Oilcan Blues: Who Takes the Old Stuff?

Times Staff Writer

Question: You have mentioned in past columns that used engine oil should be disposed of properly. Where do you properly dispose of it? Several service stations I have asked have said they have to pay someone to haul it away and they wouldn’t accept it. I have quite a lot of it just sitting.--J.L.

Answer: Millions of Americans are in the same fix, trying to figure out what to do with dirty motor oil stored in empty milk jugs and plastic pails in their garages. Used motor oil is recognized as a potential cause of cancer, and containers now carry warnings to avoid contact with skin. Obviously, that’s difficult when you are lying underneath your car changing your oil, but the point is that dirty oil needs to be treated carefully.

In years past, service stations or garages would accept used motor oil from individuals, because they in turn sold the oil to recyclers. But as the cost of virgin motor oil has declined along with the cost of all petroleum products, the market has turned around. Now, service stations must pay to have the old oil hauled away, and most are unwilling to accept oil from individuals.

The motor oil industry recognizes that increased federal and state regulation of disposal and recycling of motor oil is inevitable. With all the toxic waste problems in the country, dumping motor oil onto the ground or dumping it with the garbage is no longer acceptable.


The California Waste Management Board reports that in 1986 alone, 77.4 million gallons of used motor oil was unaccounted for. Only 55.4 million gallons were collected and presumably disposed of properly.

The federal government has stepped up regulations applying to old motor oil. In addition to the warning labels, the government is considering a requirement that retailers provide for recycling. States are also becoming active. In some localities, used motor oil is now officially classified as a “hazardous waste.”

In California, for example, the state Legislature has just approved a bill that attempts to create a new market for recycled oil. The bill, which is awaiting the governor’s signature, would require state agencies to buy the motor oil containing the highest percentage of recycled oil. Under the bill, the state could pay a 5% premium for recycled oil over the cost of all-virgin motor oil. In addition, all local governments, including school and transit districts, would have to use recycled products if the cost were at least equal to virgin motor oil.

If motor oil becomes a valuable commodity, then once again motorists may find that service stations will be willing to accept used motor oil. Until then, however, there are recycling centers that will accept your dirty oil. You can locate a recycling center nearest you by calling the Waste Management Board’s recycling hot line at (800) 553-2962.


Q: We have purchased a used mini-van, which has no air conditioning. We are thinking about having it installed, but we have heard good and bad things about this. Would you advise against it?--L.L.

A: It has been so hot this summer, I don’t think you have much choice. I am not aware of any service record that suggests that after-market air conditioners are of poor quality. In many cases, the after-market equipment is made by the same half-dozen manufacturers as the original equipment.

In the case of imported cars, virtually all air conditioning systems are installed after the cars arrive in the United States, often by air conditioning shops that you can go to yourself.

The important thing is to make sure your mini-van’s engine cooling and electrical system is set up for air conditioning. In most cases, vehicles with air conditioning equipped at the factory have cooling and electrical systems identical to vehicles without air conditioning, so there isn’t a problem. But that’s not always the case.


You should look for a reputable air conditioning garage to assist you in choosing the type and brand of air conditioning equipment and recommending whether changes are needed in your car. Try to find a shop from your own mechanic. Or check local dealerships to see who they have install air conditioning in their new cars.

Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.