How to turn grease into fuel?
Cassandra, tell us what are you doing at the moment? You are a student now, how are the studies going, are you enjoying the new chapter in your life?
I am just about to start my freshman year at Stanford University! I’m undeclared at the moment, but I am planning on studying Computer Science.
Your TGIF (Turn Grease Into Fuel) project made you one of the youngest initiators of projects of this kind in the world. What made an 11-year-old so worried and driven to react and make this whole project work with the help of friends?
I think it just boiled down to the fact that we cared about helping our community. We thought to ourselves, if not us, then who was going to help solve this problem? Of course, there is always strength in numbers, and we knew that we could make a bigger impact if we banded together as a group.
Back in 2008, when all this started, did you know anyone suffering and living in poor conditions? Were those families on your mind while you were making this project possible?
Yes, our goal was to help as many of these families as possible and to be able to provide heating funds year after year.
How does it actually work? Can you give us a simple explanation so our readers can contribute in a way by doing the same in their homelands?
We partnered with local businesses, charities, as well as grease collectors, biodiesel refiners, and biofuel distributors to make this work. We first got the support of our Town Council to install a residential grease recycling receptacle at our transfer station so residents could recycle their oil.
Next, we asked restaurants to donate their oil to the program. We also worked with local charities, who were able to identify the most needy recipients of emergency heating assistance. From there, it’s a simple system: the grease collectors collect the oil from the residential and commercial sites and bring it to the biodiesel refinery. The biofuel distributors bring the fuel to families in need.
From Rhode Island, where it all began, the TGIF project has been expanded a lot. Can you tell us where is this system is being implemented and how many people are using it today?
Currently, TGIF is being implemented in three states in the United States – Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. We have been able to heat the homes of 480 families.
Since you were just a child with a good idea, who helped you and your friends to take the first crucial steps – parents, relatives, local companies? What was the place or institution that started turning grease into biodiesel first?
My dad acted as our team’s coach, guiding us through the crucial first steps like approaching grease collectors and refiners to talk about potential partnerships. We first learned about turning grease into fuel at a Green Energy Solutions Expo at the University of RI, where a biodiesel refiner called Mason’s Biodiesel told us about how they were turning used cooking oil into biodiesel.
Does your family help you in any way, and how? Was your brother an important figure when you came up with this idea?
My whole family has been really supportive – I remember my mom used to drive us around to the restaurants when we first began the program. My brother acted as the assistant coach and helped us with things like public speaking.
How did you go about raising awareness about the TGIF project? You have done numerous local activities, cooperating with corporations, taking initiatives . . . Can you list some of the most important ones?
We have done numerous presentations and workshops to spread awareness of TGIF. I have given talks at TEDxEast in NYC, TEDxProvidence, and at La Cuidad de las Ideas (a TED-like event in Puebla, Mexico) to name a few.
What were the biggest obstacles you had to face on the way to making this happen? One of them was a „Grease War“. Tell us more about these kinds of challenges.
We started in 2008, and during our first year the biodiesel refiner that we were working with went out of business. We had to scramble to find another refiner and keep our project running. Grease is really a commodity now, and there is stiff competition between grease collectors, some of which are paying restaurants for their oil.
So we’ve had to deal with that as well and stress the environmental and community impact of our collection program to get restaurants on board with the program.
Where and how can people from all around the world find out more about this? Are you or your team available for any kind of consultation or advice?
Everyone can check out our website and on YouTube (search my name or Project TGIF). We are always available for consultation or advice via email (email@example.com).
What are the next steps for the TGIF Team? Can you share some updates with us?
We are currently trying to maintain TGIF (turn grease into fuel) even while we’re all moving on to different colleges this year. Two of our teammates are studying at the University of Rhode Island, one of our teammates is going to Georgia Tech, another one is going to Dartmouth College, and my other teammate and I are studying in California (USC and Stanford).
All around the globe young people are struggling between chasing their dreams and harsh reality. What would be your message to them?
My message is to not give up just because things are hard or not going the way you thought they would. There will definitely be moments when you feel frustrated or perhaps disillusioned with the way things work, but you have to persevere and believe in yourself and that what you’re doing can and will make a difference.