MIT students won a $3,000 prize in last year’s IDEAS competition for their Green Grease project. The service project was designed to improve the lives of the Brazilian catadores (waste pickers) by cutting down on their fuel costs and using their skills.
The Brazilian waste pickers are like the trash pickers in India, Columbia, and other cities around the world. These are the people that sort through the trash in large cities and small separating out the recyclable materials like cans, paper, soda bottles, and other materials. They sell them either to middlemen or directly to recycling enterprises to earn money.
In Brazil, the catadores were spending more on fuel for their vehicles than they were making on selling used cooking oil. Trucking their recyclables to recycling facilities was costing quite a bit. Enter students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who worked with Rede CataSampa, one of the many catadores cooperatives.
The students and Rede CataSampa worked together to modify two of their trucks so that they could run on filtered cooking oil as well as diesel fuel. Rather than converting the cooking oil into biodiesel, the students chose to modify the trucks to run on filtered oil instead. Complex equipment and toxic chemicals are required to turn the used cooking oil into diesel. Converting the trucks was actually much simpler and because of the warm climate.
The use of filtered vegetable oil provides multiple benefits for the catadores. First, it makes use of waste oil, a pollutant that, if dumped into rivers as tends to happen now, can kill fish and disrupt ecosystems. As a result, Brazil has begun to implement environmental regulations restricting the disposal of waste oil and requiring the installation of grease traps in residential buildings’ plumbing systems. Second, it can drastically reduce, or eventually even eliminate, the fuel costs for the catadores to operate their trucks. Fuel currently accounts for about one-fifth of the waste-pickers cooperatives’ operating costs
The students and workers installed a separate fuel tank and delivery system for the waste oil. This gave the catadores the ability to use either type of fuel in the trucks giving them flexibility. Also by training the Rede CataSampa, the students provided a new source of income for the cooperative. They can now run a business converting the trucks of the other catadores cooperatives or anyone else who would prefer to drive down the street smelling like French fries instead of diesel fumes.
MIT students plan to return to Brazil next summer to continue the Green Grease project in five new cities.