A co-operative in Bolton is recycling used vegetable oil from takeaways, restaurants and schools and turning it into bio-diesel to power cleaner, greener vehicles.

ENVIRONMENTAL issues are constantly hitting the headlines while experts talk about carbon footprints, global warming and melting polar icecaps.

Most people probably feel overwhelmed by the amount of complex information on green issues thrown at them and feel, on an individual level, that there's not much they can do about it.

But there is something people and small businesses can do to cut their costs and help the environment - and it involves using old vegetable oil which would have otherwise been poured down the drain.

As the price of diesel hits an all-time high, more companies and motorists are looking for ways to cut their soaring fuel costs.

One way is to recycle old vegetable oil used in takeaways and restaurants, and even oil used at home, into bio-diesel, which is far cheaper and better for the environment.

As fuel prices rise, many entrepreneurs have set up small bio-diesel recycling plants across the country to cut costs and help reduce pollution.

One such eco outfit is run in Bolton by former engineer and teacher Andy Ismail Boardman, who collects waste vegetable oils from takeaways and restaurants in the area.

Andy is environmentally friendly to his fingertips - even the van he drives to collect the waste oil is powered by his own bio-diesel. He also collects oil from every school in Bolton about once a month.

The waste oil is turned into bio-diesel fuel and completes the recycling circle when it is used in buses ferrying children to and from school.

The mechanics of producing bio-diesel are fairly simple. Once Andy has a full tank of waste oil he takes it back to a base at the Bolton Alternative Fuel Co-operative, which operates from outbuildings at the rear of Gilnow Mill.

The oils are pumped into a holding tank, where the liquid is allowed to settle.

The biodiesel is produced by heating the oil, mixing it with chemicals, allowing it to settle and separate so that a glycerine layer can be removed, before washing the remaining substance to make it fit for use in diesel vehicles.

It is 80 per cent carbon neutral, which helps to control the greenhouse effect and global warming.

Using recycled cooking oil is better for the environment than growing crops solely for making bio-diesel fuel, which Andy does not agree with.

His labour of love brings green rewards, but little in the way of remuneration. He takes only a part-time wage from the community initiative that set up the recycling plant, even though he works virtually full-time.

However, Andy says he does not need much to live on, being active with organic growers in Westhoughton where he lives, as well as being a member of a food co-operative.

He takes particular delight in the fact that the waste oil from Bolton schools is reprocessed into fuel used in school buses.

Andy said: "The best thing is that the use of oil in schools has dropped dramatically following the Jamie Oliver TV school dinners programme and, while that is not good for my business, it is good for the schools and pupils, as they are obviously producing healthier meals using less oil.

"I get most of my oils from Indian and Chinese takeaways, restaurants and the schools, and a few individual homes, and that is what I call good oil which I can refine into bio-diesel."

With business partner Brian Rylance, Andy runs the Bolton Alternative Fuel Co-operative, an umbrella organisation under which Goldstarr Fat Collection, which employs Andy, operates.

The company, which works in cramped accommodation, was set up in 2005 following an environmental conference in Deane where a speaker talked about bio-fuels.

The fuel co-operative received a £5,000 grant for a pilot scheme to make bio-diesel and is now self-financing.

Andy collects between 600 and 1,000 litres of waste oil and when recycled this produces around 300 to 600 litres of bio-diesel a week.

He believes he would have the capacity to make up to 2,000 litres of bio-diesel a week if he could get more waste oil.

Andy said: "There's a lot of competition from people who buy the oil and send it to be used in power stations or sometimes it's put in landfill sites.

"I can only recycle oils that are liquid at room temperature and I try to avoid fats which set hard.

"While I would want to collect more oil, I would need to have more resources to work with."

The bio-diesel he produces now powers about 40 vehicles every week, including school buses, the oil collection van and the Food Access Bolton van, which sells vegetables on housing estates to encourage healthy eating using fresh produce.

Andy emphasises that he mainly supplies to those who are sympathetic to the environment and all the fuel he produces is taken by existing customers.

Cllr Nick Peel, Bolton Council executive member for environmental services, said: "We already run our 475-strong vehicle fleet on a five per cent bio-diesel mix as a commitment to the council's environment strategy.

"In addition, two buses in our vulnerable person's transport fleet are run on 100 per cent bio-diesel, which is a significant commitment to reducing our carbon tyre print'."

He added: "The buses are about 12 years old and part of our old fleet of grey vehicles which, together with newer mini-buses, are used to transport children with special educational needs to schools.

"We were approached by Bolton Alternative Fuels Co-operative to trial the bio-diesel and it seems to be working very well.

"At the moment, the fuel is only suitable for the older-style vehicle, but it's important that we do our bit for the environment and are hoping to continue filling up at the pumps every week."

For more information, visit www.allcommunity.co.uk/bafc or email Andy at boltonalternativefuels@msn.com l In a bid to move away from fossil fuels, the British Government has, under an EU directive, introduced plans to replace five per cent of vehicle fuel with bio-fuel by 2010. This amount will rise to 20 per cent by 2020.