‘Sustainability’ Gone Awry: China Turns Sewer Waste Into Cooking Oil

"Gutter oil" industry takes street slop and animal scraps and renders it into black-market cooking oil.

Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

Considering the rampant amount of food waste that occurs in America, the move toward thriftiness in regards to utilizing scraps and leftovers is a promising development.

For restaurants (and home cooks) who work with whole animals, from chickens to 300 pound hogs, rendering the fat from scraps of meat is one delicious way to make sure as much of the animal can be utilized as possible.

In China, however, that mentality has been taken to disgusting, dangerous ends in what’s known at the Gutter Oil Industry.

In a video posted on AlterNet, produced by Radio Free Asia, a woman is shown pulling slop out of the sewer, scooping up globs of crud into a bucket. “Her slop eventually winds up in a processing plant like this one,” says the narrator, the screen showing a bubbling vat, “where its combined with other animal fat refuse to create recycled cooking oil.”

Remember London’s “fatberg”? Gutter oil is basically a rendered, refined cooking oil based on similar such waste. Unsurprisingly, the cheap cooking oil has been found to contain carcinogens and other toxins. But in China, oil, a requisite for wok-cooking, is in high demand, and the cheap price of gutter oil draws customers despite the grease’s source. The video says that an estimated 1/10 of oil sold in China is gutter oil.

And that sizable market means this form of recycling is big (albeit illegal) business. As AlterNet’s Rod Bastanmehr notes, the government recently moved to shutdown black market production in 13 cities.

“The shutdown occurred after a five-month investigation yielded a reported 3,200 tons of gutter oil,” Bastanmehr writes, “which authorities estimated had been sold to a staggering $1.6 million profit.”

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