Reth & Peru’s EPA

While in Arequipa, we decided to go hunting for a biodiesel company that had gotten a little bit of publicity in Lima’s newspapers. We had read that the company collected used vegetable oil from local restaurants and was looking into promoting the fuel for the city’s buses and combivans as a few cities, such as San Francsico, have done. I expected an informal, overall-wearing organization of young environmentalists. When we pulled our van into the right lot, alongside a swath of more likely mechanics & tire stores, we were greeted instead by an upscale office building and a lobby full of architectural models & hanging plants. From the lobby, we were led to an office filled with models of cars, trucks, and things that go. It was the office of Reth Córdova del Carpio, one of two brothers running Holding Quimera, a collection of diverse enterprises from waste management to hotel development.

The biodiesel company is a piece of one of those enterprises, under the larger environmentally focused venture, called, by coincidence, the Empresa de Protección Ambiental or EPA.  The EPA is Reth’s pet project, attempting to improve environmental conditions in Arequipa through a number of recycling and safe waste disposal projects. Among it’s more ambitious projects is a plan to build Arequipa’s first toxic waste treatment facility. Currently, the project has been stalled by a number of bureaucratic roadblocks. In the meantime, toxic waste goes untreated and ends up primarily in rivers in and surrounding Arequipa. Peru has only one toxic waste treatment site, and of course, it’s up in Lima. Other projects include recycling used tires and used motor oil, which otherwise is often illegally burned as fuel, a heavily polluting activity.

The biodiesel project is an attempt to recycle the biggest pollutant of Arequipa’s rivers, cooking oil, while making available a cleaner diesel fuel. Most cooking oil is simply poured down the drain after it has been used. Reth and his team have placed barrels around the city at willing restaurants to collect used cooking oil which is then processed and turned into biodiesel usable in any diesel vehicle. The biodiesel they produce gets an average of 5 km/gallon better than standard diesel and releases about half the pollutants by eliminating the presence of metals like lead in the exhaust.

Sadly, the EPA’s biofuel initiative is limited by inertia among restaurant owners and a black market for cooking oil. While the process of disposing used cooking oil in EPA containers is as easy as dumping it down the drain, many restaurant owners see no reason to change their practices. Furthermore, there is a black market for used cooking oil. Restaurants that change their vegetable oil with some regularity can sell their cooking oil to less expensive restaurants (particularly in Lima) who continue to use the oil, posing a serious health risk. As a result, the EPA collects less than 300 gallons a month of used vegetable oil, while they could easily be processing 3,000-6,000 gallons. Currently, the biodiesel is used for company cars, but once used oil collection reaches a higher level, the fuel will be commercially available. Reth believes that a major component of the solution is greater education of environmental issues in schools as well as an awareness campaign for the general population of Arequipa.

While telling us about the EPA, Reth is animated. A self-made man, Reth has reached a point in his career where he can work on projects with a broad social scope and he is clearly excited about the potential of the EPA. He is open as well about the frustration of attempting to change the practices of a city with little education on sustainability.  As Arequipa undergoes a transformation to a modern and booming city, Reth’s focus on environmental issues is timely and essential.

The following morning Reth takes us to his biodiesel workshop, which takes up a small building in a lot jammed with tires, newspapers, and car parts all waiting to be recycled. A chemical engineer, Kenyi, walks us through the process of making biodiesel through the tranestherification, which involves multiples steps to removing any cooking residues and oddly leaves behind a substance that looks surprisingly like fancy cheese.

If you’re interested in helping the EPA create the first commercially available source of recycled biofuels in Arequipa, Peru and helping promote recycling in the city in general along with initiating plans for public education of sustainability, you can contact Reth at rcordova@quimerahg.com

-Drew, Photos by Elliot