MOTOR OIL: A DANGEROUS POLLUTANT
What do you know about motor oil? You probably know that you're supposed to change it every 3,000 miles. You might also know that it comes in a wide range of flavors: conventional, synthetic, blends, and more. You undoubtedly know that motor oil is very important for your car or truck. Even hybrid vehicles need motor oil. Motor oil lubricates the moving parts in your engine. Lubrication lowers your engine temperature, allows your engine to run at maximum efficiency, increases your gas mileage and keeps your car on the road longer.
But there is more to motor oil than that. Much more. Although motor oil is essential for a vehicle to function, used motor oil and used oil filters can be dangerous pollutants if not disposed of properly. Used motor oil can contain many toxic substances like benzene, lead, magnesium, chromium, arsenic, zinc, cadmium and more. The oil from a single oil change (one gallon) can ruin the taste of a million gallons of drinking water, enough water to supply fifty people for one year. In marine ecosystems films of oil on the surface of water prevent the replenishment of dissolved oxygen and can impair photosynthesis by blocking sunlight. Oil dumped on land reduces soil productivity so much that just one quart of used motor oil can pollute 40,730 square feet of earth. Even small concentrations of used motor oil (50 to 100 parts per million) can foul sewage treatment processes.2
California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island all consider used motor oil to be “hazardous” waste. These states have laws specifically written regarding how used motor oil should be handled, transported and disposed of. Most states have laws against dumping used oil. In Vermont, even dumping used motor oil in a landfill is against the rules.
Now that you know how dangerous just small amounts of used motor oil can be, you might be surprised to know how much of this potential pollutant is in use today. There are roughly 254 million registered automobiles in the United States. If each of those automobiles has four quarts of motor oil, that means that there are over one billion quarts of motor oil in use right now. Each year, the United States generates 425 million used oil filters containing 160,000 tons of iron and 18 million gallons of used motor oil.3
Luckily, there is a simple solution to this problem: recycling. Most people don't realize that although motor oil gets dirty, it never actually wears out. Motor oil can be recycled; cleaned, re-refined and re-used. Recycled motor oil can be converted back into motor oil in a process called re-refinement, which greatly reduces the amount of fossil fuels we consume. Two and half quarts of re-refined motor oil can be produced from just one gallon of used oil. Compare that to the 42 gallons of crude oil is takes to refine two and half quarts of virgin motor oil. Re-refining used oil is energy efficient, too. Less energy is required to produce a gallon of re-refined base stock than to produce a base stock from crude oil.4
If all of the oil from American do-it-yourself oil-changers were recycled instead of dumped into backyard pits or otherwise improperly disposed of, it would produce enough re-refined motor oil for more than 50 million cars a year. Imagine how much that alone would cut down on our dependence on foreign oil.
The uses of recycled motor oil don't end with more motor oil. Used motor oil can also be used for energy. Only two gallons of used motor oil can generate enough electricity to run the average household for almost 24 hours.5 Used motor oil can also feed furnaces; heating schools, hospitals and offices across the country. Recycled motor oil is a valuable source of energy, which helps our environment and our economy by avoiding the need to refine new commercial heating oil from imported crude oil.
So it seems as though motor oil isn't such a big problem after all. It may be dangerous, but it can be recycled and there are many uses for the recycled oil once your car's engine is done with it. But the sad truth is that in the United States, less than 60% of used motor oil is recycled. Over 400,000 gallons of used motor oil gets dumped into the environment every day.6 Most of this used oil comes from do-it-yourself oil-changers who dispose of used motor oil the “old fashioned” way: by dumping it in their backyards or pouring it down drains. Some of this used motor oil comes from leaks and spills. Think about all those times you've seen a rainbow-colored puddle in a parking lot. Where do you think that oil goes? Rainwater eventually washes it away and into our environment. It has been reported that used motor oil could account for more than 40% of the total oil pollution of our nation's harbors and waterways.7
If you notice that your vehicle is leaking oil, it is important for you to get it fixed right away. Depending on what is causing the leak, the repair may not cost very much. Moreover, an engine that is not properly lubricated could end up getting severely damaged and costing you thousands of dollars in repairs. Add to that the environmental impact of allowing your used motor oil to be washed into groundwater and storm drains and you have a problem that needs to be fixed as soon as you notice it.
If you change your own oil, make sure you are disposing of the oil properly, and not making a mess which would allow used oil to seep into the ground. Changing your own oil without any spillage is often difficult, as oil drain plugs are inconveniently located beneath the car engine. Remember, even a very small amount of used motor oil can cause severe environmental impacts, so if you change your own oil make sure not to spill even a drop of this dangerous pollutant. You may consider taking your vehicle to a shop to get your oil changed instead. Compared to the cost of buying new oil and a new oil filter at an auto parts store or gas station, letting professional technicians change your oil for you is not that much more expensive. The important thing to remember is to be sure to take your vehicle to a shop that recycles all of its used motor oil. If you're not sure, ask the manager what happens to the old oil. Also make sure that the shop you choose is careful about spilling used motor oil. Look for oil stains on the shop floors. If you see stains, or rainbow-colored pools of oil, you should find a different shop.
At Oil n' Go, I know that 100% of the used oil collected gets recycled, without exception. As an environmentally-friendly auto shop, we take this issue very seriously. Oil n' Go technicians are very careful with the used oil, making sure not to spill a single drop. If any oil is accidentally spilled, it is cleaned up immediately using an environmentally friendly method. A quick survey of the clean, stainless shop floor tells you that Oil n' Go is serious about making sure all of the oil they collect gets recycled. Working together, we can reduce the amount of used motor that ends up in our Vermont waterways, polluting our environment and poisoning our planet.
1 Recycling Used Oil: What Can You Do? U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OS-305), EPA/530-SW-89-039B, June 1989.
2 How to Set Up a Local Program to Recycle Used Oil, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (OS-305), EPA530-SW-89-039A, May 1989
3 Feasibility Study for Recycling Used Automotive Oil Filters in a Blast Furnace (0041), performed by Metserv for the American Iron and Steel Institure, January 2002
4 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, www.epa.gov, December 2010
5 American Petroleum Institute website, www.recycleoil.org
6 SynLube, Inc. website, www.synlube.com, December 2010
7 SynLube, Inc. website, www.synlube.com, December 2010