Recycling Your Car's Oil (And Other Parts): What's the Right Way to Do It?

You might find the proper disposal of old parts and fluids a dilemma, especially if you like to do your own car repairs and maintenance. Automotive fluids are highly toxic and can’t just be put in the garbage or poured down the sewer drain. Where do you get rid of these toxins in a way that does the least harm to the planet and your neighborhood? Read on: 

Oil and oil filters. Improperly dumped motor oil can leach into soil and cause irreparable ground water contamination for years. If you do your own oil and filter changes, collect the dirty oil in a plastic jug that has a tight-fitting cap. Milk jugs or juice bottles work fine, but don’t use metal containers or plastic containers that have been used for other automotive fluids. Several companies re-refine used motor oil for use as an inexpensive lubricant for industrial applications. Bring the oil to a service station or “quick lube” shop — preferably no more than a week after changing the oil. If used oil sits for long periods, oxidation will occur and the oil cannot be as easily re-refined to recycled motor oil. Most franchise shops will accept small amounts of used oil at no charge. Some community curbside recycling programs will pick up used motor oil. Oil filters are also recyclable—the plastic can be recycled and the metal base can be reused. Make sure you drain as much oil from the oil filter before bringing it in, and wrap it in a small plastic bag. 

Coolant. Never run a hose through your radiator to clean it out. Antifreeze is an extremely toxic substance to animals and fish — children and animals may be attracted to its sweet taste — and it can contaminate soil and water. Instead of running hose water through your radiator, it’s more environmentally friendly to drain, run for a few minutes filled with distilled water, drain, and refill again with the proper mix of coolant. Catch all of the coolant drained, and bring it to a recycling center. Coolant can be purified and recycled for reuse. Again, most service stations or “quick lube” shops or dealerships recycle coolant and will accept small amounts at no charge. 

Batteries. According to the AAA, 99 percent of typical lead-acid batteries can be recycled, and proper disposal is especially important because of their high toxicity and potentially explosive contents. The organization says that about 95 percent of batteries are currently being recycled through remanufacture, although that leaves about five percent that are being improperly dumped in landfills. The lead in batteries is an extreme toxin that can leach into groundwater. Upon the purchasing of a new battery, auto repair shops and auto parts stores should accept your old battery for recycling and be willing to accept any other old batteries that you might have. 

Replaced car parts. Most auto recyclers (formerly known as salvage yards or junkyards) keep an inventory of parts, and send used parts upon request to companies that rebuild or refurbish them. Some companies just use the scrap metal for the manufacture of new parts. Recycled metal uses about 50 percent less energy than metal production from ore. Bring any used car parts to an auto recycler. Most will be glad to accept them, if only for their scrap-metal value. 

Tires. Improperly disposed-of tires can leach petroleum compounds and other toxins into the ground, contaminating water supplies. Tread-bare, used automotive tires have few uses, although some see new life shredded into noise- or energy-absorbent compounds. Other tires are exported as a fuel source in countries with less-stringent emissions laws. Bring used tires to a tire store or service station. With a new-tire purchase, shops are expected to recycle your old tires, although if you don’t make a purchase there may be a small charge. 

Plastics. The recycling of plastic parts in automobiles is still a frustrating endeavor, even to auto recyclers. New cars might have as many as 15 different types of plastic, and each type needs to be separated before it can be recycled. Check the recyclability number, which should be indicated on the back of the plastic piece, and call your local recycling center. 

Other fluids. Brake, transmission, and power steering fluids are also toxic and need to be stored, not dumped, and brought to a service station or lube shop for recycling or proper disposal. Keep each type of fluid separate, and always label the jugs after draining to remember what it is. According to Brad Slater of the Automotive Recyclers Association, “One of the biggest obstacles in the recycling of automotive fluids is cross-contamination of different fluids, such as when people change their oil and collect it in the same jug as their coolant.” 

Gasoline. Gasoline is highly flammable, it’s toxic with just skin contact, and it can contaminate soil and water. If you ever need to drain your fuel tank or part of your fuel system, make sure to store the gasoline in an approved container. If you suspect that the fuel may be contaminated, bring the container to your area’s hazardous waste collection site for proper disposal.  

For information on how to find your community’s hazardous waste collection site, contact your local government or call 800-CLEANUP (800-253-2687).
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