How I Greened My Summer Vacation: Students Take Vegetable-Oil-Fueled Road Trip

Big Green Bus riders talk up alternative fuel, hang at Bonnaroo.

Scrounging around in a fast-food restaurant's Dumpster for used vegetable oil isn't part of the traditional summer road trip. Then again, neither is a crusade to save the planet, or corporate sponsorship from Paul Newman's charitable brand.

But these elements are all in a day's work for 12 Dartmouth College students and graduates. This summer, they are redefining the road trip as they embark on a cross-country journey on a vegetable-oil-fueled bus to educate the public about alternative fuel sources.

"Ours is the all-American road trip with a purpose," said Elliot May, a member of the Big Green Bus tour and a recent Dartmouth grad.

The Big Green Bus made its maiden voyage across the nation last summer, when a group of 15 Dartmouth students decided to pair their love of ultimate Frisbee with their concern for the environment. The group bought a cheap school bus and converted it to run on waste vegetable oil, creating a green mode of transportation to Frisbee competitions as well as a conversation starter to inform people about alternative fuel sources along the way.

The new crop of Dartmouth kids has shifted this summer's focus away from ultimate Frisbee — for the most part — to concentrate on creating environmental awareness.

"This isn't a problem that's going away," said Big Green Bus member and sophomore Andrew Zabel. "I think as much as we're accomplishing this summer, there are things we could do better in the future, and every time you go out there, you're still going to talk to people who don't know that alternative energy is a viable option."

Since global warming isn't an issue that will be solved overnight, the participants in this year's tour sought to create a sustainable program that could become an institution at Dartmouth for years to come, according to May. The Big Green Bus is not dependent on the university, however — the students have made it financially stable through fundraising and sponsorship from charitable companies such as Newman's Own.

Purchased for $7,000, the regulation school bus was gutted and remodeled to accommodate the group's purpose and comfort. The conversion of the diesel bus to run on vegetable oil was easy, according to the students.

The only major difference between diesel and vegetable oil is the viscosity, which can be altered by heating the substance. The other major adaptation to the bus was the addition of a second fuel tank to hold the oil.

Obtaining the waste vegetable oil is the one significant obstacle. Waste vegetable oil can be found virtually anywhere — it's just a matter of convincing restaurant owners to let people root around in the Dumpster for it. After initial skepticism and quizzical looks, however, most restaurateurs are happy to hand over the used oil because it saves them the cost of waste disposal, according to Zabel. Best of all for the road-trippers, veggie-oil fuel not only helps the environment, but it's free, too.

While fun and adventure that go beyond late-night Dumpster dives are on the agenda for this year's crew, the message is the real motivation behind the tour.

From summer camps to the recent Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, the activists, betting on the attention-grabbing visual of a 37-foot-long green school bus, are trekking all over the nation to generate interest in alternative fuel sources, which, in addition to vegetable oil, include biodiesel blends and ethanol (see "Environment, Gas Prices Got You Down? You Have Options On The Road").

Though the bus serves as a great conversation starter, the team doesn't expect its audience to completely overhaul its lifestyle. Instead, they take the opportunity to talk about the small changes people can make in their everyday lives to reduce waste, ranging from turning off lights when they're not needed to washing cars less frequently.

"We're not going around preaching that everybody convert their cars to run on waste vegetable oil," May said. "What we really want to do is to facilitate discussion and show our vehicle as a means to an end in terms of creating change."

But the road trip isn't all work — there's plenty of fun, too. After all, few college students experience the thrill of getting a VIP escort into one of the nation's largest music festivals just for being environmentally friendly.

Following a grueling 28 hours on the road, the Big Green Bus was ushered into the Bonnaroo festival in Tennessee past lines of traffic. While there, the team was able to speak with various artists about fueling tour buses with biodiesel and other gasoline alternatives. The students' bus fit right in with the green vibe at Bonnaroo as well, according to Zabel. They marveled at the proactive approach the festival took to waste reduction and garbage removal at the site (see "Trashy Festivals? Not Anymore: Warped, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo Go Green").

And it seems that being eco-friendly has even more music-related perks: The group met Guster during the band's biodiesel-powered Campus Consciousness tour and impressed them with the Big Green Bus campaign. As a result, the band invited the crew to set up shop at its concerts — an offer they readily accepted for a few dates in August.

"I think that a lot of musicians, because their business is creativity, provide a unique angle and look at things from a different perspective," Zabel said. "There's been a lot of progress just in the past couple years with musicians trying to reduce their impact [on the environment]."

Festivals and concerts present valuable opportunities to talk about environmental issues because these events tend to attract a younger demographic, and, as May points out, many young people have been environmentally aware their whole lives. Beginning as early as kindergarten, many kids are taught the three R's: reduce, reuse, recycle.

"Right now all these alternative energies are flying just under the national radar, just under the attention of the mainstream media and the average Joe driving his car to work in the suburbs," Zabel said.

"So we're providing a window into this whole world of alternative fuel sources, because people don't know that it exists, or they've heard of it and think that it's some fanciful futuristic technology. But the truth is that it's happening, and we can adopt it, at least in small portions, right now."