Humboldt State University

People on the Ground: Alumni Profiles

Bio-Diesel is Serious Business for HSU Alumni

One local business, Footprint Recycling, is taking a step in the right direction when it comes to sustainability. The company is run by a crew of highly motivated Humboldt State graduates who are meeting the growing demand for vegetable-oil-based biodiesel fuel in the local community.

As part of normal operations, Footprint Recycling collects used vegetable oil from local businesses. That waste vegetable oil is then taken to Footprint's main site where it is converted into biodiesel fuel and sold back to the community.

Andrew Cooper, the founder of Footprint, first thought seriously about biodiesel after taking an Appropriate Technology class at HSU. "That lab really turned me on to biodiesel," he says. Taking what he learned in class, Cooper (Environmental Science, '00) and a fellow student set up a biodiesel production shop in a friend's garage.

Cooper ran into difficulties as he tried to get the process right. He went to HSU's Campus Center for Appropriate Technologies (CCAT) for help. Partnering with CCAT, Cooper was able to successfully launch his biodiesel production and helped pioneer the campus biodiesel program. He moved his shop out of his friend's garage and relocated to an area on the center's grounds. For the final two years of his undergraduate degree, Cooper worked at CCAT as a biodiesel technician.

While attending HSU, Cooper met the men who became his business partners, Michael Koger (Industrial Technology, '05) and Todd Frisbee (Geography, '00). Amy Waterhouse, Cooper's significant other, became involved with the company as well.

After earning his undergraduate degree, Cooper decided to expand the biodiesel project for his graduate studies in Environmental Systems Engineering. His efforts to grow production to a community scale formed the foundation of Footprint Recycling.

As Footprint has grown, the company's core group has carved out their areas of responsibility. Cooper, the chief executive officer, manages client relationships. Koger, nicknamed "MacGyver," solves the technical and mechanical problems. Frisbee regulates fuel production. And as chief financial officer, Waterhouse is in charge of the company's balance sheet.

In addition to diverting waste and reducing carbon emissions, Footprint Recycling is basically a zero waste venture. They're able to make biodiesel out of 85 to 88 percent of their collections of waste vegetable oil. They sell it at their shop in Arcata, where anyone with funds and a diesel engine can fill up for $3.50 a gallon. Patrons can drive away with a full tank and a clear carbon-conscience.

Any waste vegetable oil that can't be made into biodiesel is used to heat Footprint's office. Making biodiesel also produces glycerin. But instead of letting that go to waste, they use a portion of it to make industrial-grade hand cleanser for their shop. They haul the excess glycerin to places that use it, like the Humboldt Waste Management Authority – and they haul it in biodiesel-fueled trucks.

Even the tanks used to create and store the biodiesel are recycled from other businesses in different fields, like the one repurposed from Sierra Nevada brewery. Other storage tank donations include a container from the old Samoa pulp mill and two tanks from Joe Costa Trucking.

Footprint recycling has come a long way since its garage days. Today, just five years after formally establishing the business, the operation stretches from Redding in the east, south to Cloverdale, and as far north as Ashland and Eugene in Oregon, servicing nearly 400 clients. "We started with 5-gallon drums," Koger says. "Now we use 32-gallon drums."

There's a lot more they'd like to do with the company, including full production of the glycerin-based hand cleanser. However, an on-site oil spill in January brought operations to a halt. The company has temporarily stopped its production and sale of bio-diesel while it awaits permits to re-open. In the meantime, Footprint Recycling continues to collect waste vegetable oil and sell it to other bio-diesel producers.

But every problem that Footprint has faced is an opportunity to come up with innovative solutions. "We never have the same problem twice," Koger says. "It's the most challenging part, but also the most exciting."

Still, they love what they do – especially the service they provide to the community. "You can't be a community-scale operation without being community-based," Cooper says. In addition to building relationships with local businesses, Footprint Recycling prides itself on the service it provides for those community members who want to buy biodiesel – and those who just want to breathe cleaner air.

"We're not here to make a buck off the community," Cooper says. "There's so much more to what we do than just making fuel."