NATIONAL REPORT—Most chafing dish fuel gels found today are made from corn-based ethanol, methanol and other additives to help the product burn hotter. Methanol is added to make it too toxic for consumption. Fuel gel using methanol and other additives is considered hazardous waste and should be treated as such, several industry experts told Green Lodging News for this article. Methanol gel, according to Don Haldenby, CEO of Ecoflame International Inc., is poisonous and contains dioxin and emits nitrous oxide, arsenic, carbon monoxide and excessive carbon dioxide when burned. It is dangerous to touch and dangerous to the environment when containers end up in the landfill. There, they leach their poisons into the water table. Dennis Paul, CEO of ECOFuel Worldwide Inc., said the emissions from most fuel gel today are not only potentially hazardous to those who work around it; they can also impact the taste and quality of the food the gels are working to heat. “You may be ingesting it and it changes the flavor of the food,” he says. According to one vendor contacted for this article, at least one hotel guest has died from accidentally ingesting chafing dish fuel.
No third party tracks how many containers of fuel gel are consumed each year. What is clear is that it is a lot and the gel and its containers are a significant environmental problem and an often-overlooked part of a sustainability strategy.
“The hazardous waste is supposed to be disposed of by opening the can, and then removing the content into a hazmat container,” ECOFuel Worldwide’s Paul says. “The container must be shipped to a hazmat site for disposal. Ninety-eight percent of foodservice operators are not doing anything close to that. The U.S. is behind when it comes to proper disposal.” Paul adds that 40 percent of the fuel in traditional fuel gel containers is wasted.
Three Suppliers to Consider
Green Lodging News contacted six companies for this article, including SternoCandleLamp, the most well-known of the suppliers of chafing dish fuels. Only three suppliers responded—Fuel 21, Ecoflame International, and ECOFuel Worldwide. Each of the three suppliers are offering much safer and greener alternatives to the chafing dish fuel gel that has been most commonly used in hospitality.
Fuel 21 offers an ethanol gel made from sugarcane grown in South Africa. According to Thomas Madden, President of the company, sugar burns better than corn-based ethanol. “We don’t have to add any additives,” Madden says. According to Fuel 21, its fuel burns clean without toxins, odors, smoke or emissions. “The only thing that comes out of our cans is heat and a very small amount of CO2,” Madden adds.
The sugarcane formula maintains a high heat output of 208 degrees F from start to finish. Partially used cans can be reused again. Fuel burns to the last drop and when a container is empty it can be reused up to 14 more times. The steel cans can be recycled. Two- and 4-hour cans are available. So too is a 2-liter refill bottle.
Brazil is Source of Sugarcane for Ecoflame
Like Fuel 21, Ecoflame International offers a heating gel made from sugarcane ethanol. The source of the sugarcane is Brazil. Ecoflame Gel has been tested by the Air Resources Board, California Environmental Protection Agency. Ecoflame Gel cans are refillable and recyclable and are available in 1-, 2-, 4-, and 6-hour sizes. The company also offers a 2-liter bottle and 600-ml bottle for refilling cans. Product packaging is made from recycled materials. Leaves of the sugarcane are included in the preparation of the outer cartons which are used for shipping of product.
In regard to his company’s preference of sugarcane ethanol over corn ethanol, Ecoflame International’s Haldenby said, “Sugarcane ethanol is cleaner. The molecules are not as dirty as corn. The corn molecule is very contaminated and fertilized. Sugar produces 35 percent more heat than corn. Corn produces so little heat that you have to add petroleum derivatives.”
Another problem with corn is the amount of energy required to create ethanol from it. According to Ecoflame International, when compared to corn based ethanol, Brazilian yields of ethanol per acre doubles U.S. corn based ethanol productivity.
Ecoflame International has plans to open a plant in South Carolina.
Fuel Gel from Plant Fructose
ECOFuel Worldwide Inc., which has plants in Mexico and the United States, makes Organica, a canned fuel made using an enzyme-derived glycol that comes from plant fructose. According to ECOFuel Worldwide’s Paul, Organica is non-flammable. Unique to the company is its permanent, refillable containers. “You never have to buy another can,” Paul says. Cans can be refilled—even while still burning. “It does not flash,” Paul adds. Organica, according to Paul, is a USDA Certified Biobased Product. It is initially in 4-hour cook/6-hour warm cans. Fuel for refilling is available in 1-gallon containers.
When comparing what are considered to be eco-friendlier chafing dish fuel gels with the more traditional product, cost is of course an initial concern. The three suppliers interviewed for this article agreed that their greener versions are cost-competitive. The suppliers also agreed about the safety advantages of their versions of fuel gel—not only when compared to the toxic gel alternatives but also when compared to the wick products on the market. One supplier said it can be challenging to determine the hazards of fuel gels because MSDS sheets are often not as complete as they should be.
Chances are, if there are black deposits on the bottoms of your chafing dishes after an event, you are using a product that is potentially very hazardous.
Glenn Hasek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.