Westerly students lobby for law to recycle waste cooking oil

01:00 AM EDT on Friday, April 1, 2011

By Richard Salit

Journal Staff Writer

Westerly students Taylor Fiore-Chettiar and John Perino make their pitch to expand recycling waste cooking oil.
The Providence Journal / Steve Szydlowski

PROVIDENCE — “Be confident. Don’t let them scare you because you’re kids.”

The tip from adviser Jason Lin came moments before the four Westerly seventh graders stood before a committee of state senators and an adversarial lobbyist, one of the most influential at the State House.

But without so much as a quivering voice or nervous hands, the students in matching blue crew shirts smoothly gave a video-enhanced presentation on why the state should pass legislation to expand the recycling of waste cooking oil into biodiesel fuel.

After describing in detail and with plenty of statistics the importance of promoting alternative-energy sources, reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and protecting sewers from damage caused by cooking oils, the students turned on the cute factor for their final pitch for passage of the law.

“Let’s do it,” they chanted in unison to members of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and the Environment.

Robert Goldberg, representing a company he said would be harmed by the bill, found the students a tough act to follow.

“As a professional lobbyist I have to hand it to them,” he said.

The students — John Perino, Cassandra Lin, Taylor Fiore-Chettiar and Vanessa Bertsch — are members of Westerly Innovations Network (WIN), a nonprofit group that has won national and international awards for its innovative community service projects. The group has campaigned for a state ban on dumping of e-waste, such as computers and cell phones, and rallied support for a local animal shelter and Meals on Wheels program.

In recent years, it launched T.G.I.F. (Turning Grease into Fuel), a program linking restaurants with biodiesel producer Newport Biodiesel and devoting a portion of the proceeds to fuel for the needy. The program has spread from Westerly to Narragansett and Warwick and has involved nearly 100 restaurants, generating $32,000 in fuel assistance.

This year, the students sought to broaden their efforts. They helped draft legislation sponsored by Sen. Dennis Algiere, R-Westerly, that would create a statewide program.

Under the bill, any business, such as a supermarket, that sells or generates cooking oil and has either 10 employees or annual revenues of $1 million a year would have to provide a receptacle for the collection of waste oil. The oil would then have to be collected and taken to a biodiesel producer.

The WIN team members said they are focusing on getting households to recycle cooking oil since many restaurants are already involved in such efforts.

The problem, said Goldberg, is that his client, Baker Commodities, collects waste oil from a location in Warwick, and sends it to a processing facility in Billerica, Mass. From there, it is sold to businesses in the U.S. and abroad for use as an additive to livestock feed, as a lubricant and for biodiesel. The law, he said, would benefit Newport Biodiesel and harm the Warwick operation and its eight employees.

“This is really creating a monopoly and putting my company out of business,” Goldberg said.

The legislation could “create a pretty involved regulatory program … that might inhibit recycling of this stuff,” said Terrence Gray, assistant director for air, waste and compliance. “We’re not opposing the bill,” he said, but the industry is “developing pretty well on its own.”

Senators commended the students and said they would study the legislation.

“This is a very good start,” Algiere said. “This is how the democratic process works.”