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Oilís Well That Ends Well

by Kristine Bradof

This article originally appeared in the July 1992 issue of the Wellspring newsletter, published by the MTU Regional Groundwater Education in Michigan (GEM) Center, now the Center for Science and Environmental Outreach at Michigan Technological University.

If you choose to recycle only one type of common household waste, then, arguably, that material should be used motor oilóespecially if your goal is to avoid contaminating water supplies. One gallon of motor oil dumped on the ground, down a storm sewer, on a gravel road, or into the garbage may pollute a million gallons of water. Not only that, used motor oil is a valuable resource! One gallon of it can be rerefined into 2-1/2 quarts of motor oil equal to or better than new oil in quality, while it takes 42 gallons of crude to make the same amount. Up to 98 percent of used oil can be reused as a lubricant, fuel, or asphalt extender (Courtright, 1990).

According to the U.S. EPA, about 200 million gallons of waste oil are drained from vehicles by do-it-yourselfers each year in the U.S. Yet only 10 to 15 percent of that amount is recycled. "If all used oil were recycled, the U.S. could save over one million barrels of oil a day, reducing dependence on imports" (Courtright, 1990). In Michigan alone, an estimated 11 million gallons of used motor oil were disposed of improperly each year during the mid-1980s, while only one million gallons were recycled (Watson et al., 1988).

Most used motor oil is collected in our region by four companies with branch offices in Minnesota, Wisconsin, or the Upper Peninsula: Oil Services, Inc., Rock Oil Refining, Inc., Safety-Kleen Corp., and U.P. Environmental Services. Each company picks up oil in its service area at no charge as long as a minimum of 100 to 250 gallons is collected. The oil is tested for contaminants, such as antifreeze, gasoline, solvents, or water. Contaminated oil may be rejected, or fees may be added to cover special processing.

Rock Oil reprocesses several million gallons of used oil per year, 90 percent of which is burned as industrial fuel in EPA-regulated steam boilers (Dave Feemster, 1992 interview). A small percentage, the cleanest oil, is rerefined into lubricating oils. Oil Services sells reprocessed motor oil, which is then burned for energy recovery or added to asphalt. They collect about 5,000 gallons per year from the Houghton County Transfer Station (Renee Wood, 1992 interview) and 2,404 gallons were collected in the first ten months of Marquette Countyís Household Hazardous Waste Collection Program (Lucille Scotti, 1992 interview).

Several hundred thousand gallons of used oil collected by U.P. Environmental Services each year are rerefined in Chicago or burned (Rick Riedy, 1992 interview). Safety-Kleen rerefines 75 million gallons of used motor oil each year into 10W30 and 10W40 motor oils (some of which is used by the U.S. Postal Service), but because of low oil prices, they have lost money on this part of their operations (Phil Melzark, 1992 interview). However, Safety-Kleen, which claims to be the "world's largest recycler of contaminated fluid wastes," also recycles antifreeze, lacquer thinner, and parts-cleaning solvents. Processed oil filters, floor absorbents, waste paint, and other contaminated fluids are blended into supplemental fuel for cement kilns. Kmart and United Parcel Service (UPS) are the primary participants in Safety-Kleenís "We Care" recycling program in the western Upper Peninsula. Rock Oilís two-year-old antifreeze recycling program has processed several thousand gallons to date (Dave Feemster, 1992 interview).

Oil-filter recycling programs are recent additions at Oil Services, Rock Oil, and Safety-Kleen. Legislation in Minnesota mandated such programs by prohibiting disposal of oil filters in landfills. Drained oil filters retain 44 percent of the oil they contain when full. Crushed filters still hold 12 percent, according to a study by the Iowa Waste Reduction Center. The oil recycling companies currently charge $75 to $159 per barrel of crushed or uncrushed filters. Most garages charge an extra $1 for oil changes and accept filters from do-it-yourselfers for the same fee to cover their recycling costs. The most advanced filter recycling methods separate steel, paper, and rubber. The cleaned steel can be sent to a smelter, while the paper and rubber is blended into supplementary fuel for cement kilns, which the EPA acknowledges as the best available technology, according to Safety-Kleen.


Courtright, M.L. 25 Oct. 1990. Used Oil: Don't dump it, recycle it. Machine Design, vol. 62. pp. 81-86.

Watson, L, P. Kakela, J. Stoneman. 1988. Used Oil Recycling. MSU-CES Extension Bulletin, WM-06.