Rising demand for used cooking oil driving fraud

Used cooking oil (UCO) has become a sought-after commodity, for example as a source of green aviation fuel, but scarcity of supply is leading to fraud with serious environmental consequences.

A report from lobby group Transport & Environment (T&E) says that figures for waste oil from exporters in countries like China, Indonesia and Malaysia don't add up, and it suspects unused vegetable oils may be being mislabelled as UCO. That means they may be shipping virgin oils, such as palm oil, which is a major contributor to deforestation.

Europe burns through 130,000 barrels of used cooking oil a day, roughly eight times more than it collects, and the US consumes 40,000 barrels a day to meet decarbonisation targets, mainly through the use of biodiesel.

T&E’s report – prepared by Stratas Advisors – estimates that global airlines’ need for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is set to triple the demand for UCO by 2030 and is already outstripping what can be sustainably collected.

“Europe simply cannot collect enough used cooking to fly its planes,” said Cian Delaney, biofuels campaigner at T&E.

“Ryanair’s targets for 2030 alone would need all of Europe’s UCO, while all the UCO in China won’t be enough to decarbonise the continent’s airlines, cars and trucks either,” he added.

“UCO is not a silver bullet and can only play a limited role in decarbonising the transport sector. Europe needs to stop shipping waste oil across the world and limit itself to what it can collect at home.”

For example, Malaysia is a major palm oil producer and its export figures show a three-fold difference between UCO production and export volumes, which “would heavily indicate that used cooking oil is simply a backdoor for palm,” said Delaney. “Fraud is almost certainly happening at a mass scale.”

China’s figures on the collection and export of oil appear to match, but the country has a massive market for so-called ‘gutter oil’ – UCO that is illegally re-used for cooking purposes – which means that large volumes are likely being used domestically.

With that in mind, there are “strong suspicions” that some exports include virgin vegetable oil mislabelled as waste oil, according to T&E.

The lobby group says governments should ensure that UCO imports from outside the EU no longer count towards renewable targets, thus eliminating a key incentive for their demand.

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