Biodiesel boasts a number of benefits; it is an alternative to fossil fuel, and it is reduced in toxicity – carbon neutral, in fact. It is renewable and biodegradable. It’s cheaper than petrol, and, if you’re really keen, you can actually make it yourself.
The concept of biodiesel is pretty straightforward. You ‘generate used vegetable oil’ (an excuse to fritter off those deep fry potato wedges), then deposit the used oil into a suitable container; old plastic water bottles are recommended. You then take your old plastic water bottle full of old cooked vegetable oil to a ‘reception centre’ (which are located mainly provincially at the moment, in places such as Tigre, Merlo and La Matanza).
Then, along comes the transport to cart off all the used vegetable oil to a biodiesel plant, where the miraculous conversion from used vegetable oil into combustible fuel takes place, and presto: you got yourself a car running on old fat. (We’ll leave the miraculous conversion at miraculous; the actual process involves something called biolipid transesterification, which seems a little heavy duty for the moment.)
Environmental and Social Awareness
On the other side of the environmental coin, various projects have cropped up whereby disadvantaged social organisations can get involved. Plan BIO is one of these, and its slogan is about working for a cleaner environment, whilst ‘helping the people who need it’. I get wind of a soup kitchen based in Tigre that is involved with plan BIO in a seemingly symbiotic scheme. The oil from the soup kitchen is collected by plan BIO, who take the used oil to a factory to convert it into combustible fuel, giving a part of the profits made from selling the fuel back to the soup kitchen.
Pointing out the road we are headed for on a map, a baffled looking tourist office operator explains a bus route, so naturally, we jump into a taxi. We show the map to the taxi driver, who in turn is similarly baffled (“I have never seen this road before”), although he does manage to get us to our destination soup kitchen. On an apparently infinite stretch of dusty road that wouldn’t be out of place on the set of a spaghetti Western.
After a phone call to check that nowhere is the right place, we spot a smiling man, cigarette in hand, stood outside a bit of a ramshackle house. A little plan BIO sign stuck on the wall, amidst various dogs and lots of flies, suggests that we’re in the right place.
Encuentro de Los Abuelos
Santos Cabrera, a.k.a Toto, runs Encuentro de Los Abuelos, a soup kitchen for the ‘older generation’ who live in the surrounding barrio. The 63-year-old has been involved with plan BIO for the last 14 months. Toto, smoking his cigarette, is brimming not only with ecological awareness but an altruistic concern to maintain the environment for generations to come. As well as partaking in the biodiesel scheme, he explains how recycling their cooking oil is a step in protecting the already notoriously polluted river Reconquista, which, along with the Riachuelo, is one of the most contaminated rivers in the country.
Sure enough, the plan BIO scheme works like it reads on the label. Every Wednesday, Toto, with the aid of his aviator-clad sidekick Alejandro Víctor Fernández, a.k.a Cuca, have an open door from midday. Sometimes up to 20 neighbours turn up to eat Cuca’s food, laughing, chatting, and just spending the afternoon together. Toto explains that many of them live alone and without any real means of income; so the kitchen is an open place for socialising.
The energy inside the kitchen is infectious. Whilst Cuca prepares the meal (matambre de asado is his speciality), the men play cards, and amidst wheezing but hearty laughter, they regale us with stories of their youth. The women are not immune to flinging a provocative comment across the room, giggling like schoolgirls whilst sipping mate. The kitchen is a hotbed of senior citizen charisma.
Having been warmly invited in to sit with the abuelos, Toto tells me:
“We’ve created a lovely familiarity here at Encuentro. We’ve known each other for years. And with the biodiesel scheme, well, we’re just being conscientious citizens. We’re just supporting each other, helping a neighbour out; and we care about the environment. We want to safeguard the future of our grandchildren.”
It does seem a perfectly mutual and interdependent relationship. Toto and the abuelos gain profit from plan BIO to continue the cooking and discarding of oil cycle. Being ecologically aware allows them to enjoy some of the simpler things in life that others often take for granted.
Toto explains to me, however, that the collection of the used oil is not always regular.
“It depends on how much is collected from other collection points; the restaurants around here for example. Also there are a few Catholic institutions, and they receive benefits. We are independent, and obviously do not generate as much oil as some of the bigger organisations.
“But in return for the oil we do store for them, they give us money, so we can keep the place going.”
As time draws for the tight knit little group to lunch, I ask Toto how he would summarise the essence of Encuentro and its involvement with Plan BIO.
“You know, we want to be involved. It is our job to secure a future for our grandchildren. Just because we’re ‘third generation’, it doesn’t mean we can’t play a role.
“We’re not evangelical. It’s like, if people don’t want to dance, they won’t. We won’t force them too. But us, we want to take part. We want to dance!”
With this Toto chuckles and simultaneously two more toothless men arrive at the gate, smiling and joking, just in time for Cuca’s food. We’re warmly invited to stay; and with the vibrancy of these folks you’re almost very tempted to.
Although Toto recycles his oil for biodiesel production and for the good of the environment; Encuentro de Abuelos and plan BIO are two very separate entities. With the money from the biodiesel project, Toto can keep on with the soup kitchen, bringing the abuelos of the barrio together for some food and a little bit of joy. What these people give each other though, laughing together in this little kitchen in the middle of nowhere, is really something else.
On the way back from Tigre, I ponder their commitment to the environment. It’s entirely selfless. I find myself in a fond little daydream, whereby one day it is these wiry haired abuelos who come to be the super-hero saviours of our planet.
To learn more about biodiesel and plan BIO, and find out how you can take part, visit www.opds.gba.gov.ar
Encuentro de Los Abuelos is an independent organisation headed by Santos Cabrera and Alejandro Víctor Fernández, based in Tigre.