Gabe Jones and Joe McEachern have always worked together in some type of business.
Carpentry, granite countertops, house painting – all kinds of stuff. The two even had a band together.
“We were pretty resourceful, always trying to be self-employed and entrepreneurial,” said Jones, co-founder of Detroit Grease.
Then, something happened.
“It took a long time to get to the point where we had the opportunity to go on tour and make a living doing it,” Jones said, “and as soon as we did is right when the gas crisis hit.”
So, Jones and McEachern put their heads together and decided they needed to figure out some way to be able to tour without spending all of their money on fuel. The childhood friends started researching biodiesel and how to convert diesel engines to run on vegetable oil.
That led them to becoming fleet managers for a party bus company that was driving around students for $2 a person. The company was running all their vehicles off of waste and fryer oil from local restaurants that Jones and McEachern were processing.
“That company folded, and when it did, we had all the infrastructure and experience at that point to run an entire fleet on the fuel recycled from fryer oil. We kind of parlayed that into our own business.”
Gabe Jones, co-founder of Detroit Grease
The rest is history.
In 2011, Quality Redemption in Ann Arbor was born.
“We educated ourselves on this stuff,” Jones said. “We used Google, we used the library, and we informed ourselves on how to figure all this stuff out. It took some trial and error.”
It paid off.
Four years later – as a result of new opportunities – Quality Redemption relocated to the Motor City and rebranded itself into Detroit Grease.
The company provides a grease recycling service to restaurants and institutions in Metro Detroit, Ann Arbor, Toledo, and surrounding areas, converting used cooking oils into biodiesel and compost for local farms for carbon footprint-free recycling.
Most of the oil Detroit Grease recycles is vegetable oil because, as Jones explained, “not all grease is created equal.”
“We can’t use animal lipids, like drippings from barbecue and things like that,” he said. “It’s mostly vegetable oil. It just depends on how clean it is. Not all restaurants are very careful to clean their fryers very often.”
A lot of the oil Detroit Grease recycles goes beyond restaurants as well, including home cooking oil drop off and public drop off locations at facilities in both Detroit and Ann Arbor for used cooking oil.
“We try to get the word out, especially during the holidays and turkey frying season,” Jones said.
Along with restaurants, Detroit Grease also works with Catholic churches, public school systems, and Lourdes University, which is an independent, Roman Catholic and Franciscan university just northwest of Toledo, Ohio.
After the waste oil is collected, Jones and McEachern apply a heat process to it, using a wood burning boiler that they fuel with wood from trees that have either fallen or been cut down from blighted areas in Detroit.
During the heat process, water and sediment separates from the oil gravitation, which the partners then draw off through a series of cascading heated cone bottom tanks and filtration, further and further refining it. All of the particulate – mainly food matter and breading – that they filter out of the oil, they take to local farms for use as compost.
The oil is then chemically tested to determine when it’s ready for biodiesel production.
Jones said there are a lot of different methods to make biodiesel and that he and McEachern have their own preferred method with different chemistry involved.
“The general idea is something called transesterification,” he said, “which is the timed reaction under heat of a triglyceride (used cooking oil) with an alcohol and a catalyst to form esters and glycerol.”
Esters have all the good fuel properties and glycerol is the byproduct the two wish to remove. Any remaining impurities or moisture are removed in the final step, known as dry washing.
“There are many different ways to accomplish this, but we use something called ion-exchange resin columns, which are large cylindrical columns filled with tiny resin beads that are extremely porous and have a high surface-area-to-volume ratio,” Jones said. “They absorb and release, or exchange certain ions, washing the final product of any remaining impurities.”
Recently, the company tried to work out an arrangement with the city of Ferndale to make the recycling of waste cooking oil mandatory by way of a city ordinance. Ferndale has had enormous problems with up to five or six different grease dumpsters in one small alley. The companies servicing those dumpsters have neglected them, leaving the city with a growing mess.
“They’re all disgusting because your average grease company maybe goes out once or twice a year to empty it. They don’t care what it looks like,” Jones said. “Ferndale was having a big problem with the walkability of its downtown.”
The city is working on a plan to contract with Detroit Grease in creating a free, optional program to all local businesses who wish to participate. Jones said he is confident that if implemented, it will be a drastic improvement for all involved; the restaurants, the city’s maintenance crews, and the residents who enjoy their downtown and use of the public alleyways.
This was particularly exciting news for Jones and McEachern because not only did Ferndale reach out to them first after seeing their website, but it was something the business partners had wanted to implement from the very beginning.
“We knew this because when we were on tour with the band and running our own vehicles on recycled waste oil from restaurants in San Francisco,” Jones said, “we found out that that’s how they do it. It’s all required by the city or they face penalty.”
In 2007, San Francisco, after losing nearly $3.5 million each year cleaning sewer clogs as the result of waste cooking oil, contracted with a company and offered a free public waste oil recycling service. The city adopted a mandatory recycling policy to encourage use of this service.
It was at that point Jones and McEachern started thinking about this as a service they could provide.
“It’s been in our minds for a long time that if we had the support and backing of a given city behind us,” Jones said, “we could apply what San Francisco is doing anywhere and see the same positive impact while saving them money and potential environmental hazards. Ferndale, hopefully, will be our first chance to put this idea into action, and hopefully it will be something we can soon bring to other communities.
That includes the University of Michigan, which earlier this month met with Jones and McEachern in regards to Detroit Grease taking over the school’s service for its entire operation.
“Great things are happening on the whole,” Jones said.
As Detroit Grease grows, so too do the ideas.
Jones and McEachern are always trying to look forward to the future in terms of other things that can be done with the infrastructure and relationships they’re building.
“It would be pretty easy for us to expand the type of services for recycling we already offer, like food waste,” Jones said. “We’re also looking into making soap recycled from our glycerin byproduct in the future. I think it could be kind of fun and cool.”