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Sustainability Is about Product and Production Process

In past articles I’ve discussed the benefits that add up when end-users – like truck fleets or agri-businesses – make smart, sustainable choices managing procurement and operations. Specifically I’ve focused on engine oil, a ubiquitous petroleum product that is only beginning to receive the attention its widespread use warrants. (To learn more about the advantages of choosing engine oil made from re-refined base oil over engine oil made from virgin crude, read my past contributions.)

But it’s worth taking a step back and placing these end-user benefits, such as extended intervals between oil changes and the peace of mind ensured by using products that meet American Petroleum Institute (API) specifications, in a larger context.

Every year, the United States consumes approximately 25 percent of the total worldwide demand for lubricating oils. In that same time frame, the US produces 1.1 billion gallons of used engine oil (UEO), half by the transportation sector and half by industry.  Of that 1.1 billion, approximately 880 million gallons is recovered for re-use, with the rest unaccounted for and likely disposed of improperly, damaging the environment.  The majority – approximately 70 percent — of what is recovered is burned as an industrial fuel.

The US lags behind other countries in the percentage of UEO that is reclaimed and re-refined, even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists re-refining as the most preferred environmental option for UEO. In contrast, Europe re-refines three times the percentage of total used oil available compared to current US numbers and is far more advanced in the areas of reuse and source reduction.

This begs a two-fold question: what are the economic benefits incentivizing European countries to invest in re-refining capacity and, equally important, what are the energy and environmental effects?

There are a number of economic and environmental benefits associated with the re-refining of UEO, which include:

  • Lowered aggregate dependency on foreign oil;
  • Reduced environmental externalities, including traditional pollutants and greenhouse gases;
  • Creation of a reuse and renewal cycle of hydrocarbons; and
  • Enhanced energy efficiency during the re-refining process itself.

The re-refining process removes depleted lubricating additives and contaminates such as sediments, metals, dirt, water and unburned fuel. Because the molecular composition of the lubricating oil itself stays intact, no matter how many turns through an engine, re-refined base oil can then be used to make engine oil again, and again, and again. The sophistication of the re-refining technology along with a state-of-the-art additive package determines whether the final product will meet stringent industry certification requirements.

True sustainability isn’t just about a final product, but includes the way that product is made and is used throughout its entire life cycle. The re-refining industry is growing in the US because its energy and environmental advantages coupled with product durability make it a ripe area for investment. Catching up to our European counterparts, both in terms of absolute production and consumption numbers, is a priority for the public and private sectors. High-performance engine oil made from re-refined base oil is a win-win for everyone – users, producers and the environmental stakeholders. That’s true sustainability.

John Q Wesley II is CEO of Universal Lubricants, a manufacturer and distributor of premium engine oil. Through its Closed Loop Process, the company collects, re-refines, blends, packages and redistributes its own oil including the ECO ULTRA line—without ever losing guardianship within the chain—in an infinitely repeatable, sustainable cycle. Learn more at www.universallubes.com. John can be reached at jwesley@universallubes.com.

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