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Step outside any fast food outlet on a sultry summer day, take a big whiff and you’ll get an immediate sensory impression of the air quality problem some restaurants present. But it’s not cooking odors per se that have clean air officials concerned. It’s the emissions that go along with them. Engineers at the nine-county Bay Area Air Quality Management Board headquartered in San Francisco estimate that 6.9 tons of fine soot particles and 1.1 tons of smog-forming gases are emitted from the area’s commercial charbroilers each day.

It was enough for the agency to pass stiff new requirements last month. The mandate: Restaurants with open-grill charbroilers must now install scrubbers and filters in their vent systems. Targets are steakhouses and casual dining chains like Applebee’s that cook more than 800 pounds of beef per week on an open, slotted charbroiled grill that’s heated from below and is 10 square feet or larger in size. On the fast-food front, restaurants that use chain-driven conveyor charbroilers that heat hamburgers from both above and below will have to comply if the restaurant cooks 400 pounds of beef per week or more.

These fast-food cooking devices have previously been regulated elsewhere in California. This is the first time full-service cooking gear has been included in a clean air mandate.

Compliance will be expensive—$30,000 per retrofit, says the California Restaurant Association. It’s not cheap to operate these devices once they have been installed, either.

“This rule is not cost-effective,” CRA Johnnise Foster Downs argued. “Why don’t they go after the bigger sources of particulates first, like diesel trucks and vehicles?”

On the other hand, disposal of fats, oil and grease (FOG) just got easier and cheaper in San Francisco proper. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has implemented a free collection service for waste FOG from restaurants. City workers come to your restaurant, take your used oil and recycle it into environmentally friendly biodiesel. They’ll also help you figure out how to deal with grease trap issues.

What prompted San Francisco to come up with this program, known as SFGreasecycle? The city’s wastewater and storm water flows combine into one sewer system, and excess FOG was clogging it up.

“Clogged sewers result in unsanitary back-ups, overflows onto streets, foul-smelling odors and costly damage to sewer infrastructure. In 2006, 2,600 sewer service calls were due to grease-related blockages. That’s about seven sewer calls per day around the city, every day,” reports the city’s website. San Francisco was spending $3.5 million per year to deal with FOG problems, so city officials figure the SDFGreasecycle program will be cost-effective.

Operators in other jurisdictions should hope their local authorities adopt something so operator-friendly. Some come close. In Orlando, the city’s new Green Business Program targets restaurants as one source of local waterway pollution.

“While restaurants and waterways may not seem to share a common bond, the truth is that each rainstorm can carry a restaurant’s chemicals and grease across city streets and parking lots, through stormwater drains and into our waterways,” the program states. “This stormwater runoff results in poor water quality, exotic vegetation and nuisance rodents and reptiles.”

We’re not sure of the exact cause-and-effect here that produces unwanted rodents and reptiles. But nevertheless, the Orlando program is educating restaurant owners and employees about “Best Management Practices” that can reduce the amount of pollutants. They include:

• Pouring all mop water and other wastewater into utility or wash sinks.

• Ensuring that waste disposal traps are not connected to stormwater systems.

• Having grease traps serviced regularly to prevent clogs.

• Adding a grease and oil recycling storage area on site and keeping it clean and covered.

Participants receive Orlando Green Business certification, plus promotional materials that can be shared with employees and customers.

These basic steps seem like common sense, but experts are confident that a lot of restaurants don’t follow them. Some estimate that as much as 80 percent of unhealthy discharges into municipal sewer systems come from restaurants and other foodservice venues. Since FOG ultimately leads to public health and infrastructure problems, rule-making and enforcement seem likely to become more prevalent. It might be wise to “go green” on this particular issue before a local official makes that decision for you.

How do you get started? One way would be to investigate the services of cooking oil management companies such as Frontline International Restaurant Technologies and others. These companies supply and service closed-loop systems that help operators avoid most FOG problems. If city inspectors start dropping by your restaurant to check whether you have the proper size grease trap and are maintaining it correctly, it might be handy to have these oil management companies’ contact information on hand.

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