Re-refined oil may be one of the best-kept secrets in the fleet industry. This isn’t because there is a conspiracy of silence; it just hasn’t entered the consciousness of many fleet managers.
But, with the emphasis on sustainability in many of today’s corporations, re-refined oil is perfectly positioned to become “the next big thing” in making fleets greener. At least, that’s the way Safety-Kleen sees it.
In November 2012, the company, which operates re-refineries in Canada and the U.S., gave Green Fleet and a dozen other automotive journalists the opportunity to learn firsthand about re-refined oil.
No Waste, All-Win
In the U.S., there is the opportunity to capture and re-refine approximately 1.3 billion gallons of motor oil annually. Surprisingly — and encouragingly — about 1 billion gallons are recycled nationwide every year.
Mike Ebert, VP – Oil Engineering and Business Development for Safety-Kleen, noted the company hopes to capture more of the 300 million gallons annually that are known to be generated, but not collected, an endeavor that will take the re-refining industry from five to 10 years to accomplish. He added that 1.3 billion gallons are probably the cap on the market.
Still, the company collects approximately 20 percent of the used oil suitable for re-refining in North America. Its facilities — including the 30 acre re-refinery in East Chicago, Ind., the site of the November tour — account for about 60 percent of the North American re-refining capacity.
In 2011, this translated into 200 million gallons of used motor oil collected from a variety of sources, including automobile and truck dealers, automotive garages, oil-change outlets, fleet service locations, and industrial plants. Of these 200 million gallons, 160 million were used to produce high-quality base and blended lubricating oils, which were sold to third-party distributors, retailers, government agencies, fleets, railroads, and industrial customers.
From an environmental perspective, Safety-Kleen’s process has a number of advantages. “The waste is very limited and it’s very efficient to produce,” Ebert said. “It takes about 85-percent less energy to re-refine oil than crude.”
According to Ebert, oil can be re-refined eight to 10 times.
In addition to re-refined oil, the used oil also yields asphalt extender, which is used by the road building and roofing industries. [PAGEBREAK]
Follow the Re-Refining Process
The re-refining process is typically initiated by an outlet, such as a fleet garage, that contacts Safety-Kleen asking for a pickup. The average customer pickup is about 300 gallons.
The used oil is collected by one of the company’s 450 trucks, which operate across North America. The oil is then transported to Safety-Kleen’s re-refinery where a sample is taken and run through 15 tests to determine if it can be re-refined.
If it passes the tests, the used oil is then put through the re-refining process. If the oil is unsuitable for re-refining, Safety-Kleen will find an alternative outlet for the oil, according to Ebert.
The process essentially scrubs the oil of contaminants. The results are startling. In a visual comparison shown during the November tour, it was evident that the re-refined oil is cleaner than crude — and even oil that has been refined for the first time. The re-refined oil was clear as drinking water, while the refined oil had a yellowish tinge (due, in part, to differences in the severity of the refining operation).
Re-refining includes vacuum distillation and hydro-treating. During the re-refining process, contaminants — such as fuel, water, sulfur, and dirt — are removed to leave the refreshed base oil.
This re-refined base oil is then blended with a package of additives to help reduce oxidation and engine wear while protecting against viscosity and thermal breakdown.
Touring the East Chicago facility, it was easy to be impressed with how the 100 or so employees go about their tasks with ordered, clean efficiency. This made sense, since, as Ebert put it, “Spills are money.”
The plant is also well-maintained with two shutdowns each year to clean and repair the various processing facilities.
Evidence of the efficiency of the re-refining process is the plant’s safety record. There hasn’t been any time lost because of accidents for more than 16 years. “Our safety record isn’t an accident,” Ebert said. In fact, safety is evidently a priority with signs and safety equipment readily apparent and available.
The company can ship the finished product via truck, rail, or barge from its East Chicago re-refinery.
Changing Culture of Re-refining
While re-refined oil may not be as commonly known as other types of motor oil, one of the biggest cultural shifts that has occurred is how Safety-Kleen obtains its oil. When the company first started, fleets and other outlets paid it to haul the oil away. Today, Safety-Kleen pays for the used oil.
And, that’s okay with Ebert. “We want oil. We love picking up oil,” he said.
Perhaps the bigger sea change is the growing understanding of re-refined oil. In the “old days,” the label “re-refined” oil was almost a pejorative, evoking images of oil being strained through an old sock, repackaged, and sold to an unsuspecting customer, according to Ebert.
Those days are long gone. As the visual test showed, EcoPower and re-refined oil, in general, is cleaner than oil refined for the first time.
Fleets are embracing re-refined oil as a way to go green and save money. Re-refined oils typically cost about the same as traditional motor oils, but, according to the company, can help fleets significantly lower their carbon footprints and reduce maintenance.
Major fleets using EcoPower include AutoZone, Enterprise Holdings, Veolia Transportation, and Ryder Transportation.
Safety-Kleen Corporate Overview
Founded in 1963 and headquartered in Richardson, Texas, Safety-Kleen has approximately 4,200 employees throughout the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico.
In addition to its re-refinery in East Chicago, it operates a re-refinery facility in Breslau, Ontario. Together, these facilities have re-refined 2.5 billion gallons of used motor oil since 1988.
The company offers other environmental cleaning and waste services. Safety-Kleen was acquired by Clean Harbors in late December 2012. The companies are currently in the process of integrating their services, but Safety-Kleen will continue to operate as a separate subsidiary of Clean Harbors, according to a joint memo from the companies released to Safety-Kleen’s customers at the time of the sale announcement.