NEA on ‘gutter oil’ scare: Waste oil from grease traps sent for biodiesel processing

[UPDATE: 5 March, 4pm: Adding details of latest NEA statement]

The National Environment Agency (NEA) clarified on Wednesday that cooking oil extracted from grease traps was in fact sent for processing into biodiesel.

Witnesses reported seeing people extracting the oil from grease traps serving nearby eateries last month, sparking fear online that the oil was being re-used to cook food.

Local discussion forums were abuzz with other “gutter oil” sightings in Singapore. In one photo, a man and a woman in civilian clothes were spotted extracting waste oil in Jurong West with the use of an oil drum and tubes. A passerby named Justin sent the video on local site STOMP, saying that he was concerned that the duo was drawing out gutter oil. “Who knows if they’ll use it as cooking oil”, he was quoted as saying.

However, the NEA said it is still investigating an incident in Toa Payoh earlier this week of two men fleeing from police while they were extracting oil from the grease trap near a food centre in Toa Payoh Lorong 4.

“Food establishments are required to provide grease traps and maintain them regularly by engaging licensed general waste collectors,” said an NEA spokesman in a statement.

“There is a proper system in place for the collection and disposal of waste from grease traps. Such waste is collected by the licensed general waste collectors who are equipped with vacuum trucks, and the waste is disposed of at PUB’s water reclamation plant. NEA will enforce against any unauthorised waste collectors, and any licensee who violates the conditions of licence or illegally disposes of the waste. Offenders are liable upon conviction to a maximum fine of $2,000.”

On Monday this week, Chinese daily Lianhe Zaobao reported two men fleeing from police while they were extracting oil from a grease trap near a food centre in Toa Payoh Lorong 4, sparking fears of “gutter oil” being recycled in Singapore.

An eyewitness who operated a drinks stall at the food centre said she had seen men collecting waste oil almost every week, using long tubes and a metal drum.

The two men were reportedly working for a company called Oil Village Singapore, which is not listed under NEA’s licenced waste collectors. But when questioned, the boss of the company said his oil collection is legal and the waste oil is then sold to Malaysian companies to process into diesel fuel.

On Saturday, another photo on citizen journalism site STOMP also showed two men appearing to pump sewage contents from a grease trap into an oil drum at Yishun Block 744.

The black market trade of gutter oil, or dirty recycled cooking oil, is prevalent in China, where the rising cost of cooking oil in China since 2011 has pushed many food outlets in the country to turn to cheaper alternatives, such as gutter oil. The prices of cooking oil in the country have increased by 4.8 per cent year on year in January.

While the practice is not new, China’s government has banned the use of gutter oil. In one high-profile case, a gutter oil manufacturer was  sentenced to death. The man and his two brothers had set up an oil plant in 2001, and began to make the illegal oil five years later. The brothers sold the oil to 17 dealers in two of China’s provinces – Shandong and Shanxi.

The process of producing gutter oil in China involves extracting waste oil from sewers, grease traps, waste from slaughterhouses, reprocessing it and then selling it as cooking oil. The oil is usually salvaged from restaurant waste, gutters, drains and animal fat and sold at below-market rates to street vendors.

A undercover documentary by Radio Free Asia exposing the “gutter oil” practice in China in late 2013 went viral. Chinese experts estimate about a tenth of China’s cooking oil is gutter oil, according to the documentary.

Watch it here:

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