Re-refined oil is starting to gain a much greater presence in the auto industry, and major auto rental companies are partnering with re-refined motor oil providers to close the car care loop and make sustainability a priority.

In the past, fleet managers didn’t allow use of re-refined oil in maintenance operations based on concerns about product quality. A study funded by the California Integrated Waste Management Board in 2006 found that the majority of fleet managers surveyed held that opinion.

However, the finished product is an American Petroleum Institute (API) approved Group II base oil that is equivalent in quality and price to most virgin oils, which suggests its lack of use is partially due to misinformation about the product.

Re-refined oil is used motor oil that gets cycled twice through a refining and blending process. Oil simply gets dirty; therefore, the re-refining process restores the damaged product through a chemical pretreatment, followed by a distillation process that removes all contaminants. A refiner then hydro-finishes the oil, a procedure that eradicates any remaining impurities. Lastly, the refiner puts it into a blender that combines the re-refined oil with a fresh additive package.

“There are obviously environmental relations associated with using re-refined materials — and a lot of large companies have sustainability efforts — but companies also have new vehicles and they have to protect their engines,” said John Wesley, CEO of Universal Lubricants, a closed-loop provider that collects spent motor oil in their own trucks, re-refines it, and then sells it back to the marketplace. “Our re-refined oil meets all the OEM requirements and is API certified. You must meet certain specifications to get the API seal on your material, and recycled materials don’t get any special waivers.”

Some companies have caught on to this trend, utilizing Universal Lubricant’s services to do the job. Regardless, only 10% of the 1.3 billion gallons of used oil is re-refined each year.

In the original days of oil re-refining, dirty oils were ran through a sock that removed some heavy particles; however, it did not create a usable product for vehicles. But now, with the advent of hydro-treating capabilities — such as high heat and pressure, and the ability to introduce hydrogen into oil — refineries are finally able to create a product comparable to virgin-produced base oils.

“I’d say you’re able to create a better product than virgin because you’re starting with a better product on the front end,” Wesley said. “Crude oil by its very nature is extremely nasty — only 2% of a barrel of crude ultimately winds up as base oil. Re-refined oil skips that starting [stage] with a cleaner initial product.”

One of the first auto rental companies to partner with Universal Lubricants was Enterprise Holdings, which started using this re-refined oil in May 2011.

Universal Lubricants collects the spent motor oil of Alamo Rent A Car, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and National Car Rental vehicles and proceeds to re-refine the waste fluid, thereby transforming what was once unwanted discharge into its API-certified Eco Ultra high-performance motor oil. This green motor oil then circles back into rental fleet cars and light trucks, completing a self-sustaining cycle that repeats itself over and over again. 
According to Wesley, just like the re-refined oil’s quality, the price is equal to the price of virgin motor.

“All things being equal and all things being the quality of the product, the specifications that it meets, the price points, the service level … Enterprise is not paying a premium for this product,” Wesley says.

The majority of used oil is either improperly disposed of or burned as an industrial fuel and is gone forever, both of which are damaging to the environment, according to Wesley. Universal Lubricants and Enterprise Holdings are working together to reverse this trend. And they’re doing it without sacrificing quality or coinage. 

Universal Lubricants has further plans to offer its recycled products in the retail market as well. “It’s our understanding and our hope that this gains a foot hole in the retail environment, and that products like Eco Ultra will find their way onto the shelf,” Wesley said. “Retailers are all about giving customers a choice, and when all things are equally priced, I think we’ll see customers moving toward a green product.”

Universal Lubricants got its start in 1929 and has spent many years improving its oil refining technique, making it more efficient and environmentally friendly, while keeping up with new technologies that make recycling oil possible.