Buster Halterman – Interview

Buster Biofuels is a San Diego-based company that reclaims used cooking oil from restaurants and converts it to biodiesel to refuel diesel engines. Their slogan, “Go Fuel Yourself,” embodies the idea that companies can look to Buster Biofuels as a biodiesel source to supplement part of their vehicle fleets’ fuel needs.

Buster Halterman, founder and CEO of Buster Biofuels, sits down with KorduroyTV to explain his journey from Pennsylvania-born pro skateboarder to founder of a fast-growing and forward-thinking company.

For more information on how the Buster Biofuels team is working to Reclaim, Recycle, and Refuel, visit their website at http://busterbiofuels.com/.

What brought you here from PA?

I fell in love with skateboarding about 1985. After becoming sponsored and visiting CA a couple times, I came out here in 1990. I had a pro skateboard career for about two years, but in that first two-year period, I ended up moving back to PA and pursued school, clothing design, production….

So I ended up doing clothing design and production in action sports, and ultimately marketing, until about 1998, where I rekindled my skateboard career. I’d moved back out to CA by that time. I wanted to move to CA because it felt more like home to me than PA. I love PA, it’s always home. But in CA, the lifestyle of skateboarding and the culture just always appealed to me. So I rekindled my skateboarding career from 1998 through 2008… 

I can’t believe I had another 10-year run at it. But I was the oldest guy on the vert ramp. I kind of just lost my passion on a competitive level and got really interested in this biodiesel stuff. I saw that it was an opportunity for me to start a really cool business with meaning and purpose, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to be part of… I’ve just always wanted be part of something that I spearheaded. It was my idea, and I took it from A to Z. It’s my dream, and I’m going to make it come to fruition.

So you got into biodiesel out of your own interest in the topic?

Out of my own interest, yes. I wanted to run my car off of vegetable oil because I thought it was cool. It was something responsible to do as an individual. And as I started researching that, I stumbled on biodiesel and realized how much better of a solution, if you will, or the better thing for a business it would be, because not everybody would be willing to convert their car to run on vegetable oil. It’s a much more significant shift, whereas biodiesel can be blended with petroleum diesel in virtually any percentage. 

What was your inspiration for actually starting company?

I’ve always been entrepreneurial, so I was thinking of how this could be twisted into some sort of business. Learning more about biodiesel and the industry inspired me even more. Biodiesel made a lot of sense to me because the country is already going in that direction from an infrastructure standpoint. But I realized more and more the importance of alternative fuels and that there’s such a void still, even here in San Diego.

But realizing that you can’t really get it anywhere else in town just made me realize there needed to be someone else to step up to the plate. I felt like I had a good business concept, focusing on some larger companies and helping companies and fleets who want to reduce their carbon footprint. But they’re like me—they can’t get the fuel. So my goal and my desire quickly became, “I’m going to do this biodiesel plant” and hopefully help companies and consumers on a retail level to be able to fuel up with an alternative. There needs to be an alternative. We need to get away from petroleum consumption as much as we can. I really am passionate about it and can’t wait for our plant to come “on-line” by late 2013.

Your goal is to reduce your economic footprint and be more economically and environmentally sustainable. Do you see your company as a model for the way future companies should run as far as the fuel they use, or is it more just the idea of thinking sustainably in general?

I think it’s just thinking sustainably in general. Not every company is going to be able to make a huge shift toward biodiesel specifically… But in the end, especially when you look at how these bigger companies work, they’re creating departments that are all about sustainability and how the company can become more sustainable in every way, shape, and form. We just want to be a piece that dovetails into this mindset of, “What is everything possible that we can do to reduce our carbon footprint?” Or to just recycle in-house, from the plates and the forks that they’ll have in their cafeteria, to the fuels that help drive their employees around to do business. I think we just want to be a piece of that puzzle. I don’t think we’ll be the solution, especially when it comes to fuel in general. What we’re doing—recycling used cooking oil into biodiesel—is definitely not going to replace petroleum, but it’s meant to be just one of the contributors to a more conscious effort to reduce emissions.

Do you only source your fuel to major companies, or would you eventually sell to the average consumer?

We have only been doing pilot programs with a selected few companies like the San Dieguito Union School District, Padres, Legoland, and some other companies who have small fleets. We outsourced production to prove the Reclaim, Recycle, Refuel concept. When our production starts, we’ll sell directly to companies who have fleets and equipment, and also sell through big distributors that will help fuel demand at the retail level. Would we like to have own pumps at gas stations? Yes. But ultimately we’ll be working with direct fleets in town and working with distributors that will help supplement their fuel with biodiesel. Because that’s really what the biggest part of biodiesel nationwide: supplementation. So all these big distributors are buying from small producers like us in order to just put two to five percent in there… That’s really where the shift is going. This biodiesel can be an incredible supplement to decrease our dependency, and also, it does reduce emissions. Even a small percentage helps. 

Right now your main source of fuel is used cooking oil itself, and then you convert that to biodiesel. Are there other sources that you could use for biodiesel for your company?

You could use virgin oil. If we have trouble getting enough supply of used cooking oil, we could easily lean on the virgin oil side of things. But I’m not a big fan of that. I mean, I want to try to do everything we can to recycle and reuse what’s already been there and played its life in the food world. And algae, you know algae’s coming down the line, but most of that’s geared toward a different process than what we’re doing. So really we are focusing just on customary cooking oils of anything. And animal fats… a lot of restaurants we collect from have a large amount of animal fat in the oil, so we’re able to make biodiesel from that as well.

How much do restaurants generally produce?

There are about 1.9 gallons per capita based on a university study years ago. I think there are about three million people here in San Diego (County), so that ends up being about six million gallons per year here. That could feed our plant, but there’s no way we would be able collect it all. There’s too much competition.

So what does that mean for you guys?

It means we need a lot of restaurants in San Diego and nearby cities to jump onboard with our green initiative. Our plant is slated to have a capacity of 5.25 million gallons per year. So obviously the more oil we can collect ourselves, the better it is for our business model because biodiesel really struggles as a business model. We’re talking five million gallons per year when the petroleum industry talks in the billions and zillions of gallons a year, so our margins need to be quite a bit more. Government won’t be here forever. So we’re really focused on collection side of our business…

Have restaurants been open to potentially working with you guys?

We call it The Alliance, and restaurants have really been supportive of the Buster Biofuels’ Alliance. They really believe that what we’re trying to do is really needed, and that we have a really good strategy and image to make a difference here in San Diego. That’s rewarding to hear. We really appreciate all these companies backing our idea and our desire to do something that hardly anybody has stepped up to do.

Do you sell the byproducts, like glycerin?

We will, when we’re making the fuel in-house at the end of the year.

And that’s for other things like soapmaking?

Typically the glycerin from the biodiesel plant will be sold to glycerin refiners who will clean it up and put into animal feed, fertilizer, soaps and cosmetics. We’re talking more about new technology and even recycling that so it can become a feedstock for biodiesel, and feeding anaerobic digestors as an accelerator for producing energy. So there are multiple ways glycerin can be used. And that is an interesting market, but for us as a plant it’s great because we have a valuable byproduct.

After you went from skateboarding to this, had you tried to or wanted to try incorporating your background with Buster Biofuels in creating a marketing campaign for it?

That’s where I come from, the world of marketing through action sports. I definitely want Buster Biofuels to be an extension of who I am and who I was as a skateboarder. Living in Southern California, it’s all about culture and forward thinking. Skateboarding specifically has always been about thinking outside the box and sometimes bringing shock value to the plate. That’s really what makes people wake up, and that’s what I want to embrace when and where it’s applicable.

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