While attention to how the automobile industry can reduce its environmental impact often focuses on catchy terms like hybrid, hydrogen, and EV, other segments within the automotive world lie under the radar. New plastics and alloys emerge from R&D departments and design always has an impact on a car’s weight and fuel efficiency. Then there are the lubricants that have a role in extending the life of a car. Most important, of course, is motor oil, the every-3,000-mile routine that we learn when we become car owners.
The manufacturing of motor oil adds significantly to our reliance on fossil fuels. In the United States alone, cars and trucks consume 3 billion quarts of it, requiring about 800 million gallons of petroleum to produce. The vast majority of motor oil (almost 90%) is recycled by retail chains and the do-it-yourself crowd, but just one gallon of motor oil can contaminate 1 million gallons of water. Nevertheless, 85% of that motor oil can be reprocessed and used over and over again, yet currently most recycled motor oil is used only one more time, and is burned off as dirty fuel.
Valvoline, an independent motor oil refiner based in Lexington, Kentucky, insists that it can change the way in which motor oil is used, recycled (or “re-refined”), and reused again and again.
Today Valvoline revealed its new NextGen line of motor oil, which boasts a formula that is 50% recycled oil. The product’s creation is the result of Valvoline’s unique position in the market and a natural disaster that occurred almost six years ago.
Unlike other motor oil manufacturers, Valvoline is not in the oil and gas drilling business–its core business is automotive lubricants. The company, which has reached annual revenues of $2 billion, sources its petroleum from a complex supply chain of other companies’ refineries across the United States and around the world. When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, Valvoline’s supply chain was threatened, and the company was forced to rethink the formulation of its product line.
The journey for Valvoline’s scientists and research has been a long one. Motor oil is one product for which consumers offer little compromise. A car is often one’s second-most if not most expensive purchase, so few consumers will consider a product with which they have no history and therefore, no trust–and that includes a bias against any “green” or “recycled” motor oil. To that end, other companies had launched recycled motor oil products in the past, only to result in failures because of quality or lack of consumer acceptance.
Recycling motor oil may intuitively be a no-brainer, but the facts are that reprocessed motor oil’s quality often varies–also the case of crude oil when it is first extracted. Valvoline’s managers worked with a variety of refineries to ensure a consistent feedstock, eventually leading to today’s NextGen launch.
NextGen is 50% recycled oil blended with Valvoline’s proprietary blend. The company settled on a 50% recycled product because that it what its supply chain can guarantee currently. NextGen can be interchanged with other motor oil products–so if your car requires four quarts of motor oil after that 3,000 mile change, your mechanic (or you), can pour two bottles of the NextGen product and another two quarts of a standard product into your car‘s engine. After testing the product at its oil changing stores in Columbus, Ohio, and Boston, Valvoline will sell the NextGen in a bottle that is made of 25% recycled content in special shelving that also features Valvoline’s standard product line.
Valvoline’s environmental work goes beyond NextGen’s 50% recycled blend. The refinement of used motor oil requires less energy than crude oil processing. Valovline’s cajoling of refiners to sell their recycled oil back to the company not only reduces the need to drill for oil, but ensures that oil can be used over and over again–not just one more time and then burned off, as is the current case with most recycled motor oil. The company is confident that an increasing consumer acceptance of recycled motor oil will move them towards a closed-loop supply chain, and give added insulation from oil price shocks that may only worsen this year and beyond.
Valvoline’s step is a most welcome one. Particularly refreshing was the tone its executives exuded at a media event yesterday, where executives and scientists explained the path they took from NextGen‘s conception to today’s announcement. No green leaf is slapped on a label, no promise of saving endangered animals is made, and no insistence that petroleum was green: just an honest assessment of their product and what the 140 year old company hopes to achieve. We can debate whether motor oil will ever be “green,” but Valvoline’s candor and transparency are a compelling lesson in corporate social responsibility.