By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter
Unlike most people, Cassandra Lin (林心瑜) knew at the age of 10 what she wanted to do with her life.
A curious and passionate child growing up in Rhode Island, the Taiwanese-American, now 20, has been deeply involved for years in community service and a project that tackles global warming and at the same time provides social assistance.
The project, dubbed Turn Grease into Fuel (TGIF), was started in 2008 by Lin and seven of her classmates, who at the time were fifth graders. Their goal was to turn waste cooking oil into biofuel that could provide heat for underprivileged families in winter.
“Climate change is causing more extreme weather patterns, such as record cold temperatures in winter,” Lin said, speaking to high school students in Taipei last week. “I found out that many families in my own town could not afford to heat their homes in the winter, and that local charities were running out of funds.”
The TGIF team started by researching on the Internet how fossil fuels impact the environment, how to turn grease into biofuel, and what are the various uses of biofuel, said Lin, who is now a junior at Stanford University, majoring in Sociology.
In the process of her research as an elementary school student, Lin said, she learned the importance of acquiring a proper grasp of the issues in one’s area of activism.
She said she and her classmates developed an action plan that involved the collection of waste cooking oil and the refining and distribution of the biofuel.
“Age doesn’t matter as much as how much initiative you are willing to put in,” said Lin, who is in Taiwan at the invitation of the King Car Education Foundation to speak to young people about how they can help change the world.
The first step in TGIF’s action plan was to raise public awareness of the benefits of recycling waste cooking oil and grease, she said. The group asked the town council to install a waste cooking oil receptacle at a local transportation hub to make it more convenient for residents to recycle their oil and grease.
The team also made presentations at elementary schools, encouraging other children to go home and convince their families to recycle their oil. With the help of their families and school, Lin and her friends managed to network with oil refiners, distributors and charities, an undertaking that she said required the development of good communication skills and problem-solving abilities.
One of the group’s biggest challenges was getting restaurants to participate in the TGIF initiative, Lin said, adding that only about 5 percent of the restaurants in her town initially joined the effort. In addition to providing the restaurants with the relevant information about the project, the group also came up with a plan to offer coupons for TGIF participating restaurants to boost their business.
“I think that it’s important to not be too fixated on one thing, or one thing that happened that was like an obstacle, and be more focused on how you are going to get around it and how you are going to move forward,” Lin said.
As the TGIF project took root and blossomed over the years, TGIF turned its attention to legislation, drafting a bill with the help of local legislators to mandate that all businesses recycle their used cooking oil. In 2011, the group members testified in the State House during a hearing on the bill, which was eventually passed and went into effect on January 1, 2012.
“Doing these kinds of projects kind of forced me to look at problems that were around me instead of just ignoring them, but really trying to find ways to help solve these problems that I was just observing,” Lin told CNA.
Now in its 10th year, the TGIF project has turned 1.2 million liters of grease into 1 million liters of biodiesel valued at US$190,000, which has offset over 2,000 tons of CO2 emissions.
The program has branched out to Connecticut and Massachusetts and with the involvement of eight charities and 130 restaurants it helps some 600 families to keep warm in winter.
With a smooth running mechanism, the program now requires little manpower, Lin said, adding that she checks on it only once a month to make sure everything is on track.
Because of TGIF, Lin and her team met former U.S. President Barack Obama twice, at the President’s Environmental Youth Awards in 2010 and again at the White House Science Fair in 2012.
Lin was also named by CNN as one of the young wonders changing the world, in the network’s Top 10 Heroes of the Year in 2012. Lin said she is eager to develop other projects and is particularly interested in education and social welfare.
“The fact that TGIF has the power to inspire and influence others’ lives for the better is why I am inspired to keep working in service and in equity-driven initiatives,” she said.
In her talks to youth in Taiwan, she encouraged them to explore the world more aggressively through international competitions and programs provided by foundations like King Car.
“Everything is impossible until somebody does it,” she told them.