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Recycling Motor Oil

Even the with Jiffy Lube, Grease Monkey and other companies offering quick oil changes, the American Petroleum Institute says, over 50-percent of us still change our own oil. Do-it-yourselfers generate about 150 millions gallons of used motor oil each year. Many dispose of the used oil properly; unfortunately, too many don’t. Though illegal in many communities, used motor is poured into drains, thrown away in the trash so it ends up in landfills or simply poured on the ground. According to the EPA, over 40-percent of our nation’s oil pollution comes from improper disposal of used motor oil by DIYers.

Motor oil doesn’t wear out - it just gets dirty. As it circulates through engines it picks contaminants including toxic materials. Labels on oil containers read, “CAUTION: Avoid prolonged or repeated skin contact with used motor oil.” Used motor oil has been shown to cause skin cancer in laboratory animals. Thoroughly wash exposed areas with soap and water." Improperly disposed of oil can find its way into lakes, streams and waterways, polluting bodies of and drinking water supplies, as well as damaging aquatic environments and wildlife. Just one gallon of oil, the quantity from a single oil change, can contaminate one million gallons of freshwater - a year’s supply of water for 50 people - or render a four-acre area of soil non-productive for farming or plant growth for up to 100 years!

Drain your oil into a clean container with a tight fitting cap. A one-gallon, plastic milk jug or water container works well. Do not mix the recovered oil with any other liquids such as antifreeze or automatic transmission fluid. Make sure the oil is free from dirt, leaves and other debris. Then take it to an oil collection location. Nationally there are more than 12,000 oil recycling locations provided by either local governments or private businesses. Many service stations, repair facilities and quick lubes will accept used oil without charge. Other might charge a small disposal fee. A good source for information on local collection centers is Earth 911 ( or 1-877-EARTH911)

And what happens to the used oil? Over half of the used oil, over 380 million gallons, is recycled annually in the U.S. Used motor oil can be re-used in one of three ways - re-refined, reconditioned, or reprocessed. This reduces the need to refine new oil from imported crude oil as well as the environmental problem.

Currently, 14-percent of used motor oil is re-refined. Re-refining removes impurities so that it can be used as a motor oil base stock again. However, re-refining is a sophisticated process consuming considerable quantities of energy, which in the U.S. often means burning petroleum fuel in power generating plants. Thus, motor oil made from re-refined basestock typically costs more than new oil made from virgin crude oil. It is a hard sell to convince consumers to buy a product is perceived to be “used” that is more expensive than a “new” product. Properly processed re-refined motor is as good as new as long as it meets the same API/SAE specifications as virgin motor oil.

Today, re-refined motor oils can’t make it on its own so it requires government subsidies. For example, the U.S. Postal Service, with the largest vehicle fleet in the U.S. uses motor Oil made from recycled basestock for "at least" 20-percent of their needs. The result is that its operating costs have increased significantly. Some experts say recycling used motor oil into more motor oil will not be economical until crude oil exceeds $50 or, maybe $60, per barrel. Hmmm, maybe we will see more re-refined motor oil on sale.

Used oil can be reconditioned by filtering through a commercial filtration system or otherwise cleaned. This removes insoluble impurities so the oil can be used again and again. Although the cleaning process does not always bring the oil back to its original quality, cleaning, when combined with replenishment of additives, extends the oil’s life for use in some industrial applications.

Used oil can be suitable as a fuel in, for example, a power plant with little or no treatment or used for heating. If some treatment is needed it usually involves removing water and particles so that the oil can be burned and used as fuel to generate heat or electricity. Today, 74-percent of all oil re-use in the U.S. is for burning in turbines, incinerators, power plants, cement kilns and in manufacturing asphalt, steel, etc. Two gallons of used motor oil can generate enough electricity to power the average home for one day. An additional 11-percent of used motor oil is burned in specifically designed industrial space heaters especially in colder climates. The country's approximately 75,000 space heaters use about 113 million gallons of used oil per year. It should not be used for home heating.