The Importance of Oil Recycling

Don't Let This Valuable Resource Go Down the Drain!

Used oil and petroleum products drums to be recycled.
Matt Meadows/Photolibrary/Getty Images

Whether you are discussing the environmental impacts of oil drilling or debating regarding the need for a nation’s oil independence; the issue of oil is always a hot topic of discussion in both political and environmental forums. While so much discussion and debate are devoted to crude oil, the destiny of petroleum-based lubricants and comparatively more ordinary engine oils often goes mostly unnoticed.

Nonetheless, by driving cars, lubricating squeaky wheels, mowing lawns, and using many other gadgets and tools, people produce thousands of gallons of waste oil every day.

Benefits of Recycling Oil

As in the case of recycling other materials, waste oil recycling has a number of environmental benefits. The recycling or proper disposal of oil prevents the likelihood of pollution on both dry land as well as in waterways. EPA notes that the environmental damage caused by used oil results from improper disposal. When oil finds its way into waterways, one spilt gallon can pollute a million gallons of water. Again, recycling only two gallons of waste oil can produce adequate electricity to run an average household for around 24 hours. If all used oil improperly disposed of by do-it-yourselfers were recycled, it could produce enough energy to power 360,000 homes each year or could provide 96 million quarts of high-quality motor oil.

Re-refining used oil takes only about one-third the energy of refining crude oil to lubricant quality. It takes approximately 42 gallons of crude oil to generate 2.5 quarts of high quality lubricating oil whereas only one gallon of used oil can produce the same amount of finished product.

Key Oil Recycling Terms

By understanding some basic terms, we can also illustrate how used oil moves back from end user to processor through the reverse logistics process.

These terms include:

  • Generator – businesses or do-it-yourself (DIY) participants who generate used oil. Smaller businesses or DIY participants typically deliver used oil to collection points. Waste oil is generated from many different sources including automobiles, electric generating stations, manufacturing companies, auto shops, do-it-yourselfers, mining/smelter companies and HVAC companies.
  • Transporter, references a company that collects used oil from more than one used oil generator and transports the used oil to a storage/transfer facility.
  • Storage Tranfer Facility is the location where used oil is held prior to shipment to the processor.
  • Processor refers to the commercial operator which provides physical or chemical processing  to alter the used oil in the creation of fuel oil, lubricants or additional oil-derived products.

What Happens to Recovered Used Oil?

  • Reportedly, some 200 million gallons of used oil is improperly disposed of each year in the U.S.
  • Around 380 million gallons is recovered, amounting to about one-half of actual consumption.  
  • 14 percent of used oil is re-refined
  • As much as 74 percent of all oil recovery in the U.S. is used for burning in cement kilns, incinerators, turbines, power plants or manufacturing facilities.
  • About 11 percent of used motor oil is burned in specifically designed industrial space heaters.

Resources of Interest

  • American Petroleum Institute (API)  American Petroleum Institute offers a voluntary licensing and certification program known as Engine Oil Licensing and Certification System (EOLCS). Qualification in this program authorizes engine oil marketers who meet specified requirements to use the API Engine Oil Quality Marks. It was originally launched in 1993 as a cooperative effort between the oil and additive industries and vehicle and engine manufacturers Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors, as well as those represented by the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association and the Engine Manufacturers Association. 
  • BC Used Oil Management Association  The British Columbia Used Oil Management Association (BCUOMA) is one example of a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the recovery of lubricating oil, oil filters, oil containers, antifreeze and antifreeze containers. Funded through Environmental Handling Charges (EHC), the directive of BCUOMA is to facilitate and increase the collection, management and recycling of used oil and used antifreeze materials in British Columbia. The organization stresses that the EHC is not a government tax, but a user-paid fee utilized to fund the collection of used oil and other products covered by its mandates at roughly 530 collection facilities and over 4,000 generators province-wide.