A close-up of oil being poured into a car engine during an oil change.

What Happens with Old Oil, Anyway? All About Oil Disposal and Recycling Methods

There is no getting around it, and you have most likely had this completed dozens of times already – an oil change. You know the same old routine: Bring your vehicle in, let the pros do the work, and drive off a short time later (if you are lucky). But have you ever wondered what happened to the old oil that was removed from your automobile?

Oil is a precious resource used to drive your reliable transportation and power economies, and that ultimately impacts industries worldwide. Its widespread use, however, also generates a large amount of used oil. Automobiles are not the only things that use oil – industrial machinery and other sources do, too.

Old oil is not something that you can throw away. There are many challenges facing the disposal of old oil, and how it is collected, stored, and disposed of is of great importance now and moving forward toward a more sustainable future.

The Dilemma of Old Oil

When your vehicle is on and running, the lubricating oil inside of it naturally degrades due to the pressure, heat, and various contaminants contained therein. As time goes on, this causes the oil to become less effective at protecting your engine’s moving components and reducing friction. This used – or “old” – oil needs to be replaced to maintain your engine’s longevity and efficiency. Otherwise, you put your engine and its many essential components in jeopardy and could reduce your vehicle’s fuel efficiency.

There are some problems inherent with used oil since it is a serious environmental hazard. Used oil contains contaminants such as dirt, heavy metals, and various chemicals that can be harmful to the environment – to both ecosystems and human health – if not properly disposed of. This is why safe disposal or recycling of used oil is pivotal in preventing water and soil pollution and the strain placed on such a finite resource as oil.

How Used Oil is Collected and Stored

“Okay,” you say, “I get that used oil is bad… But how does it get collected and stored?” When used oil is collected from a vehicle, it gets drained out of the engine. Mechanics must be careful when storing this oil to prevent spills and leaks. They put the used oil into an oil drum, which is a specially designed-container that is then transported for additional processing. These oil drums need to be well-maintained and sealed, which prevents leakage that could cause environmental contamination.

Treatment and Re-refining of Used Oil

It is entirely possible to treat and re-refine used oil, which is something that only some people are aware can be done! Oil can undergo a rather extensive process that removes contaminants, resulting in a base oil that is as good as new. The base oil gets sold to blenders, who add their additives to generate motor oil once again.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) certifies re-refined oil the same way it does completely new lubricants. As long as re-refined oil meets API standards, vehicle manufacturers allow you to use it per their warranty statements. That is right; major automakers realize the importance of re-refining oil and are backing this highly regulated process.

Using re-refined oil is, of course, good for the environment. It is also competitively priced with standard motor oil. You get to help preserve a nonrenewable resource, protect the environment against dangerous pollutants, and show your commitment to a cleaner and more sustainable environment via proper waste management and recycling. Certain states, including California, are closing the recycling loop and promoting the use of re-refined oils, while many government bodies and government-run institutions are adopting the use of re-refined oils for their fleet vehicles. Of course, the everyday citizen is encouraged to do their part, too!

A close-up of an oil warning on a car's dashboard with the words "service engine soon" glowing in red text.

Recycling and Repurposing Old Oil

There are other ways to repurpose and recycle your old engine oil. Energy recovery is one potential method. Various industrial processes – such as power plants and cement kilns – can burn used oil for fuel. This lessens the demand for other fossil fuels, although they must be closely monitored and regulated since they release emissions.

Asphalt production is another potential use for used oil since some of it can be mixed into asphalt used in road construction. This enhances the properties inherent in the asphalt itself and acts as a binding agent. It is a practical addition to the asphalt mix and gives us strong road surfaces on which to drive. Next time you drive down a newly paved road, imagine your used engine oil could be in there somewhere!

As already mentioned, a lot of industrial processes can use old oil. It works as a lubricant in various processes in which high-quality oil is not required. For example, manufacturing settings can use it to lube their hinges and chains. What is more, some used oil can be used in oil-based products as a feedstock. Industrial oils, certain types of rubber, and rust preventatives can contain old oil.

Are we moving toward a more sustainable future for used oil?

There are several major challenges inherent in moving forward with repurposing and recycling used engine oil. All contaminants must be removed for successful re-refining and other forms of recycling to take place. Industry standards are indeed relatively high, and a failure to meet these standards results in poor-quality oil that cannot be used.

Furthermore, there are issues involving enforcement and regulations. Recycling and proper disposal of engine oil are subject to stringent regulations to prevent harm to the environment. It is imperative that these regulations are effectively enforced so that individuals and businesses follow disposal ethics and practices.

Of course, public awareness is another issue at play. Many people need to be made aware of how important it is for us to dispose of and recycle used oil responsibly. There are a lot of environmental hazards linked with improper disposal that many people do not know about.

Finally, it is essential to think about economic viability. Re-refining and recycling used oil are cost-effective but rely on technologies and processes that will cost money to develop and refine. Widespread adoption of these methods is impacted by economic viability.

A smiling mechanic is shown performing an oil change on the engine of an open car.

After the Oil Change

The next time you take your vehicle to get an oil change, think about where that old engine oil might go. If you feel brave enough, ask your mechanic how they dispose of it and if they ever take it to be recycled or re-refined. You might just be surprised by the answers that they give to you. And if not, you can be the one to politely inform them about how old engine oil can be repurposed and recycled.

The truth is that used oil poses quite a few challenges that require the everyday driver, various industries, and governments to work together. There are sustainable solutions that help us conserve a resource as finite as oil, transforming it from an environmental hazard to a helpful resource.

A more sustainable future is possible. As automakers strive toward that future with advancements in electric technologies, we everyday consumers can do our part to learn about potential solutions such as re-refining and recycling old engine oil. Together, perhaps we can indeed make a positive impact on the economy and the environment.