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Developing a Used Oil Recycling Program

Minimum Measure: Illicit Discharge Detection and Elimination

Subcategory: Trash and Illegal Dumping

Photo Description:  Used oil can be disposed of at a waste collection facility, where it will be collected and later sent to a recycling facility


Used motor oil is a hazardous waste. It contains heavy metals, contaminants and dirt discarded by the engine during use. Fortunately, used motor oil is dirty rather than worn out, so it can be recycled. However, motor oil is toxic to humans, wildlife and plants. As such, it should be disposed of at a local recycling or disposal facility. Before disposal, used motor oil should be stored in a plastic or metal container with a secure lid, rather than dumped in a landfill or down the drain. Containers that previously stored bleach, gasoline, paint, solvents, or other household chemicals should not be used. Used motor oil should never be mixed with other substances such as antifreeze, pesticides, or paint stripper.

Used motor oil is recycled several different ways. It can be reprocessed into fuel to heat and cool homes. Reprocessing is the most common method of recycling used oil in the United States. Approximately 750 million gallons of used oil are reprocessed every year and marketed to asphalt plants, steel mills, boilers, pulp and paper mills, cement/lime kilns, and a number of other places. Motor oil can also be burned in furnaces for heat or in power plants to generate electricity for homes, businesses, or schools. It can be blended for marine fuels, mixed with asphalts for paving, or used to fuel industrial burners. Used motor oil can be used in specially designed municipal garages, space heaters, and automotive bays. Finally, used motor oil can be re-refined into lubricating oils that meet the same standards as virgin or new oil. All of these methods of recycling help to conserve valuable energy resources.

When establishing oil recycling programs, municipalities should provide the public with the proper informational resources. Programs should encourage the public to contact local service stations, municipal governments, the county government office, or the local environmental or health departments if they are unsure where to safely dispose of their oil. The public can also call 1-800-RECYCLE or contact Earth's 911 Exit EPA Site for more information.

The EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response has launched the "You Dump It, You Drink It" campaign to promote the proper management of used motor oil. See EPA's Used Oil Management Programs for free materials written in English and Spanish.

Municipalities also need to address oil filter recycling in their recycling programs. Programs should encourage the public to check with local collection facilities to determine whether oil filters are recycled locally. The Filter Manufacturers Council, established in 1971 to monitor regulatory and technological developments affecting the oil industry, can also be used as a resource for the public. The Council operates a hotline (1-800-99-FILTER) and a website Exit EPA Site to provide information about state regulations and companies that transport, recycle, and process used oil filters. If oil filters are not recycled locally, empty filters should be wrapped in newspaper and disposed of with regular household waste. Oil filters must always be drained of oil, whether recycling or disposing of the filter. The public should also check with trash collectors to determine if their state allows disposal of oil filters in landfills.


Motorists who change their own oil can be classified as do-it-yourselfers. Those that pay someone else to do it can be classified as do-it-for-me's. Do-it-yourselfers change their own oil because they want to save money, they enjoy it, or they take pride in the quality of their own workmanship. According to a survey, more than 30 percent of motorists change their own oil. Between 43 and 62 million gallons of used oil were collected and recycled by do-it-yourselfers in 1997 (API, 2000). Therefore, it is important that do-it-yourselfers recycle their used oil. Do-it-for-me's have their oil changed at service stations, quick lubes, and other places; they should check if their mechanic recycles motor oil.

To make recycling motor oil more convenient for the do-it-yourselfers, oil recycling programs should be located throughout all communities. Although oil recycling programs are appropriate in any community, urban areas are in particular need of such programs, as more motor oil is used in these areas to maintain a larger number of vehicles. Therefore, oil recycling programs should heavily target urban areas and provide more facilities for recycling oil.


Oil recycling programs can be implemented easily throughout the country. Two types of programs are currently in use - drop-off locations and curbside collection. Drop-off locations include service stations, recycling centers, auto parts retail stores, quick lubes, and landfills. These locations are effective because they are familiar, permanent, and conveniently located. Such permanent sites are easily publicized during recycling programs. Curbside collection programs allow consumers to place their oil on the curb for collection, as they already do with their other recycling and trash. While this program is convenient, it requires a hauler to collect the oil. Oil recycling programs that use drop-off locations for collection are implemented by local governments, state governments, service stations, quick lubes, auto parts retailers, oil processors, or any combination of the above. Curbside collection programs are implemented by municipal or private waste haulers, municipal or private recycling haulers, or a combination of any of the above.

Increasing Public Awareness. Communities should increase public awareness of proper used oil disposal and recycling. This can be achieved by creating websites, displaying used oil collection sites in automobile repair shops and auto parts stores.

Local Recycling Programs. Many states, cities, and communities have developed their own recycling programs. For example, the California Integrated Waste Management Board sponsors a used oil recycling program that develops and promotes alternatives to illegal oil disposal. This is accomplished through a statewide network of collection opportunities and outreach efforts that publicize and encourage used oil recycling. The program provides useful information for the public, including collection locations, certification information, proposed regulations, used oil facts, and other resources. For information about this program see California's Used Oil Recycling Program Exit EPA Site website.

Other areas with used oil programs that can be used as models for communities trying to develop their own programs include:

  • King County, Washington Exit EPA Site;
  • Kansas City, Missouri Exit EPA Site;
  • Clark County, Ohio; and
  • New Carrollton, Maryland.

    National Recycling Programs. In 1991, the American Petroleum Institute (API) established a used oil collection and recycling program. The program works to educate the public about collecting and recycling used oil, making oil collection more convenient, and ensuring that this valuable resource is handled appropriately. See API's Used Motor Oil Program Exit EPA Site website for more information. API has also developed model legislation based on Florida's program to encourage the collection and recycling of used oil. Florida's legislation requires states to create a special fund to help cities and towns establish used oil collection facilities. Additionally, it emphasizes the importance of educating the public about oil recycling. Guidance for developing collection programs, in the form of API's model legislation as well as guidebooks and publications Exit EPA Site is available.


    Recycling used motor oil benefits the environment, the public health, and the economy. Oil improperly disposed of in landfills, ditches, waterways, or dumped on the ground or down storm sewers can migrate into surface and ground water. It takes only one gallon of oil to contaminate one million gallons of drinking water (USEPA, 2000). Oil can also seriously harm aquatic plants and animals. Oil particularly affects submerged vegetation because oil blocks sunlight, hindering photosynthesis. Motor oil causes 40 percent of the pollution in America's waterways (Mississippi DEQ). If that motor oil were recycled, water pollution could dramatically decrease.

    One gallon of re-refined motor oil can produce 2.5 quarts of lubricating oil. It takes 42 gallons of crude oil to produce the same 2.5 quarts. It takes three times the energy to refine crude oil into lubricating oil than it does to re-refine used motor oil. Recycling the 180 million gallons of recoverable motor oil thrown away each year would produce enough energy to power 360,000 homes annually. Finally, if the 1.3 billion gallons of oil wasted each year by the United States were re-refined, it would save 1.3 million barrels of oil a day (Mississippi DEQ).

    Recycling used motor oil protects public health. Oil circulating through a car's engine collects rust, dirt, metal particles, and a variety of contaminants. Engine heat can also break down oil additives, producing acids and a number of other substances. Exhaust gases and antifreeze can also leak into oil when the engine is in use. The toxicity of oil greatly increases when any of these substances mix with oil. Public health can be seriously threatened if oil is disposed of improperly or if it enters the water or air.

    Recycling used motor oil benefits the economy. Oil is a valuable resource that can be re-refined and reused in combustion engines. As oil is a non-renewable resource, it will become increasingly difficult to find new reserves in the future. Therefore, recycling will provide time to develop alternative fuels and lessen dependence on foreign oil suppliers.


    Oil recycling is limited by the potential for contamination. Oil mixed with other substances, such as chemical residues contained in storage containers, is considered a hazardous waste. In such cases, collection facilities are responsible for disposing of this hazardous waste and abiding by environmental regulations. Another limitation is public education. While oil recycling programs can be effective, it is often difficult to effectively educate the public and convince them of the importance of oil recycling. Municipalities can address this limitation by including recycling information in utility bill inserts, newspaper ads, and mailings. That some might find it inconvenient to take their oil to a recycling facility is a last limitation. People may not have time to drive their oil to a facility, especially if the facility is difficult to find. When this happens, people are more likely to improperly dispose of their oil.


    According to a 1998 survey, 30 percent of motorists change their own oil. Of those, 12 to 15 percent admitted improperly disposing of their oil. While most people claim that they put the oil in the trash, 3 to 5 percent said they dispose of their oil in a storm drain system. Based on this survey, more than half of do-it-yourselfers improperly dispose of used motor oil. A 1994 survey reported that of the 28 percent who are do-it-yourselfers, 17 percent reported improper disposal. These statistics can be improved through better advertisement of recycling facilities and by making recycling more convenient for the public.


    Costs for used motor oil recycling programs vary depending on whether a community has already established similar types of recycling programs. Major costs associated with oil recycling programs include costs for advertising and oil collection. While service stations and collection facilities often allow the public to drop off their oil free of charge, these facilities must pay a recovery service to collect and dispose of their accumulated oil. One such recovery service, US Filter, charges an annual fee of $179 for unlimited waste oil removal, or a $79 fee for one-time oil removal, from service stations, small garage owners, and other types of collection facilities. Costs for programs also vary, depending on whether oil is collected by curbside pickup or at drop-off facilities. As fees vary, check with a local recovery service for more specific information about oil collection fees.


    API. 2000. Used Motor Oil Collection and Recycling: Benefits of Recycling. American Petroleum Institute. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    API. 2000. Used Motor Oil Collection and Recycling: Overview of Drop-off and Curbside Used Oil Collection Programs. American Petroleum Institute. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    API. 2000. Used Motor Oil Collection and Recycling: Starting a Collection Program. American Petroleum Institute. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    CIWMB. 2000. Used Oil Recycling Program. California Integrated Waste Management Board. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    FMC. 1998. How to Recycle Your Filters. Filter Manufacturers Council. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    Kansas City, Missouri. No date. Mid-America Regional Council Environmental Programs Solid Waste Management. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed December 5, 2005.

    King County, Washington. No date. Local Hazardous Waste Management Program in King County. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed December 5, 2005.

    Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. Changing your oil: An earth-friendly guide for do-it-yourselfers. []. Accessed December 5, 2005.

    Mississippi DEQ. No date. Proper Disposal of Motor Oil. Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality. Pollution Prevention Program, Jackson, MS.

    Nebraska Cooperative Extension. 1997. Handling Wastes: Used Oil and Antifreeze. Nebraska Cooperative Extension NF94-196. []. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    Schueler, T., and C. Swann. 2000. Understanding Watershed Behavior. Watershed Protection Techniques 3(3): 671-679.

    USEPA. 1994. Collecting Used Oil for Recycling/Reuse: Tips for Consumers Who Change Their Own Motor Oil and Oil Filters. EPA 530-F-94-008. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste, Washington, DC.

    USEPA. 1996. Managing Used Oil: Advice for Small Businesses. EPA530-F-96-004. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste. []. Accessed December 5, 2005.

    USEPA. 2000. Used Oil Management Program. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste. []. Accessed September 15, 2005.

    Washington State Department of Ecology. 1991. Automotive Waste and the Do-It-Yourselfer: How to Reduce, Recycle and Dispose of Automotive Wasters Properly and Avoid Toxic Releases. Publication #91-BR-12. Washington State Department of Ecology, Olympia, WA.


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    Last updated on February 19, 2014