sewerage network department, says the municipality has a sustainable plan for the collection, transfer and recycling of waste oils like FOG.
‘Oils and fats that enter the sewerage systems can block drainage pipes, which can cause environmental problems, eliminating municipal efforts in the field of preserving the public health of the emirate,’ he said. ‘It is the facilities’ responsibility to install grease traps.’
‘Several resolutions have been passed to ensure the commitment of restaurants and hotels to the laws concerning sanitation systems, he added.
Envirol has so far treated more than 54 million gallons of grease trap waste. ‘Think about it,’ says Rafael. ‘If this was not treated and recycled, 54 million gallons of waste FOG would have ended up in the city’s sewage system or in landfills.’
They are hoping to tap into residential communities and towers in the future.
‘Consider a tower of 50 floors with each floor having say, 20 apartments. Imagine the total amount of FOGs that the tower could be generating in a week. It could easily match that of a large restaurant. And with it all flowing into the sewage system it could be adding stress to the sewage treatment plant,’ says Rafael.
Envirol is also in talks with authorities in Abu Dhabi on setting up a similar plant there. Keeping in mind Dubai’s rapid growth, last month it began work on expanding the plant’s recycling capability. With the new expansion and upgrade of equipment Envirol will be able to handle 100,000 gallons of FOG.