Kiwi Consortium Tackles Oil Bottle Recycling


Single-use plastic packaging has become a hot international environmental issue, with widespread bans on plastic bags in supermarkets sweeping the world and recent efforts to curtail the use of plastic straws. And, though it has long been considered too difficult and expensive to recycle used oil bottles, lubricant suppliers in New Zealand aim to clean up their act.

An estimated 7 million lubricant and grease containers up to 20 liters (5 gallons) in size are sent to New Zealand landfills each year, plus an unknown number of 200-liter drums. This figure, according to data extrapolated from volumes sold in the country by Chevrons Caltex, includes 2.3 million grease cartridges and more than 2 million 4- and 5-liter packs that can hold 1.4 million kilograms (3 million pounds) of oils and greases, said Adele Rose, founder and CEO of Auckland, New Zealand-based waste solutions consultancy 3R Group.

A year ago, fuel and lube supplier Z Energy approached 3R with the idea of setting up a stewardship initiative to collect oil bottles, after customers started asking how to dispose of used lubricant containers, said Gerri Ward, Z Energys sustainability and community manager.

Rose then reached out to additional lube suppliers and found that many had been grappling with similar concerns. A working group was formed in June 2018 to explore the idea of a voluntary, industry-led scheme to recycle waste lubricant containers by devising processes to collect and repurpose lubricant and grease packaging.

There will definitely be a program. Its very unusual to have an industry very clear about the purpose, to make sure a national stewardship scheme is launched, Rose told LubesnGreases.

Z Energy, Aegis Oil, Allied Lubricants Ltd., Castrol, Farmlands Co-operative, Lubricants NZ, Penrite Oil and Valvoline are all on board to work out how to collect and repurpose discarded oil packaging. The brands sold by these suppliers-including Caltex, Chevron, Gulf, Vertex, Elf and Total-account for an estimated 80 percent of lubricants and greases sold on the South Pacific island state.

Other suppliers including CB Norwood, Fuchs Lubricants, McFall Fuel, Oil Intel,Repco, Supercheap Auto, Transdiesel and Tyreline have also joined the working group, while global players are sending observers or asking to be kept in the loop with updates and reports.

New Zealands lube packaging stewardship scheme provides a roadmap for setting up something similar in other jurisdictions through its appointment of an independent consultant, a call for industry participation, establishing a working group, involvement of companies in the supply chain, enumeration and collection of funding, and setup processes, Rose noted.

Green Sensibility

Waste lube containers are a concern to many residents of New Zealand, an island nation worried about rising sea levels and other effects of climate change.

Indeed, lubricant brands customers raised the question, What do we do with the packaging? said Anthony Hume, who bears the title sustainability champion at Z Energy. He was brought on board at 3R to help provide answers to their environmentally conscious lube and grease customers.

Theres a huge amount of interest and opportunity, said Rose, adding that the schemes focus is attracting infrastructure investment to support the development of processing capacity and end-use markets.

But waste is difficult to tally in the country. Its waste disposal system is made up of managed waste facilities and direct disposal to land on rural properties. Managed facilities incorporate re-use and recycling recovery initiatives that are accessible to 97 percent of the population, but are not used by all, the New Zealand Ministry for the Environment stated in an April 2018 environmental report.

In 2017, there were 426 waste disposal facilities run by local government and private entities across New Zealand. Aside from 45 landfills that pay a waste disposal levy to the Ministry for the Environment, there is no regulatory requirement for facilities to report quantities or types of waste.

We are partway through the collection of [packaging] data, which is based on voluntary declarations from brand owners. To date, we have auditable data for 3,052,177 units, said the invitation from 3R for companies to present to the working group. The overall task, though, is estimated at closer to 1,400 tons of plastic lubricant container waste requiring a solution each year.

Most lubricant packaging in New Zealand is made of high-density poly­ethylene plastic, ranging in size from grease cartridges to intermediate bulk containers. There are pockets of high usage of these containers in forestry, fishing and farming regions, with urban areas being dominated by the smaller sized packaging.

Considering that most lubricant containers are manufactured from high-density polyethylene or metal, both highly recyclable after pre-treatment, this provides the ideal opportunity to capture these resources onshore, said 3Rs Rose.

HDPE has six grades, with lubricant packaging made of the top level HDPE to meet certain packaging standards and be damage resistant, as well as consistent with safe handling of volatile and flammable products.

Oil packaging is all at the highest level, HDPE1, so its valuable in the recycling market, subject to you getting it clean. Eliminating the oil contaminant is the challenge, she added.

HDPE1 can be turned into resin or plastic pellets, chips or grains. The quality of the HDPE deteriorates with each recycling process and depends on the thoroughness of the cleaning. It would likely go from HDPE1 to HDPE2 after its first round of recycling, said Rose.

Lubricants are also supplied in larger metal drum containers for automotive workshops, some as large as 200 liters. Collecting and processing the containers, even if it means just crushing out the air, or debulking, are among the considerations of the working group.

The group has already identified some uses for recycled lube containers, such as using them to manufacture culverts in high-terrain forests, since forestry and agriculture are the main contributors to New Zealands economy.

Taking the Lead

New Zealands place as a world leader in developing a lube packaging stewardship scheme is also due to the culture of one company in particular: Z Energy.

The sustainability stand came about the beginning of the company. We get top-down leadership when it comes to sustainability, said Z Energys Ward.

She noted that the company is aware it is a big part of the problem in terms of carbon emissions and the products it sells. We are solely responsible for 9 percent of New Zealands total carbon emissions just through owning and running the Z brand, Ward said. It means we are at the forefront of leading New Zealands carbon future. We are conscious that the industry will look different in 10 years, and we want to be ahead of the ball in terms of providing alternate solutions.

In 2014, Ward recalled, one of the companys retailers observed, On the one hand, were washing out our milk bottles, but there are hundreds of those one-liter lubricant bottles that we cant do anything with.

Lubricant packaging needs to be tripled-washed, and so it had been put into the too-hard basket, said Ward. Then in early 2018, Ward named Hume as sustainability champion. He was tasked with looking into this: What can we do with the [used lube] bottles?

While Z Energy introduced recycling of other waste at its retail fuel network five years ago, this project of converting used lube packaging wasnt one to tackle alone, Hume emphasized.

Setting Up Shop

In late January, the lubricant packaging stewardship working group ran a two-day pitch fest with local and international companies outlining their area of interest in the development of a recycling program for lubricant containers.

Where we are at the moment is mapping out volume to market by materials type and by size of container, and also by region, to identify where infrastructure is best placed to either debulk or clean, said Rose. The group is also looking at how to move the material around to maximize value and minimize the transportation impact on the environment.

The lube packaging recycling scheme will work hand-in-hand with the 25-year-old lubricant recycling program known as ROSE (Recovering Oil Saves the Environment). They will also collaborate with an oil-filters stewardship program, which sees residual oil from oil filters extracted for rerefining.

Setting up a scheme, of course, costs money. The total cost of implementation is estimated above $2.3 million New Zealand dollars (U.S. $1.6 million), including three stages: $100,000 for design of the product stewardship scheme, $440,000 for the setup and launch and over $1.8 million to be paid by participant companies for the collection and recycling of their lubricant containers.

In recycling any product, the volume of waste easily collected dictates market conditions. The lower the volume collected the higher the price, said Hume. The best way to ensure a coherent and comprehensive solution that uses recycled materials is to develop a sector-wide approach that reduces cost by increasing volume.

The group, however, was knocked back on an application for a government grant that it had designated to fund the launch of the program. Rose said that while the group was disappointed not to get the funding and is considering reapplying, it has turned to the backup plan.

Plan B was that if they didnt get the grant, the industry would find a way of funding that implementation phase themselves, so thats the plan that were executing now, said Rose.

Among the details that need to be worked out is whether to impose a tax to help fund the program. Rose said the group is studying similar setups in Canada and the United Kingdom for ideas and has considered introducing an advanced collection fee, or levy, on new lubricant and grease container sales to raise funds, though it may remain up to each company how it funds its contribution.

These types of financial considerations are subject to anti-trust regulations. In New Zealand, there are guidelines for bringing industry groups together and following competition laws. One rule is that an independent advisor must control money considerations. We also have a legal representative attending working party meetings, noted Rose.

Meanwhile, the working group has provided a forum to take on other industry issues, including participating in an existing oil filter recycling scheme and complying with international labelling standards. Thats a byproduct of a really good product stewardship program, said Rose.

New Zealands lubricants industry said they havent met for over 20 years, and they said, Now that weve met, we have a forum to speak together, and that enables them to progress all sorts of other things.

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