Is Motor Oil a Renewable Resource?

Drivers think more about the gasoline or petrol they pay for at the pump than they do about the motor oil that has to be changed every few months.

But energy companies and environmentalists are focusing on ways to reduce the waste generated by this ubiquitous petroleum product. They’re even researching how the right formulas might significantly boost fuel efficiency.

Tens of millions of barrels of lubricant cycle through vehicle engines around the world each year—U.S. drivers alone produce about 1.3 billion gallons of dirty used motor oil annually. Too much of it—the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates 200 million gallons (757,082 liters)—is dumped illegally each year. Some is “recycled,” but with dubious environmental benefit; it typically ends up burned as a rather dirty industrial fuel source.

But there is another option: motor oil as a renewable resource. It’s possible to re-refine used motor oil, restoring it to “good as new” quality. Then it can be resold over and over again at about the same price per quart as conventional motor oil.

In Europe, about 50 percent of motor oil is re-refined, thanks to regulations dating to 1975 that were revised in 2008, say analysts at Kline & Company, a market research firm based in Parsippany, New Jersey. In North America, only about 10 to 15 percent of motor oil is re-refined. But that story is slowly changing as U.S. companies have begun to see a new market in “green” lubricant.

What Happens to Old Motor Oil?

The U.S. EPA has tried to highlight the threat of illegal used motor oil pollution with its “You Dump It, You Drink It” campaign. The agency estimates that the used oil from just one typical oil change could ruin a million gallons of fresh water.

The EPA also suggests that American do-it-yourself oil changers alone could recycle enough oil for 50 million cars a year if every drop of their old oil was collected at service stations and quick lubes, landfills, recycling centers, or auto parts stores.

Service stations and quick lube centers already recycle the used oil they collect from paying customers, but “recycling” has different meanings. A 2005 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) study estimated that about 80 percent of all oil collected for recycling was burned as an industrial fuel for mills, boilers, kilns, power plants, space heaters, and the asphalt industry. This process gives used motor oil a second life but also produces significant emissions of heavy metals like lead and zinc, according to studies published in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society.

“It’s unnecessary waste and pollution, when used motor oil can be cycled back into engine lubrication,” says John Wesley. “There’s no reason that 200 million gallons being dumped on the ground should ever occur,” he said. “It’s bad consumer behavior and it’s bad business.”

As for burning recycled oil for fuel, Wesley added, “most of the product goes that route but once it’s burned it’s gone forever.

“The highest value is the collection of used oil for the re-refining process,” Wesley said. “That’s why we’re in the business. We want to do the right thing ecologically and there is an economic benefit to doing this as well.”

That economic benefit allows companies like Universal Lubricants to produce re-refined oils that meet American Petroleum Institute and American Automobile Manufacturers Association quality certifications for performance in areas like cold-start ability, rust-corrosion control, engine wear, and high temperature viscosity tests.

Not only are these oils certified to the same standards as “virgin” motor oils, their retail prices are comparable as well.

Making Old Motor Oil Good as New

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