Here’s How to Dispose of Motor Oil Without Causing an Environmental Incident
The slick rundown on everything you need to dispose of motor oil.
I once had an oil pan with an “Exxon Valdez” sticker. Partly a joke, it reminded me to be careful when changing motor oil. Put the pan in the wrong place, drop the oil filter, or get distracted, and before you know it, you have an oil slick on your driveway.
Motor oil covers everything in a thin, slippery coat. It's an ideal lubricant for your engine but horrible for the environment. The chemical compounds in motor oil poison plants, wildlife, and contaminate soil and groundwater. It takes years for the chemicals to break down naturally, which is why it’s illegal to dispose of motor oil anywhere except approved locations.
At the risk of sounding risque, The Drive’s crack team knows how to handle fluids and lubricants. We’ve shown you how to dispose of old gas and get rid of antifreeze, and now we’ll show you how to dispose of motor oil.
Motor Oil Disposal Basics
Estimated Time Needed: Drive time to an approved dropoff location
Skill Level: Beginner
Vehicle System: Engine
Why Should I Recycle My Used Motor Oil?
Besides the environmental benefits, motor oil can be reused. It is re-refined, processed into fuel, or recycled to make other petroleum-based products. Everything from lubricants, like gear oil and hydraulic fluids, to oil-based paints and stains are manufactured using recycled oil.
Recycling motor oil is less expensive than crude oil refinement. The used oil is not worn out, just dirty. According to the EPA:
- One gallon of used motor oil saves up to 42 gallons of crude oil.
- Recycling oil requires less energy for re-refinement.
- EPA testing shows recycled and re-refined oil performs just as well as newly refined oil.
- Some fleet maintenance facilities save money by arranging to reuse the same oil that they send to be re-refined.
Working with motor oil can be dangerous and messy, so here’s exactly what you’ll need to keep oil out of your eyes, off your hands, and in control.
- Safety glasses
- Coveralls (optional)
Everything You’ll Need To Recycle Motor Oil
If you change your own oil, you already have everything you need to recycle motor oil. The steps are the same, but there are several tools that help make the recycling job easier.
- An oil drain pan that doubles as a storage container
- A punch to drain the oil filter — this spring-loaded one is easier and safer to use than a hammer and screwdriver
- Something to contain the oil filter like a plastic grocery bag or gallon-sized baggie
- A funnel, if you put the oil in old plastic containers
- Shop towels
Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)
How to Recycle Your Motor Oil
Recycling motor oil is easy and convenient. There are plenty of places that will take your old oil, as well as empty oil bottles and used oil filters. But first, there are a couple of steps to prepare everything for disposal.
- First, do not pour anything else in with the used motor oil. That includes used antifreeze, transmission fluid, or other chemicals. You’ll contaminate the oil, making it unusable.
- Collect the used motor oil in a sealed container. If you use a regular, open oil pan, pour the oil into a clean plastic container or back into the empty oil bottles.
- Drain the old oil filter. Use a punch to put a hole in the dome of the oil filter, or just let it drain into your pan. Once it finishes draining, put the oil filter in a plastic bag and seal it. Even an “empty” filter can hold several ounces of oil, enough to make a mess.
- Round up your empty oil bottles. Don’t throw them away or put them in your home recycling bin.
- Clean up any spills or oil stains on your garage floor or driveway.
- Finally, load everything into the trunk of your car and head to one of the following places.
Take Your Used Motor Oil Back to the Store
The easiest way to recycle oil is to take it back to the store where you bought it. Almost every auto parts store recycles motor oil, oil filters, and oil bottles.
Take Your Used Motor Oil to Your Municipal Hazardous Waste Facility
Municipal recycling facilities offer disposal for hazardous waste, like paint, household chemicals, and motor oil. Check your local county or municipal website to learn what materials they accept, locations, and hours of operation.
Take Your Used Motor Oil to a Garage or Oil Change Facility
Auto repair garages and oil change facilities will accept your used oil. They may charge a small disposal fee, but it’s a lot cheaper than paying a fine for illegal dumping.
Check online if you can’t find a place near you that accepts used motor oil. You can search for “oil recycling near me” or visit Earth911.com to get a list of nearby locations.
Everywhere You Shouldn't Dispose of Motor Oil
If you’re tempted to pour your old oil down the drain, empty it in a backyard weed patch, dump it near a stream or river, or flush it down the toilet, don’t — seriously, just don’t.
Motor oil is highly toxic. It coats anything and gets into everything. According to the EPA, the oil from one oil change:
- Contaminates up to 1 million gallons of drinking water
- Creates an oil slick over two acres in size
- Contains toxic chemicals and heavy metals
- Takes years to biodegrade
Even if you don’t care about those things (and you should), the EPA labels oil dumping a criminal discharge of a hazardous substance. Negligent violations carry a one-year sentence and up to $25,000 in fines for the first offense. Become a repeat offender, and you’ll face up to six years and over $100,000 in fines.
Pro Tips on How to Dispose of Motor Oil
Like changing the oil itself, disposing of motor oil is an easy process, but these tips will make it easier by saving time and trouble:
- Do not put your container on the seat in your car or even on the floor. One drop of oil will stain your upholstery. Then it will stain everything it comes in contact with, like your best pair of 12-year-old jeans.
- If you transport your oil in the old oil bottles, use a cardboard box or plastic tub to hold them upright.
- Use a plastic tarp or trash bag to line your truck before loading your used motor oil.
- Get basic, unscented kitty litter. Kitty litter works great to soak up oil and clean up spots. And, if you buy it in a plastic container, you can use that container to recycle your oil.
FAQs About How to Dispose of Motor Oil
You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers!
Q. Can you put motor oil in the garbage?
A: No, do not throw oil in the trash, in the garbage in, or in any other type of garbage collector. If oil is not disposed of properly, it will end up in a garbage dump, where it will contaminate the ground.
Q. What happens if you pour motor oil on the ground?
A: Don’t do this. Oil is toxic and requires special handling and disposal. Oil will kill nearby trees and vegetation if poured into the soil, as well as potentially contaminate the water.
Q. How do you remove motor oil from soil?
A: Follow these steps:
- Sprinkle sawdust, clay kitty litter (not the clumping kind), coconut husks, or a commercial oil-absorbing product on the stain.
- Allow the absorbent materials to work on the oil for 24 to 48 hours.
- Repeat with fresh absorbent materials as needed to remove any remaining oil.
Video: Don’t Toss That Used Motor Oil!
This short video from Napa Auto Parts shows why it’s important to dispose of your motor oil properly and how it’s recycled.