Gabe Jones and Joe McEachern have recycled kitchen waste oil for clients ranging from Whole Foods Market to Zingerman's since they started Quality Redemption in Ann Arbor four years ago. But with a plethora of new opportunities popping up to the east, this month the partners relocated to the Motor City and rebranded their oil recycling business Detroit Grease
Jones and McEachern will maintain a small commercial space in Ann Arbor and will continue to service their existing Ann Arbor clients, but their new home base will be housed inside the Detroit community recycling center Recycle Here!
Jones says that with the number of new restaurants sprouting up in Detroit, his clients in the city had begun to "eclipse" those in Ann Arbor.
The waste oil Detroit Grease collects is turned into either biodiesel fuel (approved for use in off-road vehicles only, per government regulations) or "feedstock"–raw material later used to create biodiesel. While much of the feedstock Detroit Grease produces is currently shipped nationwide to the highest bidder, Jones says he's hoping the Detroit move will give him a chance to keep more of the business's feedstock in the metro area. He says the company would like to establish a private contract to supply a local school or city government fleet.
"We feel like there's more opportunity for something like that here, as opposed to Ann Arbor," he says. "With the amount of city council meetings I have to sit through, there's not many people doing things–young guys like us who are willing to experiment with that sort of thing. Right now I have no indication that that's going to happen, but I feel like there's a better chance it'll happen out here."
For Recycle Here! founder and director of operations Matt Naimi, a partnership with Detroit Grease just made sense. In addition to recycling standard items like glass, plastics, and metal, Recycle Here! already offers recycling service for other unusual items like batteries and electronics.
"What we really try to do with Recycle Here! is be a one-stop shop, like a green hub for the citizens of Detroit," Naimi says. "Giving people who utilize the recycling facility another outlet for the materials they produce appealed to me."
Detroit Grease currently serves about 60 clients ranging as far west as Chelsea and as far south as Toledo. Jones estimates that he, McEachern, and occasional temporary help pick up and process as much as 6,000 gallons of waste oil a month. But he says they're hoping to attract more clients in Detroit and the suburbs, noting that many businesses like Detroit Grease are handling that same amount of oil in just a week.
"It's not that much, really," Jones says. "For two guys we could be doing more."
Still, Detroit Grease has come a long way from its humble origins. Jones and McEachern, who have been friends since childhood, decided to start looking into waste oil as a business opportunity in the mid-2000s after tiring of their jobs as cab drivers. The two are self-taught and they started small, learning how to convert cars to burn waste oil.
"We just converted a Volkswagen Rabbit that was worth about $300," Jones says. "We didn't know what we were doing at first, but there was nothing to lose."
The two were hired in 2009 as fleet managers for an Ann Arbor party bus company that ran its vehicles on waste oil, and in 2011 started Quality Redemption. In addition to the more immediate opportunities their Detroit move entails, the partners are now looking further down the road to bigger possibilities–like scaling up their operation enough to afford the pricey licensing to produce biodiesel for on-road vehicles.
Jones stresses that converting waste oil to biodiesel is no magic wand for America's alternative fuel needs, but it can certainly be a piece of the solution.
"It may not be worth it to sell this stuff at a pump for your average citizen," he says. "But if we could figure out how to get some trucking companies, people that run diesel all day long back and forth, they can save money and it can be better for the environment."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickDunnHere.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.