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Keep The Oil From The Soil — Summer 2008 | Out Here Magazine

Take your used oil to your local Tractor Supply store. It’s convenient — and free.

Protect your land and groundwater by recycling used motor oil

By Heather Loveridge
Illustration by Tom Milner

Running a farm — large or small — requires motorized equipment, which, in turn, requires regular oil changes for good upkeep. So, what's best to do with the used oil?

Well, you don't want to simply pour it on the ground. Used oil should never be dumped, burned, poured down the drain, put in the trash, or used as dust suppression on dirt roads because it can leach into groundwater, pollute the air, and reduce soil productivity.

Oil from one oil change can contaminate as much as one million gallons of fresh water, which is of particular concern in rural areas where residents rely on well water.

Unfortunately, consumers improperly dispose of about 185 million gallons of used motor oil each year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.

Decontaminating polluted ground-water is particularly difficult because once it reaches an aquifer — the underground layer through which groundwater flows — it spreads more easily, says Bill Simmons, an extension specialist in soil/environmental education at the University of Illinois.

"The soil itself is actually fairly good at cleaning some of the things we put on the surface," says Simmons, who is co-author of 50 Ways Farmers Can Protect Their Groundwater. "The problem with oil is it's often concentrated in a spot where it's put down and it tends to be difficult for some microorganisms to break it down."

Oil's solubility and flow presents a particular challenge, he says. "It's one of the heavier, denser materials ... in the refinement process," Simmons says. "Oil is so persistent and breaks down so slowly that once it gets into the water it's a real problem. And of course, most of the people in farming areas are on a private water supply so they typically don't have treatment capabilities."

The solution, then, is to recycle. Used motor oil can be reprocessed and used in heating furnaces or in power plants to generate electricity, says the American Petroleum Institute. It also can be re-refined for use again as engine oil.

When you change your oil, drain the oil into a safe, lidded container and drop it, and your used oil filter, off at the nearest recycling facility.

Tractor Supply stores offer free used oil disposal, as do many service stations and large retail stores with auto service departments. That oil is then recycled.

If you're a farmer, there are some additional considerations when recycling oil. Regulations vary from state to state, but generally small farmers (defined as those generating less than 300 gallons a year) are grouped in with household do-it-yourselfers and exempt from their state's environmental protection rules.

Large farmers — those who produce more than 300 gallons of used oil yearly — are required to adhere to state regulations. Check with your state's environmental agency for more information, or log on to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website at and click on the "Where you live" link to find out environmental information about your community.

Regardless of your farm's size, be a good steward of your land and properly dispose of used oil by recycling.

Heather Loveridge is a Georgia-based writer.