Grease Is the Word

Warwick Sewer Authority gets school kids involved in the never-ending war on FOG in the sewer system
Grease Is the Word

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The Warwick (R.I.) Sewer Authority is addressing a long-standing problem with an innovative solution. The agency has teamed up with Sherman Elementary School students to cut down on grease entering the collection system.

The Turn Grease Into Fuel (TGIF) program converts used cooking oil into biodiesel, which is then donated to families who can’t afford heating fuel. The conversion of grease into Bioheat fuel is done by Newport Biodiesel.

TGIF was started in Westerly by the Junior Westerly Innovations Network (WIN) team. Last winter, the initiative in Westerly collected 3,000 gallons of used grease each month and donated more than 4,000 gallons of biofuel to those in need.

Warwick is a good market for TGIF because residents are passionate about the city’s rigorous recycling program. Because Warwick spends $250,000 each year to clean its sewer lines, TGIF could bring significant cost savings.


Helping the system

In a tour for Sherman Elementary students at the Warwick Wastewater Treatment Plant, lead operator Gwinlin Cox Jr. showed how wastewater is treated and the benefits of having less grease in the system. “Your mother cooks dinner, then the grease floats here,” he said.

Cox, who is on call around the clock, talks enthusiastically about TGIF and how it will save work for him and his crew. At present, operators are sent out once or twice a week with the flushing truck to deal with grease problems in the lines.

Cox hopes TGIF will cut down on the grease-cleaning expeditions and the laborious cleaning process that’s needed when grease makes its way to the treatment plant’s primary sedimentation tanks.

Also excited about the program is BettyAnne Rossi, pretreatment coordinator and laboratory director. “We had a tour today with the kids and I am still pumped up – but it’s my career,” she says. “What is amazing is when you see the kids excited. Then it is really inspiring. If these kids can do this in sixth grade, imagine what they will be able to accomplish as adults.”


Chosen on merit

The authority chose students from Sherman Elementary for the project because they were already involved in recycling programs in the city. In one case, the students questioned why bottle caps weren’t accepted for recycling, and they convinced Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, the quasi-public state agency responsible for solid waste, to accept them.

In TGIF, the students are focusing on residents near their school and have set up four recycling stations for the oil. Rossi says that if each household in Warwick removed only one teaspoon of oil from its waste every day, there would be 15 fewer 55-gallon barrels per month of grease going into the collection system.

The kids are getting homeowners involved by creating flyers and how-to information sheets. They are working with Public Works and the fire department to set up large recycling containers, which they decorate with the Sherman Elementary mascot, Sammy the Shark. So far, all locations are at fire stations, which are manned at all hours (helping to prevent vandalism).


Looking to restaurants

There have been issues with fats, oil and grease in the past in residential areas of Warwick. The true impact of TGIF will not be felt until it is implemented on the outskirts, where some grease “hotspots” are located. Certain neighborhoods have ethnic populations that use more oil for cooking, and the authority intends to reach out to those areas.

Another component to be added in the future is curbside recycling. At present, some residents find it inconvenient to drop off grease at the recycling stations. Rossi believes even more grease will be collected if residents can place it at the curb with other recyclables.

Once the residential phase of TGIF is in place, the authority plans to target the city’s 250 restaurants. Minor changes in restaurant procedures, such as adding grease traps or external grease interceptors and removing garbage grinders so that solid materials are disposed of in the trash, can have major benefits to the sewer system.

Rossi is confident the kids will remain committed. “You know how kids are,” she says. “If they are passionate about something you can’t keep them quiet!”

Previously, the authority’s only way to deal with grease in the commercial sector was to hand out violation notices and fines. Rossi would rather say, “Thanks for recycling.” In the end, she expects TGIF to help the community, benefit the restaurants, and best of all, help residents having trouble paying for heat.

Finally, it will benefit the Warwick Sewer Authority. Less grease reaching the treatment plant means less pipe cleaning and preventive maintenance. Cox says anything that improves the quality of the water leaving the plant is good for the people.

“What kids can do nowadays is unreal,” he says.


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