What becomes of that empty bottle of motor oil after it has been emptied? In the United States, chances are it will find its way into a landfill. The country lacks the infrastructure to properly dispose of the plastic containers and recycle them. A coalition of leading lube manufacturers and packaging companies aims to change that.
Plastic recycling is a growing industry, and high-density polyethylene—used to make lubricant containers—is among the more commonly recycled plastics. HDPE is a thermoplastic polymer also used in milk jugs and water bottles because of its strength and ability to withstand higher temperatures.
But used lube bottles present a singular challenge: they contain residual oil that can affect the recycling process and make empty containers less valuable. This has made recycling of the containers virtually nonexistent. The majority of used lubricant containers end up in landfills.
As a non-biodegradable material, plastic poses numerous threats to the environment and wildlife. Plastic that enters waterways or oceans can harm marine life through entanglement, ingestion or exposure to chemicals in the plastic. On land, chemicals can seep into the soil or groundwater. Oil also presents dangers on its own, whether it is ingested by animals, finds its way into the soil or seeps into water sources.
These are among the challenges facing the newly formed National Lubricant Container Recycling Coalition, which has a goal of establishing a program that reuses and recycles lubricant containers. The coalition’s five founding members are lube blenders Castrol, Valvoline and Pennzoil-Quaker State and packaging companies Graham Packaging and Plastipak Packaging.
Heading the coalition is Tristan Steichen of ALO Advisors, an environmental consultancy based in Bradenton, Florida. Steichen has worked in sustainability consulting for nearly 30 years.
While the group announced its formation in March, it has been over a year in the making. One of the packaging members of the coalition, which already had a working relationship with ALO Advisors, asked the consultancy about facilitating a summit on lube container recycling. A meeting with companies—including the founding members—ended in an agreement that a coalition should be formed. “Quite frankly I think this thing would have gotten off the ground last year if not for the pandemic,” Steichen said.
Steichen acts as a project manager of sorts for the coalition. “The role changes over time based on what we’re focusing on,” he told Lubes’n’Greases. “In the beginning, what we’ve been trying to do is define what this space is and who the players are.” Other tasks have included developing a website and defining what the coalition is trying to accomplish.
On a technical level, the coalition is searching for tangible solutions to the lack of lube container recycling. It wants to develop pilot projects, and to do that it must figure out who might be involved in implementing those projects, what the industry looks like and what legislative issues are influencing this issue. “We need to look at that and understand what our position is and how we’re going to do that,” Steichen said. “I’m guiding that process and connecting with all the members during that process.”
The coalition meets every two to three weeks and is divided into three main groups. The governance board consists of a representative from each participating company and makes decisions for the coalition. A technical working group is involved with developing pilot projects and understanding the marketplace, the stakeholders and the value chain. A communications group is tasked with drafting press releases, creating content and managing social media channels. Different employees from each company work in different groups.
“We’ve structured ourselves so as we grow and get into more technical spaces we might have to draw on different resources within the companies, or if necessary outside of the membership for expertise on, say, a research project,” Steichen said. “It gives us flexibility over time to draw upon what we need to.”
The coalition also hopes for more collaboration with such organizations as the Petroleum Packaging Council, an association that provides support for lube packagers and brands. “The PPC hasn’t been able to meet in over a year,” said Kevin Whitehead, vice president of the PPC’s executive board and category manager for industrial and automotive products for Plastipak. The PPC Fall Meeting in August “will be the first chance we have to collaborate with the coalition face to face,” he said.
The research done in the early stages of the coalition’s existence suggests a difficult task ahead. The NLCRC estimates that 4.5 million tons of lube containers are purchased in the U.S. every year, and Steichen believes “not much, if any” is recycled. Some recyclers may have a relationship with a packaging company, he continued, and it is not for used containers, but rather a pallet of containers that may have been damaged before they were sold.
“The industry has been working on this issue for years and not making a lot of headway,” said Whitehead, who is also a member of the NLCRC’s governance board and works with the coalition’s technical and communications groups.
On a state and federal level, no programs are in place to handle these containers. California has a detailed waste oil collection program, but even that instructs users to throw away the container.
“We haven’t come across any situation where containers are being recycled,” Steichen said. “The quantities are very small. It’s not happening on a commercial level or a mass level.”
That makes collection the first and perhaps most important step in any program. As Steichen put it: “If you’re trying to collect a material like this and process it, you can’t do it in dribs and drabs. You need to create a significant amount of supply.” A recycler will not invest in a program if it is unable to collect a certain amount of supply. “It’s one of the reasons we struggle recycling anything in the U.S.,” he said.
The current recycling infrastructure simply rejects used lubricant containers, Steichen said. HDPE bottles that held oil do not conform to current standards, meaning they cannot be processed and will end up in a landfill. “The big issue is collection,” he said. “It’s not known what consumers do right now post-use, both commercially and residentially. We know some of them throw it into municipal waste or the dumpster or put it into their recycling bin and don’t realize it’s not being processed anyway.”
To help tackle the issue, research devoted to the economics and logistics of collection is needed. That includes determining what the collection points are, whether they be retail facilities, municipal recycling facilities, quick lube shops or all of them. Then entities willing to pick up containers and transport them to recyclers must be found.
“There’s an entire collection and transportation infrastructure that needs to be put in place,” Steichen said. “Municipal or private infrastructure can’t pick up petroleum-impacted waste because there’s contamination and Department of Transportation requirements.” He pointed to other entities, like rerefiners, that could help in collecting lube containers. “They’re already picking up oil and filters, maybe a natural addition would be to pick up the containers with it,” he said. “There’s an association that deals with agriculturally impacted containers, too.”
Whitehead noted that in Michigan recycling products like soda bottles is “second nature.” He said, “You take your beverage bottles back to the store, put it in the machine, collect the deposit, and then those materials are sent to recyclers.” He suggests that the NLCRC can help make something similar a more widespread practice for consumers and recyclers of lube containers.
There are two recycling processes to consider: mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. The latter method, Steichen said, has less of an issue dealing with containers that have residual oil in them because it converts the plastic into a monomer.
Mechanical recycling, on the other hand, differs. “You have to come up with solutions that clean the oil off of the plastic to an acceptable level for reuse for mechanical recycling,” Steichen said. During this process, materials are melted down, run through an extruder and then mixed with other plastics.
That process, Steichen said, is being used for empty lube containers in parts of Canada. The recycled plastic is used in pallets and post-construction material, like piping.
Steichen said the coalition was not limiting itself yet to trying to reuse the plastic for more lubricant containers. “What we’re trying to figure out is how much residual oil is okay for different types of applications,” he said. “Maybe there’s a bit of residual oil in the plastic through mechanical recycling which is perfectly acceptable for making it back into an oil bottle, or making it into a five-gallon pail, or making it into corrugated piping. But for other uses you have to use chemicals because you have to get it back to its base. The end use influences the kind of recycling you’re going to do.”
Even the color of used lube containers can present a problem. There is a market for recycled HDPE, which currently hovers around one dollar per pound, though the numbers are constantly fluctuating. But it is easier to recycle a clear milk jug than a motor oil bottle pigmented with brand colors, like Castrol’s green bottles or Pennzoil’s yellow ones. Clear HDPE can be turned into any color, giving manufacturers more flexibility.
“We hope some of these other oil companies—not just large ones but even the smaller regional ones—will see the importance in the recycling of oil bottles and want to participate.”
— Kevin Whitehead, Plastipak
“Color in a recycled market is everything,” Steichen said. “That’s not just in packaging. That happens with non-plastic material like metal, too. Color becomes a problem post-recycling, though there are some technologies to deal with that.”
To accomplish its goals, Steichen and Whitehead agreed, the coalition needs more members. “We hope some of these other oil companies—not just large ones but even the smaller regional ones—will see the importance in the recycling of oil bottles and want to participate,” Whitehead said. Steichen added that some companies have taken notice of the group and have been in touch about membership.
“I think if you ask any company in the PPC or any companies dealing with retailers, they’ll tell you this issue is important,” Whitehead said. “I don’t see how these companies can’t join the NLCRC and have the aspirations that they do for recycling. Joining can help us find solutions quicker.”
The coalition has already put together pilot projects that will go to its governance board for approval. Namely, there are two comprehensive lubricant container recycling processes that have been drawn up. These projects involve 100 or so locations in a few different markets with different geographies and political environments. They cover collections, customer engagement, transportation of materials to a recycling location, processing the material and delivering it for secondary use. There is also a small research project.
If these are approved, Steichen plans to present them in August at the PPC’s Fall Meeting in Lake Tahoe, California.
Will Beverina is assistant editor for Lubes’n’Greases. Contact him at Will@LubesnGreases.com