In a van fuelled by used cooking oil, a Victoria couple sets a record and spreads an environmental message

By Steve Carey, Times Colonist
July 11, 2010

Along-distance road trip is a popular rite of passage for recent college and university graduates. But for a pair of Victorians, the trip turned into a record-setting voyage that might just be the greenest road trip ever.
Tyson Jerry, 26, and Cloe Whittaker, 24, drove across North America in a van powered by waste vegetable oil to promote sustainable living and, in the process, broke a Guinness World Record.

They wrapped up their Driven to Sustain trip in May, about 19 months, one failed attempt and thousands of dollars in repairs after setting out from Mile Zero in October 2008. In a Mitsubishi Delica van converted to run on waste vegetable oil, they travelled 48,535 kilometres, breaking the previous record (38,137 km) for travel using alternative fuel.
The two gave lectures to schools, visited sites of environmental interest such as the oil sands, an algae oil processing lab, and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr.'s green home, and spread the word about sustainability through their website, driventosustain.ca.

"We were getting to see America and all these sustainable projects. It's what we're interested in," Whittaker says. She studied anthropology and environmental studies at the University of Victoria, while Jerry earned a certificate in environmental management and natural resource law enforcement at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Ontario. The two met in 2007 and hatched the idea for what became Driven to Sustain. The trip wasn't just about breaking the record, but educating others about the impact their individual choices, such as those around transportation, can have on the environment.

Jerry and Whittaker broke the record in New York on March 22, and kept driving until May 4. Guinness will adjudicate the results in the next few months, and the couple plans to write a book about the experience.
The pair funded the conversion of the van -- dubbed the "Green Machine" or the "Veggie Mobile" -- from diesel to waste vegetable oil themselves. They also covered their own living expenses for the trip.

Waste vegetable oil is used cooking oil from restaurants. Instead of relying on petroleum, which involves exploration, extraction and potential environmental destruction, waste veggie oil has already been used, so it's a waste product in need of disposal. A diesel engine can run on waste vegetable oil, provided the oil is strained beforehand (to remove the chunks of fries and the like) and then heated before it reaches the engine.
New York Fries provided the pair's oil in Canada, and other sponsors included Taco Time and Vancouver Island businesses such as the Canoe Brewpub and Merridale Estate Cidery. The couple has also tried to offset costs by selling T-shirts and photo prints from Jerry's portfolio.
There were setbacks along the way, both to the vehicle and to the couple's morale. Media coverage frequently referred to the waste vegetable oil van as a bio-diesel van -- which isn't accurate, as commercial bio-diesel is often made from non-sustainable resources, and is a mix of diesel and bio-diesel, while waste veggie oil is straight-up strained waste cooking oil.

The van broke down a couple of times due to mechanical failure, not the fuel. A slipped timing belt caused disaster for the first attempt, leaving the couple stranded in a scrap yard in South Carolina, until the motor could be swapped and the van repaired. They lost all the kilometres accumulated toward the record and were stalled for 11 months, fundraising for repairs, before starting a second time. On that second attempt, they had a problem with the van's brakes, but luckily broke down in the driveway of a waste veggie oil enthusiast and mechanic, who helped them with the repairs. People along the way were great, Whittaker says.

Many were a little shocked that a pair of twenty-somethings would spend so much of their own money to promote sustainable living, she says.
The education component, an hour-long lecture on sustainability, was a point of contention at one school in Utah. Jerry had set up a time for the lecture with the school's principal. As the date came closer, the presentation was called off, because a lecture on sustainability conflicted with the school board's "conservative values."
"I was pretty taken aback that a presentation on sustainability was so controversial," Jerry says.
The couple did a bit more research, and it turned out that a teacher had been fired for allowing students to listen to a radio report on plastic leaching chemicals into the ocean.
"That's one extreme, but then we've got schools that are composting and recycling," Whittaker says. "Others have green walls, grow food for the cafeteria, or have solar panels on the roof. That's inspiring to see the other side of the coin."

For every setback, though, there were many successes. The sustainability lecture was endorsed by the Ontario Ministry of Environment, and has been given to more than 10,000 students.
A large number of students and new friends followed them through their blog, live GPS, Facebook and Twitter accounts, reminding them that they weren't alone and they should finish what they started.
Two students stand out for Whittaker. One was in North Hollywood.
"She came up to us afterward and thanked us. She said, 'I've been feeling alone, and it's good to know that there are people out there that are thinking like you and are bringing this into schools,' " Whittaker says. "She was happy that she wasn't a subculture anymore."
Another student formed an e-mail friendship with Jerry and Whittaker, enlisting their help with her school projects on a 100-Mile Diet and sustainable living.
Education is like that, says Whittaker. You can't tell what impact you've had at the time, but you're planting seeds.

"We're out there adding on to what they've already heard, and in some cases, they haven't heard it at all. In one school, not even the teachers knew what composting meant," Whittaker says.
"We're not going to take the credit for people thinking sustainably. We're all starting to think sustainably. There are a lot of people like us who are going around giving these messages out. The more the better."

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