“There’s a special affinity for Crested Butte…”
By any man’s definition, Dara Lor is the self-reliant type. Neither his truck nor his toys are new. “Sustainability, turning junk into good stuff, that was my lifestyle for years,” he said. It still is. In 2006, Lor purchase an especially large toy that nurtured a passion and launched a career.
“That’s when I got this,” he said, giving the vehicle an affectionate knock. “I’d always wanted a school bus. Then I found out what kind of mileage it got.”
Lor learned to make his own biofuel, diesel made from spent cooking oil he picked up from a few local restaurants in his hometown of Breckenridge, Colo. He became known as the guy with the bus that smelled like french fries. Friends asked if he could make diesel for them. Lor joined an underground network of biofuel aficionados, folks who cruised the country visiting other-like minded travelers, sharing stories of the road, baked goods and fuel.
“It was fun, like any other social group. People would come over. Sometimes, they’d spend the night. I got to know the guy from Kansas, and another in Utah. We’d visit, catch up. The next morning, I’d fuel them up and send them on their way, maybe with a batch of cookies.”
Lor’s organic progression from hobbyist to businessman culminated in 2008. That’s when Summit Greasecycling was born.
“Back then, restaurants were paying to get rid of cooking oil. The big, out-of-state companies (who were picking it up) didn’t want anybody to know they were reselling it. I educated a lot of the restaurant owners. Much of that market was other countries, supplying people who were doing what I’m doing.”
Today, Summit Greasecycling gathers spent cooking oil from 300 restaurants throughout its namesake and adjacent counties, and has become a fixture in Gunnison County, too. The oil is filtered and separated into its usable parts, and the fuel-quality portion is sent to Summit’s partner company, Clear Ecos of Boulder. Clear Ecos is another Colorado oil collection company that also manufactures biodiesel. For the past four years, the entire Boulder County diesel fleet has run well on Clear Ecos’ Colorado B20 blend. During the summer, Lor burns 100 percent biodiesel in his bus. He’s also experimenting with bio-racing fuel, to be used in gasoline engines.
Summit Greasecycling’s first client was Vail Resorts, a relationship that continues today. In the Gunnison Valley, Lor has hired a local employee to service Summit’s clients here. He rents a local storage unit to hold the oil until enough accumulates to fill a biofuel-powered truck that hauls it to Breckenridge. Clients in Gunnison include Twisted Fork, 5 Bs, Blue Iguana, Powerstop, Ol’ Miner, Double Dragon and Sodexo, the food service provider for Western State Colorado University.
Jon Coady is the general manager at Sodexo. “The timing was perfect for Dara to walk through our door,” he said. “At the time, we were waiting for our old grease-gatherer to come, and they were taking a while, so it was stacking up on the loading dock. Come to find out, the old guy had quit, without calling any of his restaurants. Dara told us he recycled the grease into biodiesel instead of taking it across two states to commercially process.”
Lor’s grassroots approach and mountain location in Breckenridge appealed to Coady. “We had an intern here five years ago who took all our grease, filtered it herself, used it in her car and drove around campus. She graduated and then we no longer had an outlet for our oil, which is a big problem for the restaurant business. If you don’t have somebody to pick up your oil, what do you do with it? You can’t pour it down the drain. So Dara walked in with just the right match to our sustainability efforts on campus.”
Lor has a special affinity for Crested Butte. “It’s an environmentally aware place, but there’s also a sense of community you can feel. I’ve made calls on restaurants and had someone from the place next door burst in and go, ‘Oh man, my ketchup didn’t come in on the truck and we’re out. Can I borrow some?’ and the guy I’m talking to says, ‘Sure!’ In Crested Butte, they get that if one business does well, they all do well.
“We service pretty much every restaurant in Crested Butte, except Crested Butte Mountain Resort,” he said.
What goes around comes around. Summit Greasecycling and its sister company, Summit Soap, subscribe to a closed-loop business model, a departure from the standard supply chain approach that dominates today. Lor is looking for an efficient way to distribute finished biodiesel back to the Gunnison Valley. Meanwhile, Summit Soap uses the cooking oil to make biodegradable, environmentally kind soaps and cleaning solution, which is delivered to and sold by a number of restaurants and retailers here.
“We’re putting our product back into those restaurants that produce the main ingredient,” said Daniel Fernandez, Lor’s partner and manager of the soap business. He emphasized the hand-made nature of those products. “We’re looking for efficiency, of course, but we touch every bar of soap six or seven times before it’s ready for resale. It’s a true, handmade bar.”
Fernandez also noted the irony of cleaning solution made from cooking oil. “We’re cleaning grease with grease.”
In addition to vegetable oil, some of what Summit collects is griddle grease. Animal fat is separated from the rest of the oil used in summer blend biodiesel and to make soap.
“Some of it’s really good,” said Fernandez. Summit makes a bar that retains a smoky aroma. “You will smell bacon,” he said. “It’s a nice, hard bar of soap, moisturizing, like Granny’s granny used to make.”
“This’ll be our third winter with them,” said Spencer Hestwood, owner and chef at Ginger Café in Crested Butte. “They knocked on our door one day and said, ‘Hey, can we have your grease?’ and we said, ‘Sure!’ In the past, we had to pay someone to take it. They pick it up for free. Those guys are super nice, too. We’ve had occasions when we’ve been extra busy and we’re overflowing. We’ve called them and they always say, ‘Sure. We’ll pick it up.’ They also give us a printout that shows exactly how much biodiesel is derived from our grease, so that’s cool.”
Thomas Baker is a bartender at The Slogar, a Crested Butte restaurant known for its fried chicken. He notes the closed-loop concept, as spent cooking oil is carted away from his establishment, only to return to town as soap.
Lor views fellow sustainable businesses not as competitors, but teammates. “Every community should have its own biofuel manufacturing,” he said, along with solar, wind, food production and other renewable, sustainable enterprises that take advantage of local resources in a closed-loop system.
Like it or not, Lor faces stiff competition.
“Some companies that were charging five years ago when we started picking up for free are now offering to pay a little for the oil. They’re telling people they’re local, but they’re all from out of state, and none of them use the product in their own trucks. That’s suspect, isn’t it? Summit Greasecycling and Clear Ecos, we’re the only oil collection companies operating in Colorado burning biodiesel in our own vehicles.”
Everything at Summit Greasecycling is used, reused and recycled to the fullest extent possible within everyday operations. Their location across the road from a recycling center helps, and the nearby mechanics that surround them in the industrial park where they’re located supply used motor oil that heats building.
Restaurants who stick with him, Lor said, understand the long-range benefits a closed-loop waste system within a community, that a dollar spent locally gets recirculated many times over and everyone benefits. Supporting clean, local businesses is worth more to them in the long run, he said, than the promise of a few bucks for a container of oil today.
Like other sustainable businesses, the biodiesel industry, in Colorado and nationwide, is butting up against political and bureaucratic obstacles within a system where traditional, unsustainable ways of operating are deeply entrenched. Oil companies are powerful, with vast resources, willing to tap those resources at temporary loss if necessary to protect their own interests. Summit Greasecycling has been forced to pay lobbyists to promote its cause against legislation that favors the old guard—money Lor would rather spend hiring employees to grow his small business.
There have been times when Lor considered giving up, defeated by forces that seemed too strong to fight. “I was ready to leave the country,” he said. “As far as I could see, this place was doomed. Hopeless. What we’re doing here, trying to build a successful, small business that’s good for the community and the earth, would be embraced anywhere else in the world. My bags were packed. But I’m American. I want to see if I can generate my own hope.
“Rudolph Diesel, he’d be pissed,” said Lor, “because he wanted to build a motor that the people could make their own fuel for.”
Greasecycling is not new. From Savannah to Portland, the business of recycled cooking oil had been growing for years, and is now booming. What sets Summit Greasecycling apart is its local bent, an allegiance to community and an apparent lack of interest in big profits.
“Happiness is intrinsic,” said Lor. “Money doesn’t buy happiness, at least not beyond a certain point. Studies show that a person’s basic needs can be met in the United States with about $35,000 a year. The richer you are beyond that, the less happy. We cannot and should not be extracting happiness from the environment. It can only come from within. If we realize that, and if we take care of people, profit will result. It’s a side effect of doing things right. We are a business, and to stay in business, we need to make money. Now, five years in, we are teetering on that.”
Lor plans to add another leg to the Summit family of businesses soon. Upcycling USA will find new and better uses for what’s now either thrown away or recycled. “Why ship a bottle somewhere to be melted or ground down, only to be made into another bottle and shipped back?” he asked. “Why not reuse the bottle, or make it locally into something else that’s useful?”
Lor plans to fire up the tasty-smelling school bus for a tour of his community, the Colorado Rocky Mountains, educating business owners and residents on the economic benefits of closed-loop, community-based clean, sustainable business. Look for the green beast, coming soon to your neighborhood.
For a list of local retailers that carry Summit Soap, go to www.summitsoap.com. To learn more about Summit Greasecycling, check out www.summitgreasecycling.com.