I call him Elford. He’s a diesel pickup truck, but we’ve developed quite the relationship. Elford stands seven feet tall, nineteen feet long from nose to tail, and weighs nearly eight thousand pounds with a full stomach. He doesn’t like cold mornings, but once he gets going he’ll happily roll all day long. I trimmed the corners of the front bumper to accommodate bigger tires, so he rumbles down the road with a choppy metal grin. He sports a ladder rack on which a friend helped me weld mounts for bike racks and a storage box, as well as an expanded metal platform for lashing down fuel cans, shovels, and a jack. Elford is a badass.
He sips on used vegetable oil instead of diesel for fuel. I bought the truck in 2008 when diesel first topped $4 per gallon and lots of folks were saying good riddance to their big trucks. He gets about fifteen miles per gallon, which is no fun if you’re paying for fuel.
So my friend Cappie helped me modify the fuel system. A big guy with an even bigger black beard, he was the first of many characters whom I’ve befriended through these adventures in vegetable oil. Cappie calls people boss, big daddy, and sweetheart. He drinks Mountain Dew by the gallon but buys fresh-churned butter from his neighbor. He was in the Air Force but has a ying-yang shaped dolphin tattoo on his leg. Cappie is the only person I’ve met who seems equally comfortable in an auto parts store or a sweat lodge. We worked on the truck in front of Cappie’s school bus, a combination condominium-workshop-experimental energy center that he parked in an artist’s colony just outside of Zion National Park in Southern Utah.
In the shadow of Zion’s soaring sandstone domes, we spent a few days listening to Waylon Jennings tunes while crawling around in the red dirt underneath the truck and updating Elford’s circulatory system. We retrofitted one of the diesel tanks with a heated fuel pickup. We put another heated tank in the bed. We put in all new fuel lines—chunky rubber ones placed alongside engine coolant hoses and wrapped in pipe insulation and duct tape. We put in two new fuel pumps, lots of wiring, and an array of switches and gauges that made the cab look like the inside of a spaceship. It was the first time I had done any mechanical work more difficult than swapping out spark plugs. Cappie interpreted electrical and plumbing diagrams and instructed me while I learned to solder, to break free rusty bolts, and to purge air out of fuel lines. I’ve never been more proud.
The work is actually pretty straightforward, though it didn’t feel like it at the time. Here’s the deal. Vegetable oil and diesel fuel have about the same amount of energy stored in them; the difference is their viscosity. Vegetable oil is much thicker, but heated to 170 degrees or so, the oil thins enough that it can be sprayed through the fuel injectors, and then a diesel engine will treat it just like regular fuel. Fortunately, one of the main products of combustion is heat. That’s why cars have coolant, water pumps, and radiators—to move excess heat away from the engine block. Vegetable oil conversions use the heat from combustion to warm and thin the oil so the engine can burn it. First you need to filter out the french fry bits and water, but that’s about it.
After we finished the conversion, Cappie taught me to hunt for oil. While Elford can run on fresh oil, the used stuff is the way to go. Biofuels made from fresh stock aren’t quite the dream we hoped they might be. In 2008, the increasing use of food crop land for biofuels production was blamed for a 75 percent spike in global food prices. Covering the earth in soybeans to feed our trucks is not a sane solution. Luckily for me, just as Americans love to binge on fossil fuels, we also love to binge on fried food. Nearly every restaurant in America has a deep fryer, and after a million or so french fries, the oil has to be replaced. Used vegetable oil is classified as hazardous waste, so restaurant workers can’t dump it in the trash or pour it down the drain. Instead, most restaurants have a separate dumpster just for vegetable oil. Renderers haul it away to make cattle feed or sometimes biodiesel. As Cappie and I drove around, chatting up restaurant managers, a world appeared to me. Battered and greasy dumpsters I had never even noticed transformed into treasure chests.
I’ve learned to adopt Cappie’s mannerisms when talking to restauranteurs. I walk in smiling, introduce myself, and say, “Hey, boss, I drive a rig that runs on used fryer grease, mind if I take some of the trash oil out of your dumpster?” Usually, I’m met with a blank stare for a couple of seconds. Then they respond, “You want to pump oil of the dumpster? You know it’s gross back there, right?” And that’s usually that. Every once in a while, though, the whole kitchen crew comes out back to find out what the weird guy with the big truck wants with their used oil and how he’s going to go about getting it. In mediocre Spanish, I stammer through an explanation of the setup. It’s a good excuse for the cooks to take a cigarette break. At home, I’ve got my regular stops, the folks who set aside their oil for me. I stop in once a month, buy lunch, and haul away their oil. On the road, I chat up restaurant managers and tell the bad jokes that Cappie taught me. I plan my trips around suburban fast food meccas.
I try to be discriminating when reading the fast food landscape. Some dumpsters are full of beautiful, clean oil that looks like a giant tub of new canola oil. Other times, they’re a fetid sea of diapers, cigarette butts, the disgusting remains of ten thousand mozzarella sticks, plus fifty gallons of water because someone forgot to close the lid. I have no idea who is changing their baby’s diaper on the lid of an oil dumpster. Elford and I try to be snobs. We turn our nose up at the filth and move on. Except for that one time near Billings, Montana, when I got desperate and took one hundred gallons of gross oil that turned out to be full of water. There’s a difference, you see, between Elford and me. While I need a gallon or so of water a day to survive, water will kill Elford. That oil-and-water brew ruined our day.
There’s one dumpster I always look forward to. I live in Southern Oregon and guide wilderness trips in Wyoming. My 947-mile commute to work takes me across the Northern reaches of the Great Basin, the salt flats of western Utah, and the endless sage lands of Wyoming sprinkled with antelope gliding across the landscape. I call the first three hundred miles of that drive “the nothing.” No towns to speak of, spotty cell service, and even fewer radio stations. Roaring across the high desert on two lane highways battered by sun, wind, and cold I turn up the stereo, listening as Loretta Lynn’s voice floats above the engine noise, singing, “high on a mountain top, where the rest of the world’s like an itty bitty spot.” As the sun goes down, I dodge suicidal jack rabbits who prostrate themselves on the road, and I keep an eye out for the burros who stand watch over this meditative country. By the time I hit I-80, I need coffee and fuel.
This treasure chest stands in the corner of an enormous travel plaza. Like most places in the Great Basin, the businesses—a gas station, a burger joint, a cafe, and a casino—look beaten down from the sand blasting delivered by incessant winds. The expanse of pavement here is impressive, and the buildings, fuel pumps, dumpsters, and sheds casually sprawl across hundreds of yards of parking lots. It’s as if there was a two-for-one special on paving the day the asphalt guys came through.
My dumpster sits out of the way. It’s against a retaining wall separating the burger joint drive-thru and the gas station. The dumpster is a big, three-hundred-gallon affair, a steel box measuring five feet long by nearly four feet wide. The friendly kids who work the counter at the fast food restaurant always let me have whatever oil is in the dumpster. It’s far away from any major city, which means the oil collection guys rarely bother to visit, and I usually score 150 gallons or more of beautiful oil. This particular restaurant chain filters their oil before putting it into the dumpster, so I don’t have to contend with forgotten bits of french fries and jalapeño poppers. Plus, a blessing of traveling across this parched landscape is that it doesn’t matter if someone forgets to close the lid on the dumpster, as it’s unlikely ever to rain enough to cause me a problem. This is my mother lode, and hungry travelers keep it stocked for me.
I’ve rigged the truck up with two hundred gallons of fuel tanks so that I can stock up here and then drive for a couple thousand miles without worrying about a fill up. The storage tanks sit in the bed of the truck. A sixty-gallon black plastic tank, about a foot wide and as tall as the bed rail, sits immediately behind the cab. It’s heated and plumbed. While I drive, hot engine coolant warms the oil in that tank and a small pump slowly sucks it through a filter, refilling one of the two twenty-gallon underbelly tanks. Behind the black tank sits a bigger, one-hundred-gallon white metal tank. I’ve cut six-inch access ports into the top of the tank to accommodate heaters and pump pickups, and so I can reach my arm in if something really gross makes it past my first filter.
I pull up alongside the dumpster and get to work. First, I put on nitrile gloves, the kind the nurse wears when she gives you a flu shot. Next, I root around in the recycling dumpster and pull out a few cardboard boxes. I put the boxes on the ground to catch the inevitable drips of oil or the occasional deluge. The pump and battery I quickly set on the boxes before they blow across the parking lot.
Then comes the Pyrex straw. It’s about half an inch in diameter and three feet long. I stick one end into the dumpster, plug the other end, pull it out, and see what I’ve got. If you’ve ever had lunch with a ten year old, you’ve seen them do this with their soda. The oil changes from a clear gold or brown to a mucky, cloudy appearance at the water line. Water is heavier than oil, so it and the solids sink to the bottom. That’s the gross stuff that will plug filters and muck up fuel injectors. Now I know how much I can pump.
Next, the pick-up stick goes in. It’s a plastic tube with window screen wrapped around the bottom. I place the end of that a couple of inches above the water line and clamp it to the side of the dumpster. The pump sucks the oil out of the dumpster and pushes it through a hose and nozzle that looks just like the one you fill your car with. Depending on the temperature, it sucks ten or fifteen gallons a minute. While the tank fills, I organize my tool boxes or clean up around the dumpsters a bit. Usually, a curious trucker or a retired couple in an RV with a bald eagle painted on it watch, trying to discern what I’m up to. The whole process takes maybe twenty minutes.
All of this happens in a bit of a legal gray area. It’s against EPA rules to run a vehicle on a non-approved fuel, but as far as I can tell it’s rare to be ticketed, fined, or otherwise reprimanded for running on veg-oil. Road taxes are the next hang up. A chunk of the price you pay for each gallon of gas or diesel is tax, and states use that money to maintain the roads. Most states now have alternative fuel forms. You’re supposed to keep track of your mileage and send them a check each year, on the honor system. As for taking the oil, if you ask the renderers—the folks who own the dumpsters that sit behind restaurants, who haul the oil away to make cattle feed, to make more cheeseburgers, that need more fries fried to accompany them—they will say it’s illegal to take oil out of the dumpsters. Nowadays, especially on the West Coast, they plaster aggressive stickers on dumpsters, threatening fines and jail time for dumpster diving. The courts generally don’t agree. While the dumpster belongs to the renderer, the oil belongs to the restaurant until it’s hauled away. With the restaurant’s permission, it’s cool to pump their oil.
At this point, I should wax poetic about the ecological virtues of running vehicles on used veggie oil. It’s carbon neutral and takes advantage of a waste product that would otherwise feed cows we shouldn’t be eating, cows who live in wretched feed lots that certainly shouldn’t be there. It also puts a bit of distance between me and the devastated Western petro-landscapes I witness on my travels: fracking in North Dakota; drilling in eastern and southern Utah; coal scars in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. It is a small but incredibly satisfying way to say fuck you to Big Oil. But I should also say that used vegetable oil lets me drive a big truck with beefy tires, carry a bunch of gear, and not feel so guilty. And it’s fun.
Feeding off capitalism’s excesses brings a sense of adventure back to the Great American Road Trip. The industrial food economy produces so much waste that we can power vehicles simply by digging around in the garbage, turning a cross-country drive into a treasure hunt for oil. It’s a sort of Mad Max meets Travels with Charley fantasy. Of course, I pursue all this adventure from a privileged position. As a white guy who wears Carharts and drives a pickup truck, I am perhaps the least likely person to be messed with while poking through someone else’s trash. I’m poor, but playing at living on the margins is optional for me. When I get tired of this, I can trade in the truck for a Subaru, pay for gas, and keep adventuring.
The inevitable breakdowns add another layer of adventure. Elford’s nearly twenty and has logged 270,000 miles, many on bone-rattling gravel roads. Most breakdowns are due to the complications of age, but my poor workmanship also deserves some blame. Once, the glow plugs went out while winter camping. Diesels don’t start in the cold without glow plugs, their version of heated socks. Another time, I slid into a ditch on a remote jeep road and had to come back with a winch to get him out. I did exactly the same thing a month later. Elford got some updated traction control after that one. Driving through Montana one summer, a fuel line burst, coating the bottom of the truck with hot vegetable oil. The same thing happened with a different fuel line while ripping across Oregon’s vast eastern desert, this time coating the undercarriage with my diesel reserve. Elford and I have learned to travel prepared. We carry a chest of tools: wrenches, a breaker bar, electrical gear, lots of extra fuel filters and rags, a floor jack, jumper cables, tire chains, tow strap, extra fuel line, vacuum hose for the brakes, and some more rags.
Running my truck on used vegetable oil won’t save the world. Since 2008, I’ve traveled 105,000 miles on used oil. At fifteen miles per gallon, that adds up to seven thousand gallons of diesel that I have not burned. By comparison, a 747 burns that much fuel in two hours. With its afterburners on, an F-15 burns four gallons of fuel every second. I am no competition for the war machine. Plus, we can’t all burn used vegetable oil. Currently, the United States produces enough vegetable oil annually to meet about one percent of the nation’s fuel needs. As commercial biofuels producers have scaled up, competition for used oil has also increased. This is not a large-scale solution.
It is, however, a solution to apathy, and it generates a vibrant community. The climate crisis often feels overwhelming, like nothing short of revolution or systems collapse will stop it. Experiments with living outside the grips of the fossil fuel economy offer a window into already existing alternatives. I put a big sticker on Elford’s tailgate that reads, “Powered by vegetable oil: clean, renewable, domestic.” Everywhere I go, folks strike up conversations with me. We make jokes about my truck smelling like french fries, talk about the money I’ve saved, and pillory energy companies. Each chat reinforces a sense of possibility that alternatives are not only imaginable but already in action.
When I began researching how to convert vehicles, I turned to the Internet. Diesel truck forums are a treasure trove of information, populated by surprisingly generous folks. Of course, you do have to look past the right-wing window dressing. Animated avatars show Obama growing devil horns, Marine Corps logos, firearms, or confederate flags. After constructive conversation about how to replace a differential peters out, the conversation sometimes drifts to slamming the EPA or to talk about how the president wants to take our guns away. A certain brand of paranoid libertarianism runs strong here. Emissions controls and clean air standards need not apply.
And yet, members of the community are almost universally friendly and helpful when it comes to modifying or repairing our trucks. Take, for example, a gregarious Minnesotan who goes by the handle, VegginPSD (PSD for Ford Powerstroke Diesel). When I started my research into conversions, he called me up and spent an hour talking through the technics of vegetable oil modifications that at the time seemed incomprehensible. I’ve since watched him shepherd others through the process, patiently explaining the intricacies of fuel systems through threads that grow to be dozens of pages long. Then there’s Paul, another fellow who frequents the forums. Last summer, my vacuum pump gave out the day before I was due to drive to Wyoming. The vacuum pump runs the brakes, and it’s tough to stop an eight-thousand-pound truck without power brakes. It turns out that Paul lives just a few blocks away from me. He got in touch and at nine the next morning he pedaled up my street on a recumbent bicycle hauling a bucket of tools. After we finished with the truck, we shared beers, and I helped Paul and his wife plan their own veg-oil conversion.
I find the community remarkable. Folks have gifted me hundreds of gallons of vegetable oil, and I’ve done the same for them. People spend countless hours sharing advice online and helping each other troubleshoot their trucks. Even the guys who do it for money, who make and sell custom modification kits, spend an inordinate amount of time helping newbies through their installations and constantly refining the specialty parts that make up their kits. This is the magic of do-it-yourself communities.
I’ve learned to gauge distances in terms of friendly restaurant managers instead of gas stations, and I’ve been welcomed into a community of folks figuring it out, making their own way. Scrounging fuel at the margins of the grid has made me passionate in ways that simply buying biodiesel never could. It’s not the solution, but that’s not the point. It’s a way of enacting values, adding some adventure to life, and affirming the sense of possibility that lives in experimentation. Of course, we must fight the big fights. I won’t forget to target pit mines, oil wells, and an “all of the above” energy policy that sells out my planet and my future. But I also know that the big solutions—the ones that replace one grid with another one—aren’t real solutions at all. I’ll keep rooting around the edges.