Categorized | Environment

Biodiesel and the Astonishing Abuelos


Photo by Hayden Lewis
The Biofuel Process

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.

Photo by Hayden Lewis
Biofuel extraordinaire and soup kitchen owner, Santos Cabrera or “Toto”

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.

Photo by Hayden Lewis
Resident Chef and side-kick, Alejandro Victor Fernandez or “Cuca”

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.

Photo by Hayden Lewis
A few weekly regulars of Toto’s and Cuca’s place

“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.

Photo by Hayden Lewis
Pouring grease to be used later for fuel

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

Encuentro de Los Abuelos is an independent organisation headed by Santos Cabrera and Alejandro Víctor Fernández, based in Tigre.

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7 Responses to “Biodiesel and the Astonishing Abuelos”

  1. Alan says:

    I suppose on a small scale such as above, biofuels are fine. But how much used vegetable oil does is your average person left with at the end of a week? Enough to run the car as you suggest above? No. You’ll probably have to go down to the supermarket and buy a few more gallons to top up.

    If you are suggesting that we start running our cars on biodiesel then, I can assure you, the kind of problems you report in your article on GM soya will probably seem like “the good old days” in years to come.

    Let’s not promote biodiesel as if it’s a viable and green alternative to fossil fuels, because it’s not. Land that is currently growing crops to feed people will be used to grow crops to feed cars in the blink of an eye and then where does that leave us?

  2. Marla says:

    I think the article is pertaining more to the social side of things. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s an absolute promotion of biofuel; the explanation at the beginning is fairly simplistic and is just giving you a basic run down of its benefits. To write an article on the pros and cons and scientific nature of biofuel would be rather long and rather dull. I found the idea of the abuelos taking part at all endearing. As I read it “presto, you got yourself a car running on old fat”, this seemed to me that the author was obviously simplifying something that probably needs more information. But most of the article is about the soup kitchen in tigre.

  3. Alan says:

    Marla – I see your point and you are correct in that much of the article relates to a heartwarming social story which was not lost on me.

    But a substantial portion of the article, from start to finish, relates to the supposed green credentials of biofuels whether specifically, at the beginning of the article, or by association throughout the rest of the article. I just wouldn’t want anyone to walk away after reading this article thinking that biodiesel is a viable alternative to fossil fuels.

    My first comment was a bit of a rant, I accept, but this was mainly because I had just finished reading the Argentimes interesting article on GM soya. I was just a bit bemused by the attack on mass-scale soya production in one article and then the promotion of biofuel, however slight, in another. Know what I mean?

  4. Hannah says:


    As the author of this piece I would like to point out that your comparison with the soy article was very astute. Having read both your comments I am inclined to mention that my wording of biodiesel as an alternative to fossil fuel was perhaps badly chosen. As you have acknowledged, the main jist of the peice was a comment on the abuelos, although, yes, it is also a comment on the green credentials of biofuels.

    The concept of biofuels as a whole is a tricky one. Of course if biodiesel is used on a wider scale, then of course more plants for oil would become cash crop. I am not unaware of the detrimental effect this could have on less economically developed countries. The Argentimes is keen to follow up a more detailed feature in the future, exploring in far more depth the realities behind biofuel.

  5. Alan says:

    Hannah – thanks for the feedback. I feel very clever now! I’m going to enjoy that for a while. Anyway, just to say that despite my comments it was a lovely article and it’s great to see that older generations genuinely care and are trying to make a difference about a world that we stand to inherit. Keep up the good work – the Argentimes helps me keep in touch with a country I truly love.

  6. Jack says:

    i use Biodiesel on my car. i think everyone should use biodiesel so that each one can at least contribute to the environment.

  7. Hanna says:

    we should patronize the use of Biodiesel because it is a renewable source and fossil fuels would soon be depleted. `


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