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Filtering through the waste

October 11, 2010
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Bins of recycled newspapers, aluminum cans and bottles are commonplace to most home and business owners. But for Scotti Lee, owner of a fast lube business, a bin full of oil filters presented to him a worthwhile recycling opportunity.

It was the 1980s, before the green movement was ubiquitous and part of the American lexicon, and Lee was starting up Oil Change Express in New Castle, DE, and he wanted it to be environmentally friendly. The reason had nothing to do with peer pressure, state regulations, or even to save money — it was because he didn’t want to think that oil and oil filters his company used would seep into the water and fill up landfills.

“I didn’t want to be someone who helped contaminate the environment. I didn’t like that there was no mandate for the oil filters and they could just be thrown away,” Lee said, “it just wasn’t part of who I was.”

Around five years later, Lee knew he wanted to recycle the oil and oil filters used at his company. But, he saw beyond that and decided to come up with a way to reuse them. It didn’t hurt that he had the full backing of the then Delaware governor, Tom Carper, who was also Lee’s neighbor.

Lee came up with an idea to have the oil filters hot drained and crushed into steel cubes and then used by steel mills to make plate steel.

“I went to [Carper] and said, ‘I have an idea to keep oil out of water and landfills, and with your blessing I would like the state to help make it happen.’”

Gov. Carper gave it the go-ahead and Lee got to work.

His idea starts with removing the oil filters, “punching” their sides and tops, and then “hot draining” them (see sidebar) for four hours to remove as much excess oil as possible. The filters are then placed in 55 gallon drums and carried away via a recycling center. Afterwards, they are taken to the Delaware Solid Waste Authority (DSWA) where they are placed on a conveyor belt so that garbage and anything other than the filters can be removed.

A machine called a “Kruncher” pushes out the excess oil and compacts the filters in cubes of steel that are then taken to a foundry. From there the cubes are taken to a steel mill where they are used to make plate steel.

Lee also took his magnanimous plan a step further and enlisted the DSWA to get prisoners involved in the process.

“I told the state that if they bought the equipment, I will go into the prisons and give the prisoners a job to do that will not only teach them a skill, but give them a job to do that they can feel good about,” Lee said. The prisons, however, were filled up after several months and the DSWA had to find help elsewhere.

His plan works in the state of Delaware because it’s small and easier to work within, but Lee says his plan could be applied in large cities as well.

“My plan is pretty simple. The state of Delaware is so small, it works. But it could work in New York City, Chicago, any big city,” Lee said.

Lee’s advice to others who would like to start their own program is to first understand their state and county recycling regulations entail. He also recommends looking into Job Corps training programs to find workers so that they can not only learn a trade, but help the environment at the same time.

The practice of recycling filters and even oil is nothing new to the lube business. For instance, Ron Sloan, president of Hoffman Development Corp., a company which operates carwash and Jiffy Lube locations in and around Albany, NY, said that oil from the used oil filters is reused at his facilities.

“We use the waste oil from vehicles to heat the properties, to heat the water for the carwashes, and to heat the concrete,” Sloan said. Sloan’s locations also recycle the filters using a recycling pick-up service.

Lee, who’s other businesses ventures involved vending machines and a diving/salvage company, got into the fast lube via self-teachings. He already knew how to change oil after years of racing cars and he knew a lot about production and quality control. He read everything he could about the fast lube industry to best ready himself for a successful business.

One thing that Lee believes in is supporting his employees and his employee’s children when it comes to their report cards. Offering $10 for each A, $5 per B and $1 per C, Lee believes poor schooling is a huge problem in the United States.

The exact difference his program, which is now run by the state, has made to the environment has not been tallied, but it has made a difference to Lee.

“It just made sense to me,” he said. “I have always been pro-environmental and everything I do, I want to be environmentally sound.”


Debra Gorgos is the managing editor of PC&D. Her first day with the magazine was January 1, 2008. Feel free to email her at dgorgos@carwash.com.

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