Sushil Vaishnav realized that the cooking oil that clogs up sewers could be turned into green gold. And that makes him a climate change hero.

Sushil Vaishnav

Sushil Vaishnav, Founder, Ecoil

This article, by author Sanjana Chauhan was a Silver Prize winner in the Climate Champion Profiles Challenge, organized by Global Youth & News Media as part of The Writing’s on the Wall project, in partnership with News Decoder and The Climate Academy. The project aims to help student journalists in their climate change reporting and to offer schools new tools to integrate climate science into their teaching.

When former U.S. Senator John McCain ran for president in 2008, he said, “Whoever controls oil, controls much more than oil.” McCain was referring to the economic and political power of fossil fuels.

Social entrepreneur Sushil Vaishnav, however, sees power in a different kind of oil. His Delhi-based start-up Ecoil creates eco-friendly and renewable energy out of used edible cooking oil. In doing so, Ecoil benefits both the health and environment, thus impacting a lot more than mere oil.

The Ministry of Agriculture in India has recognized Ecoil as one of the top 20 start-ups in the nation.

It all began when Vaishnav moved from Dubai to India and noticed the poor quality of food, especially that offered by street vendors.

“I began to ask questions and found that the key problem was the quality of cooking oil,” Vaishnav said. “Some places were not even aware that used oil had to be disposed, or if they did, they would just throw it away in drains!”

Making it easy to help the environment

In researching the problem, Vaishnav discovered the lack of infrastructure for disposing of used cooking oil.

After meeting several key players in the food sector, he decided to start a business in the city of Jaipur. It evolved into Ecoil.

Consumption of used cooking oil can cause several adverse health effects. Frying changes some properties of the oil forming compounds known as total polar compounds (TPC). The toxicity of these compounds can lead to diseases including hypertension, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and liver disease.

At the same time, if this oil is discarded directly into the drainage system, it pollutes water bodies, clogs the sewer system and generates a heavy load on the effluent treatment plants.

“Consider this: just one litre of used cooking oil can pollute as much as 20,000 litres of water,” Vaishnav said.

The process of producing biodiesel

The process of converting waste cooking oil into biodiesel requires several technologies which include transesterification and enzymatic processes. Upon reaching the warehouse, oil is pretreated, the bad oil removed and moisture controlled.

“Methanol is added to the oil, followed by a catalyst,” Vaishnav said. “The reaction is completed in 3–4 hours, when biodiesel comes out on top and glycerin settles at the bottom. Both are separated for the oil to be stored in silos and ready to use.”

As of now, Ecoil processes about 100,000 litres of oil every month for a total collection of three million litres. For every litre of oil converted into biodiesel, carbon dioxide emissions are reduced.

“So far we have managed to prevent 3.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions from being released into the environment,” Vaishnav said. “This is equivalent to 153,000 tree plantations.”

And that is just the environmental aspect of it. “A litre of oil reused can impact the health of at least 10 families,” he said.

Getting people to change disposal processes

The road to success has not been easy.

“The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to convince people,” Vaishnav said. “Even restaurants at first are not willing to associate with us. However, when we tell them about the benefits of this association as getting a compliance certificate, which in turn will help them to fulfil FSSAI [Food Safety and Standards Authority of India] requirement, it serves as a key trigger point for them to avail our services.”

Now the challenge is to find a similar trigger point for residents. “So far, we have had limited success with residential societies and I think the prime reason is awareness gap,” Vaishnav said.

Then there is the challenge of nudging out middlemen from the cycle who buy this used cooking oil and who sell it to street food vendors at cheap prices.

The change Vaishnav seeks to bring about will not only benefit personal health but also reduce the carbon footprint in the form of biodiesel which is an environment-friendly fuel.

Biodiesel generates 80% lower carbon emissions as compared to fossil fuels. “Our aim is to recycle 100% of the waste generated so that nothing goes to the landfill,” he said.

Working towards a better tomorrow and a brighter future, his plan is simple. “We sure are looking at numbers, but not those of revenue,” Vaishnav said. “For us, the important numbers are of the lives and families we have been able to impact positively.”

Three questions to consider:

  1. What is biodiesel?
  2. How does Ecoil turn cooking oil into oil that can be used to power cars?
  3. In what ways is biodiesel better for the environment than fossil fuels?
Sanjana Chauhan

Sanjana Chauhan is currently pursuing her education at the Amity International School, Noida, located in the National Capital Territory region of Delhi. She writes human interest stories for her high school newspaper, The Global Times. She has participated in several debates and Model UN, at both national and international level. She is an active contributor in a school for underprivileged children. She was declared the national winner at an international forum ‘F1 in schools’. Sanjana is an accomplished classical dancer and pianist.

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