This year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and the dawn of the modern environmental era. Federal legislation since then has altered the landscape, creating the foundation for decades of environmental progress, and government action spurred the private-sector innovation that has powered historic accomplishments.
In the early 1990s, for example, California brought together an innovative public-private partnership to recycle used oil filters. Monetary incentives were established by the state to promote the collection and recycling of the filters as well as the oil that was drained from the filters. The drained filters, which were exempted from the onerous regulation reserved for hazardous waste, were incentivized to be processed by scrap-metal recyclers.
As a result of this program, a major oil-filter recycling industry came to life in California. It processed the huge volume of used oil filters — more than a whopping 70 million of the devices — produced in the state every year. These activities were carried out in conscientious adherence to California’s strict environmental standards — more stringent than federal laws and regulations.
Where did the used oil filters come from? Mostly from oil-change shops like Jiffy Lube, Valvoline and Pep Boys, and regular gas stations. These enterprises would drain the filters of any remaining free-flowing oil, pack them in 55-gallon drums, and ship them to the recycling centers. The monthly volume of these shipments at times could reach more than 10,000 drums per month, with 200 or more used filters in each drum.
At the recycling centers, any additional oil that dripped out of the drained filters during transit was collected for recycling. The metal casings were shredded and put into the recycled scrap-metal supply chain, to be reused in new metal products. The so-called “filter media” inside the casings (cylindrical, accordion-style paper inserts that trap impurities in a car’s oil) were squeezed of any remaining oil and properly disposed of. On average, more than a million “extra” gallons of oil were recovered per year. The recovered oil eventually would be reprocessed into recycled motor oil or high-grade bunker fuel for ships.
This public-private partnership worked well for years. Unfortunately, a state agency that had helped create the program then took actions that would end it. The Department of Toxic Substances Control declared that if there were the slightest trace of residual oil inside the used oil filters, they could not meet the regulatory standard of “drained” oil filters. This contravened the obvious fact —known to every do-it-yourselfer —that the porous material inside the filters could never be completely free of oil. Nonetheless, the small amounts of oil trapped inside the filters were properly recovered in the recycling process.
As a result of this unreasonable, inflexible, bureaucratic interpretation, the trucks that shipped the drums of used oil filters to the recycling plants were deemed to be transporters of “hazardous waste.” As one could fully anticipate, the transportation companies backed off and stopped shipping the drums to the recyclers. No drums, no used oil filters. No used oil filters, nothing to recycle. Nothing to recycle, no recovered oil.
As a result, the largest oil-filter recycling plants were shuttered. Good jobs held by Californians went away. In a state that has prided itself on its aggressive recycling efforts, very few of these used oil filters are now being managed in California..
Where are the filters going? Most of them are being hauled hundreds of miles to Arizona and other neighboring states, consuming large quantities of diesel fuel and emitting diesel particulates and greenhouse gases in the process. And most of the filters are being compacted into big cubes that few manufacturers are willing to purchase, or are shipped overseas to be melted down, where there are even fewer environmental controls.
Regrettably, the same Department of Toxic Substances Control now has set its sights on one of the few remaining recycling success stories in our state. The department is threatening to brand scrap-metal processing operations involving end-of-life cars, old refrigerators and other appliances, etc., as “hazardous waste treatment” facilities. For a half-century, this process has not been branded with the scarlet letter of “hazardous waste” and all that entails. This threatens to shut down the entire scrap-metal recycling industry, as well—another self-inflicted, and potentially fatal, wound to California’s historic reputation as a leader in recycling. And at a time when jobs and the economy are so obviously in crisis because of COVID-19.
It’s a fact that California’s leadership on environmental issues benefits the nation and the world, as well as our citizens. It would be nothing short of tragic if we were to allow the mechanistic working of governmental regulators to overpower common sense and proven progress.
As we enter the second half-century of the modern environmental era, we Californians must demand that government agencies add value by advancing their mission in a smart way, innovating every bit as much as the remarkable citizens they’re intended to serve.
Winston Hickox was CalEPA secretary from 1999-2003, under Gov. Gray Davis, firstname.lastname@example.org. James Strock was the founding secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency from 1991-97 under Gov. Pete Wilson, email@example.com. They wrote this commentary for the San Francisco Chronicle, where it originally appeared. For additional information about the California metal recycling crisis—and to join the discussion about ways forward—please visit the California Metal Recyclers Coalition.