Eartha Steward: Summit County recycling center helps stem 200 million-gallon oil spill |

Eartha Steward: Summit County recycling center helps stem 200 million-gallon oil spill

Eartha Steward
Special to the Daily
Summit County has a special facility to recycle used motor oil.
High Country Conservation Center |

Dear Eartha,

What happens to the used motor oil I drop off at the Frisco recycling center?

— Drew, Frisco

Great question, Drew. Our grandparents may remember when waste oil was a major environmental issue in the U.S. Back in the day, folks poured waste oil into nearby streams. Unfortunately, much of the oil changed at home still ends up in sewers or drains. The EPA estimates that more than 200 million of the 1.3 billion gallons of waste oil generated annually in the U.S. are dumped illegally or accidentally into sewers, streams, drains and landfills. Improper disposal of used motor oil pollutes streams and lakes, because it is insoluble, persistent and contains heavy metal and toxic chemicals. Motor oil in our local watersheds threatens fish, waterfowl, insects and aquatic life. According to CalRecycle, one gallon of used oil can foul the taste of 1 million gallons of water.

So what happens to properly recycled motor oil? In general, used motor oil can be reprocessed into fuel that can be used in furnaces, in power plants to generate electricity or blended for marine fuel. It can also be re-refined into lubricating oils that meet the same specifications as virgin motor oil.

In Summit County, used motor oil is one of the only recyclable materials that stays in Summit County for reuse. The waste oil is utilized to heat two facilities at the SCRAP (Summit County Resource Allocation Park), also known as the landfill. One of these facilities is Summit County’s Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF, which is just an acronym for the recycling center. At the MRF, Summit County processes and sorts recyclables, then bales the materials before sending them to their destination to be made into recycled products. Summit County has four waste-oil furnaces to heat the recycling and maintenance facilities at the SCRAP. These heaters save the County more than $6,000 in heating costs annually.

Sounds pretty sweet, right? A closed-loop system in which local waste oil is reused just a few miles away — thus avoiding greenhouse gas emissions to transport the oil — to heat our local recycling facility. So what’s the catch? It turns out we do have a bit of a challenge, and that’s contamination of the waste oil that’s collected at the recycling centers. Used motor oil can be dropped off at the Frisco and Breckenridge recycling centers, or taken directly to the SCRAP.

Problems arise when residents don’t drop off clean used oil. Yes, we know “clean used oil” is a bit of an oxymoron, but we’re talking about more than just the dirt accumulated in the oil during its first use. Waste oil needs to be dropped off in a closed container, preferably the container that the oil was purchased in. When oil containers aren’t sealed, it often ends up with rainwater on top or spills all over the truck when being transported to the SCRAP. Imagine how well your car engine would run with an oil and water mix, and the same problems occur when the mixture ends up in the waste oil burners at the SCRAP. Another common issue is that residents put oil in containers that held another substance — large yogurt tubs are one example — and then said substance ends up in waste oil burners. If you don’t have the original oil container, a clean plastic milk jug with a lid will also work.

We are very fortunate in Summit County to be able to conveniently recycle used motor oil. But to ensure that the oil truly gets reused, we all need to make efforts to reduce oil contamination at the recycling sites. For questions on how to properly recycle oil or any other recycling questions, feel free to call the High Country Conservation Center at (970) 668-5703 or visit

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at

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