Philly’s Indonesian immigrants lead way in cooking-oil recycling

     A poster at the kick of event for the oil recycling program, at  International Bethel Church. (Elizabeth Fiedler/WHYY)

    A poster at the kick of event for the oil recycling program, at International Bethel Church. (Elizabeth Fiedler/WHYY)

    Philadelphia is home to the nation’s second largest Indonesian population. And the city is now home to a new Environmental Protection Agency cooking oil recycling pilot. What’s the connection? 

    Hani White, Chair of the Indonesian Disapora Network of Greater Philadelphia, said the idea to create an oil recycling program only started after a problem with oil.

    “A lot of Indonesians cook with a lot of oil and we try to figure out what to do with the oil. Usually we just throw it out with the trash.”

    Or, White said, people pour the used oil down the drain which leads to clogged pipes. She experienced the problem first hand and was lamenting with women in the community about it. “We start talking and we like, ‘Yeah, we actually need like some kind of a way that we can trash it safely.'”   So White said members of the community started talking with the EPA to find out what to do with all their oil.  After all, clogged pipes were expensive to fix.

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    Clear plumbing, clean environment

    “And a lot of household is actually like, ‘Oh my God what is going on?’ They’re calling the plumbing and the plumber is saying like, ‘You should not do that.'” White said because most members of Philadelphia’s Indonesian community are new arrivals they are still getting accustomed to some facets of life in America. “Back home in Indonesia we don’t really have those kinds of problem.”

    With the new pilot program, families will bring their used oil with them when they go to worship. The innovative solution to a greasy problem was born.

    Lena Kim is with the US Environmental Protection Agency. “The program is called Feed The Barrel, Fuel Philadelphia and it is one of the most interesting things I’ve worked on in my career at EPA.” Kim said it’s valuable to note that the initiative to start this program came from the community, not from the agency.

    “We realized that the Indonesian community is so unified, so digitally connected, it would be easy for them to spread the word about how there would be nine or ten drop off points initially.” Kim said families will be encouraged to collect their used cooking oil each week. “And everytime they came to a church, synagogue, mosque or community center they would bring their used cooking oil.”

    A unique effort  Kim said she’s not aware of any other program like this in the city. “It’s a community that seems very very focused on doing good.” Most of the oil barrels are in South Philadelphia and one is planned for Chinatown.

    They are supplied for free by a local recycler, Eden Green Energy, a frying oil collection company. Director of Sales Sage Piszek said the process is spill-free, “We have trucks that have vaccum hoses that will suck the grease from the barrel.” Piszek said there are similar programs in California but this is the only one of its kind in Philadelphia.

    The used cooking oil will then be turned into biofuel and compost.

    Hani White said she hopes this program succeeds in Philadelphia and then catches on in Indonesians communities across the country. She said in Philadelphia people are already excited to pour their used cooking oil into the drums, or “Feed the Barrel” as the program is calling the action. “The mothers say, ‘Oh my God I have so much oil at my kitchen!'” White said some women tried to clean the oil by filtering out pieces of food but she explained to them that step wasn’t necessary.

    The launch for the pilot program was held at the first official drop-off location at the International Bethel Church on South Broad Street.

    Faithfully filling the oil barrel

    Beny Krisbianto is pastor at Nations Worship Center, another drop-off point. He said it is important for his community to understand “how to save the environment, like to be a good part of the community. That’s my encouragement to to my congregation to our people.”

    Krisbianto said he reminds his parishioners to bring their oil with them. “On Sundays sometimes we have 200 people and I encourage them all, ‘Hey guys don’t throw your oil in the trash. Don’t throw your oil to the sink. Bring the left oil that you just used for cooking and bring it to the church and we can do recycling with it.”

    EPA said all Philadelphians are welcome to bring their cooking oil to the locations at the appropriate times.

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