Fluid Paths: The promises and challenges of recycling oil and coolant

by Eric Berard

MONTREAL, Que. — Everything old can be new again, even when it comes to oil and engine coolant. There’s an entire industry focused on re-refining such fluids, presenting an opportunity for fleets to realize financial savings along with the benefit of a clear environmental conscience.

Depending on the province where you’re based, you either pay for such collection services or get them for free. A good way to familiarize yourself with the different used oil management services providers would be to visit the web pages of the Used Oil Management Association of Canada (UOMA). Your province’s environment ministry should also be able to direct you to resources in that regard. For example, Ontario is not a member of the above-mentioned groups but has its own recycling structure under the Ontario Waste Management Association.

Fleets can also take advantage of fluctuating crude oil prices to get a better deal on their waste oil collection. When the crude oil prices go up, used oil becomes more valuable to refiners. “It’s a free market. I would encourage fleets to call and discuss with at least five or six collectors to try and get the best pricing,” says Jean Duchesneau, general manager of Quebec’s Société de gestion des huiles usagées (SOGHU) and UOMA Atlantic.

Value comes from the fact that used oils — including those found in transmissions, differentials and hydraulic systems – can be re-refined through distillation to separate impurities from the worthy core product.

Used oil and filters are collected at numerous lube shops, repair garages and fleet maintenance shops.

Along with Safety-Kleen, Veolia is a key player in the Canadian oil re-refining industry with its processing plant in St. Hyacinthe, Qué., which treats more than 72 million liters of used oil per year.

Water is the main contaminant that’s taken out of used oil, along with unwanted fuel and engine coolant; metal particles such as iron, lead or silica; and degraded additives such as the calcium, chlorine, magnesium or zinc used in oil to inhibit corrosion or reduce wear.

“We have a regeneration process similar to conventional refining, with distillation towers,” says Louis Côté, general manager, oil – industrial business for Veolia North America.

While the worn oil is re-refined to produce base oil destined to be blended with new additives and be used once again as a lubricant, filters are taken care of, too. Hefty presses compact the filters, collecting the oil that’s left in them – roughly 33% of their weight – and leaving nothing at the end of the process but 100 to 125 filter batches turned into 57 kg bricks of steel that can be melted and re-used.

The possibility is there, but oil recycling is still a niche market.

A niche market

Recycled oil represents only a fraction of the lubricants used in trucking, largely because of the limited volume of used oil recycled in North America. “Oil regeneration represents a small volume on the market. Virgin base oils coming from crude extraction still have the lion’s share,” says Côté.

Paul Giblett, regional communications director for BP Lubricants USA (Castrol), also refers to availability of the re-refined base stocks but also to “their ability to meet the performance requirements for modern advanced oils – especially in commercial vehicle applications, where operators are looking for long drain, fuel efficiency and the highest levels of protection.”

Giblett adds that Castrol doesn’t currently offer products containing re-refined base oils in North America, but that the company is considering that path as long as re-refined base oil volume, quality and consistency requirements are met.

Should Castrol introduce recycled oil on our market, “any such offering from us would be branded Castrol but would likely have a distinct name, like the GTX ECO line in India,” Giblett says.

In North America, Safety-Kleen offers a re-refined, ready-to-use diesel engine oil branded as EcoPower that meets and exceeds standards such as the American Petroleum Institute’s (API), the company says. The API itself pleads in favor of re-refining on its website: “It [used oil] can also be sent to a refinery that specializes in processing used oil and re-refined into lubricating base oils that can be used to formulate engine oils meeting API specifications.”

Part of the reason why we don’t see more lubricants openly labeled as re-refined or recycled on the market could be fear of bad customer perception towards these products by major oil companies. It’s the classic chicken or egg dilemma.

At the Canadian Fuels Association (CFA), vice-president Carol Montreuil doesn’t think major oil companies are going to be leading the recycled fluid path, either. “[They] haven’t per se been involved in the business of building facilities to recover and refine used oil to produce new oil. Historically, it hasn’t been a core business for them.”

Oil isn’t the only thing that can be recovered from a recycled filter.

Customers want certifications

From what we hear from Canadian carriers, the heavy-duty market seems to be open to using re-refined oil, as long as it has some form of guarantee that it’s safe for a business to do while keeping long drain intervals and protecting against downtime.

“If it [recycled oil] meets the standards of the new oil, sure I guess we’d consider that,” says Darryl Watkins, maintenance manager at Commercial Transport Limited in Lively, Ont.

Michael Forest, maintenance manager at Keystone Western in Winnipeg, keeps an open mind but demands formal commitments. “I haven’t seen any indication anywhere from recyclers that they would put in writing that they would warranty an engine in case of failure,” he says. “I need to meet the obligations of what the engine warranty requires and have the assurance from the oil companies that it meets and exceeds all the necessary requirements to meet those obligations.”

A marketing issue

Canadian Fuels Association’s Montreuil understands Forest’s point of view. “The commercial customers are very specific in terms of performance they expect. They are operating extremely expensive fleets of trucks that they need to protect in terms of putting a lubricating oil that meets all the standards in these motors,” he says.

“It’s a marketing issue where you need to change perception to educate the people about how good the product is, even though it’s been re-refined. You need to educate people that this is not ‘used’ oil. This has been remanufactured to the quality and the standards required by modern vehicles,” Montreuil adds.

Speaking of marketing, Côté underlines that carriers’ carbon footprint is increasingly important to shippers. For that reason alone, the choice of re-refined oils by carriers is a wise business move, he says.

Coolants, too

Similar to recycling motor oil, engine coolant (glycol) is collected and re-refined by a distillation process to produce new fluids that fully meet ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards, says Tom Thompson, a spokesman for Recochem.

From Stettler, Alta., Clear Glycol’s president Calvin Connell explains: “Over time, the [engine coolant’s] inhibitor breaks down due to thermal degradation.” The degraded inhibitor is among the chemicals that are taken out of used glycol and replaced before putting it back in circulation, sometimes under the company’s ClearKool brand name. According to Connell, the use of recycled glycol meeting OEM spec’s can generate savings ranging from 20 to 40%.

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