Green Grease Project

Launched in January 2010 with support from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Green Grease Project began as a conversation among CoLab, the MIT Biodiesel Club, and Rede Cata Sampa, the local São Paulo chapter of Brazil’s national union of catadores (waste pickers). Green Grease partners launched the initiative by exploring strategies for utilizing waste vegetable oil as fuel. The solution, which marries an innovative vehicle conversion technique designed to fit the needs of waste picker cooperatives with a novel implementation and dissemination strategy that extends into nine Brazilian cities, was awarded a $3,000 prize at the 2010 prestigious MIT IDEAS competition.

Catadores are among the poorest and most marginalized people in Brazil. They are mainly women, children, recent migrants, unemployed, disabled and the elderly. In nearly all cases, trash picking is the last alternative to starvation. In Brazil, it is a way of life for an estimated 500,000 people. In São Paulo, a group of 300 waste pickers have come together to form seventeen trash recycling cooperatives under the umbrella of the waste picking union Rede CataSampa. Seeking to leverage the catadores’ skills, needs, and available resources, a team of MIT students led by CoLab Green Hub Global Program Associate Libby McDonald, created an easy, low-cost diesel engine conversion method that, by nearly eliminating vehicle fuel costs, reduces cooperative expenses by 20%, boosting the catadores’ income while reducing waste vegetable oil in rivers, streams, and lakes.

In August of 2010, the team ran a workshop in CRUMA, a well-established São Paulo cooperative, that taught catadores: 1) the simple, low-tech method for converting diesel engines to run on waste vegetable oil; 2) how to filter waste vegetable oil; and 3) the best modes of waste vegetable oil collection. In addition to teaching catadores the method of conversion, by using the cooperatives’ twelve trucks as demonstration vehicles, work completed during the course of the workshop nearly eliminated fuel costs for the waste picker union’s network of twenty co-ops.

Currently Libby McDonald is working with six MIT students to develop collection strategies, technology, and a business model for a thriving waste vegetable oil business. During the summer of 2011 engineering students and a Sloan student traveled to Sao Paulo to work with Rede CataSampa and the local university, University of Sao Paulo. This trip marked the completion of research necessary for the design of waste oil filtration methods. In November, 2011, two DUSP architecture students will accompany CoLab program manager Libby McDonald to Sao Paulo where they will use GPS devices to assist in the creation of effective collection strategies. Additionally, two Sloan MBA students are working with the team and Rede CataSampa to create a waste filtration business model.


MIT Student Affiliates (2011-2012):

Devin Gladden, Angela Hojnacki, Janet Li, Marta Marello, Rajiv Rao

University of Sao Paulo Student Affiliates (2011-2012):

Walter Volpini, Alinie Neves, and Denis Ferreira

Alumni Affiliates:

Samantha Fox, Ana Bonomi, Ana Luisa Santos, Hossam El-Asrag, Sara Barnowski, Alexander Fallon


Libby McDonald