Oil industry collaborates to ease environmental impact

Approximately 4.5 million lubricant containers end up in New Zealand landfills every year. Now oil companies want to do something about it.

Realising the power they had to alter this alarming statistic, major oil companies in New Zealand united to form The Waste Lubricant Container Working Group and solve an industry wide problem.

The group had one goal – to set up a product stewardship scheme that would see lubricant containers recycled and reduce their contribution to landfills.

Two years on, that goal is now getting closer to a reality and the scheme is expected to be up and running in 12 months’ time.

Oil Intel technical expert Bob Foothead says the scheme is about the industry recognising the impact it has on the environment and the social responsibility it has to deal with it.

“We have to be greener than green,” says Foothead. “The oil industry itself does not have a reputation for being environmentally friendly, so we need to utilise all we can to ensure we are acting in the very best interests of the environment.”

In the past, lubricant packaging has been notoriously difficult to recycle, due to the oily residue left inside even when empty.

This detracts from its value as a recycled material and has meant many have ended up in the ‘too-hard basket’ also known as the landfill.

The group is working to change lubricant containers from being a wasteful problem, to a valuable circular commodity.

As a company, Oil Intel has already had a recycling system in place for its own containers for a year now, but Foothead says the industry-wide stewardship scheme will encourage more companies to get involved and make the whole process a lot more efficient.

Under Oil Intel’s current scheme, around 70% of the recycled plastic stays in New Zealand to begin new lives as bollards or other heavy-duty items.

One advantage oil companies have when it comes to recycling, is that the plastic is of very high quality, says Foothead.

“[The oil] has to be in a very rigid plastic container, it can’t spill or crack. The biggest problem with oil is that it has to be chemically cleaned. That does make it a little more difficult for companies to recycle. But we have to do it because we can’t afford to continue with the issue we have got now.”

The Lubricant Container Stewardship Scheme will work similarly to the successful agrichemical container and Resene paint tin scheme, which diverts difficult-to-recycle containers from the landfill to be cleaned and reprocessed.

The proposed system will see containers returned to designated locations across the country where they will be collected and taken to the appropriate place to be chipped, solvent cleaned and recycled into other products.

However, even with the systems in place, Foothead emphasises that for the system to work, the consumer still has an important role to play.

“ We [the industry]acknowledge we have an issue that we need to deal with and we are working very hard to get a resolution to that.

“We can only do so much. We can set things up, but once we’ve sold the product we rely on people to actually bring those empty containers back. We can go part of the way but there are several links in the chain and an important link is the community returning these empty containers.”

Foothead says there has been fantastic cooperation by all involved, working to drive the project to where they are now.

“It’s always difficult when you’ve got competitors in the market, but it’s gone fantastically well from our first meeting. Everyone has worked collaboratively to put us in this position, which is good not only for the industry but certainly good for New Zealand’s environment.”

The working group is made up of of Allied Petroleum Ltd (Mobil), Castrol NZ Ltd, Farmlands Co-Operative Society Ltd (Gulf Oil), TransDiesel Ltd (ENI Lubricants), Z Energy and Oil Intel Ltd (Total Lubricants).