TGIF is commonly known as an acronym for “Thank God It’s Friday, but it might be taking on a new meaning, as it also represents the Turn Grease Into Fuel program.
The program encourages residents and businesses to recycle used cooking oil instead of dumping it down the drain, where it can damage septic or sewer systems. Fats, oils and grease (FOG) is a leading cause of clogs in municipal sewer systems.
In 2011 a total of 1,450 gallons of used cooking oil was diverted from the Warwick waste stream and converted into biodiesel fuel credits for needy families thanks to a program started by Westerly students in 2008 and expanded to Sherman School here last year. In addition, the grease is being collected at four Warwick fire stations.
At Sherman, the 700 gallons of grease collected earned $471 that helped pay for field trips throughout the year. Principal Michelle Paton said parent Gary Marsh is exceptionally dedicated to the cause and even visited the school during summer months to deposit grease in the receptacle located at the school.
This year, she and her staff distributed flyers to students yesterday to encourage families to keep up the good work. Wednesday morning marks the first drop off day of the new year.
Cassandra Lin, 13, a Westerly Middle School eighth grader who if part of the Westerly Innovations Network, (WIN) a student-led, non-profit community problem solving team, said the project began as a community service group that also sought to help the environment. At the time, she and four of her classmates and WIN members Vanessa Bertsch, John Perino, Taylor Fiore-Chettiar and Miles Temel were in fifth grade.
It all started when they were brainstorming ideas to figure out ways to help when WIN founder and director, Jason Lin, also Cassandra’s father, journeyed with them to the Green Energy Solutions Expo of Rhode Island. There, they learned that cooking oil could be converted to biodiesel.
“We thought it was important because we already knew that biodiesel was an alternative energy source that could help stop global warming,” said Cassandra.
They also learned about the Westerly Area Rest and Meals Shelter, (WARM) which was promoting the One Dollar Makes a Difference Campaign. The campaign encourages people to donate one dollar each week to go to a charity for emergency heating funds.
“It was a good idea but wasn’t sustainable so we wanted to help the charities and that’s how our project came together,” Cassandra said. “We said, ‘What if we can combine these ideas and make biodiesel from cooking oil and then give that back to people in our town that can’t afford to heat their homes?’”
From there, the children partnered with the charities, as well as grease collection companies and biodiesel refiners. They also visited their Town Council and asked them to install waste receptacles so residents could recycle grease. So far, they’ve established eight receptacles in four cities and towns, including one in Westerly and South Kingstown, one on the Stonington/Mystic line, plus five in Warwick.
The children also have been asking restaurants to participate by donating their used grease. To date, 110 have signed up in the Westerly area alone.
They’ve also visited elementary schools in their proximity, made radio commercials, and passed out 5,300 flyers and 3,500 kitchen calendars to help raise awareness.
“Most people pour grease down the drain and that actually clogs the sewers,” Cassandra said. “We figured cities and towns would save money because they wouldn’t have to unclog the sewers.”
Jason said they meet on a weekly basis to discuss the status of the project. He is thrilled they have some this far.
“Children have ideas that are really innovative and you just have to guide them in the right way,” he said.
He is thankful to Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, as well as the Warwick Sewer Authority, and the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, that in November 2010,
joined WIN, along with Sherman. Together, they urged residents and businesses to get involved in the program.
“They are very supportive with getting the word out,” Lin said.
After hearing about the program from Westerly Mayor Diana Avedesian, Scott Avedisian [no relation] got in touch with the children and they visited him at City Hall to tell him more. He was floored by their efforts and realized the benefits of implementing it in Warwick.
“In this economic time, it’s nice to have a group of young people say, ‘We’re working on a logical way to help,” he said. “It’s a win all the way around.”
After meeting with the students, he notified WSA executive Director Janine Burke. She said she became immediately interested, as she sees a lot of problems in the collection system with grease in residential areas. Often, she said, people don’t realize the importance of keeping cooking oil out of drains because it congeals as it cools.
“It’s only a matter of time before you get a blockage and we have to dig up the pipe,” Burke said.
Like Avedisian, she thinks the students are “unbelievable.” In fact, she plans to nominate them for the John H. Chafee Conservation Leadership Award awarded by the Environment Council of Rhode Island.
“These kids have renewed my hope for the future,” said Burke. “You know how kids are-they get something stuck in their heads and I’m sure they were going home saying, ‘Don’t dump that grease down the drain.’ They probably taught their teachers a thing or two as to why it’s bad. I couldn’t see any negatives at all.”
Lauren Slocum, president and CEO of the Central Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, agrees. She and her staff support the program and have been helping to endorse it, as they are working with a number of businesses to coordinate their participation.
She, like Avedisian and Burke, is amazed that students initiated it.
“It’s exciting to see our youth take that type of leadership,” said Slocum. “It wasn’t just a project for them. They really wanted to implement it, make sure it was sustainable and that it would continue to grow. They’ve had two tabletops at our events to help promote their program. When people ask questions, they handle themselves remarkably well. You can feel the excitement in them.”
Slocum also said it’s exhilarating to think of the program’s potential. Not only does it help the environment, sewer system, as well as families in need, it saves local companies and citizens money because a fee is otherwise charged for disposal.
“You have to pay to dispose of oil and now it’s reused for good,” Slocum said. “With all the cuts that have been made to programs, this is a great way donate to the community and reduce costs. Think what we can do if we can expand this program. It’s so simple. ”
In a press release, Avedisian said information about TGIF has been included in this year’s recycling calendar, which is distributed free to all households.
“We know that TGIF has the potential to expand much further in Warwick [and] our goal for 2012 is to triple our collection rate over last year’s totals,” he said. “I think we simply need to get the word out about the program and get more people and businesses signed up. It is very easy to do and the benefits really pay off.”
He also said that TGIF collected 745 gallons of grease from Marley’s on the Beach and two fire stations last year. A total of $453.17 was then donated to the city’s Department of Human Services, which administers an emergency heating assistance program in cooperation with WestBay Community Action.
Since the inception of the program in 2008, the program has been able to provide 14,400 gallons of BioHeat with an approximate value of more than $54,000.
Warwick residents and businesses can dispose of used oil at four local fire stations, including Station Four at 1501 West Shore Road; Station Five at 450 Cowesett Road; Station Six at 456 West Shore Road; and Station Eight at 1651 Post Road.
The WIN students have earned a number of national awards for the project in the past several years. Last June, they traveled to Sweden to represent the United States in an international competition sponsored by Volvo. Their TGIF program has also been featured on CNN and MTV United States and Europe. For more information about WIN, visit www.w-i-n.ws.