By Susan Gallagher
Special to The Times News, © 2000

April 8, 2000

The curtain rises.

Our character lies on his back, the upper half of his body hidden beneath the bulk of a family minivan, jacked up in the backyard. He tightens a small oil filter into the van’s machinery, then slides out from under the vehicle, and stands to survey a nearby pick-up. The truck needs an oil change too, and lately it’s been leaking antifreeze. After having put off the work for weeks, he’ll have to check the radiator and hoses, find the leak, and fix it.

Our character bends to retrieve a plastic basin which holds the van’s four quarts of used oil. He carries the basin over to a back corner of the yard, and empties it into the ground. As the last of the oily muck drips from the basin, he thinks of his wife, and her constant lament over the loss of a few daffodils which used to bloom here. He tells himself this tiny corner of the backyard is a small price to pay for the convenience of discarding oil so quickly. Returning his attention to the old pick-up, our character places the jack, crawls beneath the truck and positions the basin. He loosens the oil pan plug …

The curtain falls.

The bad news is, this little drama is played out daily with only minor variations. And when storm drains and soils become the dumping ground for used motor oil, there is the potential to pollute vast reservoirs of ground and surface water.

The good news is, the above scenario is nowhere near as common as it once was, with recycling options for used oil becoming increasingly widespread and convenient. Oil is just one in a long list of automotive wastes with the capacity to contaminate our water. Spilled gasoline, antifreeze, engine degreasers, batteries, filters, wax products and worn tires all leave the backyard mechanic responsible for a unique array of wastes, and in a pivotal role when it comes to preventing water pollution.

Keeping used motor oil out of ground and surface water is critical for several reasons, not the least of which centers on what the oil contains. As it circulates through a car’s combustion engine, oil can pick up heavy metals, acids and other toxins. Used motor oil contamination in our drinking water supplies poses a real human health threat.

Used oil can be hazardous to plant and animal life as well. Surface slicks reduce the amount of oxygen available for aquatic life, and cause problems for mammals and birds. On land, plants growing in oil-contaminated soil can “bioaccumulate” heavy metals, amassing ever greater amounts of toxins with each passing day. This is especially dangerous when food plants such as farm crops or fruit trees are involved.

Unfortunately, oil-contaminated water cannot be managed at sewage treatment plants, which is why pouring oil down storm or water drains is not an acceptable means of disposal. And the amount of used oil generated by Americans is truly staggering: 600,000,000 gallons annually by cars and light trucks alone. It’s no wonder used motor oil is the number one source of oil pollution in our nation’s waterways.

While there is no truly accurate way to measure, our state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) estimates Pennsylvania’s backyard mechanics are recycling a mere 14 percent of the 11 million gallons of used oil they generate each year. That leaves a whopping 9.5 million gallons unaccounted for, oil that has most likely ended up in our rivers, streams and aquifers.

Yet it doesn’t take 9.5 million gallons to cause big problems. Just one gallon is enough to produce an eight acre surface slick, or contaminate up to one million gallons of fresh drinking water. Thankfully, DEP recognizes the potential problem, and has taken steps to make oil recycling much more practical for the general public.

DEP’s Used Oil Recovery Program encourages service stations to accept used oil from do-it-yourselfers. The program has also set up a toll free number to help the public locate their nearest used oil recycle. According to program coordinator Bill LaCour, the campaign has “had its ups and downs.”

“In the 1980s,” says LaCour, “there were 2,000 garages and service stations (taking oil from do-it-yourselfers). Today there are 880.” LaCour attributes the drop to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) consideration of used motor oil as a hazardous waste in 1985. “Many garages dropped out. They didn’t want to deal with it, until 1989 when the EPA allowed for the oil to be managed as a residual waste instead. We’ve had to work to build the program up from there.”

LaCour sees recycling as just plain common sense. “This is a valuable resource … (recycling) saves virgin oil.” Indeed, producing 2.5 quarts of lube oil takes 42 gallons of crude, or just one gallon of used motor oil.

Repeatedly turning used oil back into lube oil is a process made possible by the fact that oil doesn’t “wear out,” it just gets dirty. Yet only a small percentage is re-refined for use as lube oil. Most salvaged motor oil is burned as fuel, again saving virgin resources. Recycling used motor oil into lube oil or fuel saves millions of barrels of crude each year, reduces our dependence on foreign imports, cuts the risk of spills, buys time in the development of alternative fuels, and helps to end the debate over increased oil exploration in our nation’s wilderness. Many local service stations will accept oil and other automotive wastes from do-it-yourselfers.

This courtesy may be provided as a free public service by both small and large scale service stations, who are often under contract with vendors to haul away such wastes for recycling. Salvage companies throughout the state service most local garages and oil and lube franchises, removing and recycling used oil, oil filters, antifreeze and even oily rags.

Oil filters themselves offer remarkable potential savings in recycled resources. According to EPA estimates, approximately 90 percent of used filters end up in landfills, taking over 17 million gallons of oil and over 160,000 tons of salvageable steel with them. (Three states, Minnesota, Texas and Rhode Island, now make it illegal to dispose of used oil filters in the trash.)

Do-it-yourselfers are encouraged to check with local service stations on filter recycling options, and to “hot drain” all non terne-plated filters before any sort of disposal. Filters can be hot drained by puncturing the domed end, and draining at warm temperatures for at least 12-24 hours. This salvages every available drop for recycling, and keeps that much more oil out of water supplies.

But service stations are not the only available option for do-it-yourselfers. Close to 75,000 used-oil heaters burn over 100 gallons of used oil, while heating automotive bays and municipal garages.

Locally, Towamensing and Lower Towamensing townships will accept used oil from backyard mechanics for use in used-oil burners at their municipal garages. Both townships reap the rewards in less dependence on conventional heating oil. In Towamensing Township, a used-oil burner has been providing partial heat in a 40 foot by 120 foot garage for the past two years. According to Rodney George, the township’s road master, burning used oil has cut the building’s heating bills by two-thirds.

These townships, like any facility accepting used oil, ask that do-it-yourselfers keep the oil separated from other wastes. Oil that has been mixed with water, antifreeze or other fluids must be first separated out before recycling. This makes the process more costly and less appealing to anyone accepting the oil, and may lead to service stations refusing oil from do-it-yourselfers.

Backyard mechanics are encouraged to inquire at local garages about recycling options for automotive products such as tires, batteries and other replacement parts. They can also prevent ground and surface water pollution by performing regular vehicle maintenance. Well maintained vehicles are much less to leak fluids or cause other pollution problems.

As we learn more about the pollution potential of automotive wastes and their effect on our environment, we begin to see recycling as the only long-term, viable option. Thanks to the efforts of many concerned communities, businesses and individuals, recycling is becoming more and more convenient.

The curtain rises.

Our character guides his pick-up into the neighborhood service station, cuts the engine and pops the hood. He examines the radiator, checks the hoses, and is glad to see the truck is no longer leaking antifreeze. He retrieves an oily plastic jug from the pick-up bed, the truck’s five quarts of used oil. He then reaches for the truck’s discarded filter, which has been drained and wrapped in newspaper.

Our character delivers the wastes over to the service station attendant with a friendly “thank you,” and hops back into the truck. He turns the key, puts the old pick-up in gear, and heads for home. Next to him on the seat is a gift for his wife, one dozen daffodil bulbs, ready to plant in a small corner of the backyard … The curtain falls.

DEP’s toll free oil recycling hotline is 1-800-346-4242.

This article is published through the Carbon County Groundwater Guardians Committee. To find out more about the Guardians, e-mail Frank Waksmunski, one of the group’s founding members.