2000 Finalist
Kern County, California
Innovations in American Government Awards
Innovations in American Government Awards

The disposal of used motor oil has been a problem since the invention of the internal combustion engine. In the past, disposal generally consisted of pouring used oil on the ground, spraying it on dirt roads for dust control, using it as a weed killer, or dumping it in a landfill. When allowed to seep into the ground, used oil has the potential to seriously damage ground and surface water.

In recent years, oil refining companies have developed methods to take used oil and re-refine it into a base oil which is identical to that used in the initial blending of motor oil. By increasing the supply of oil available and decreasing the waste created by its use, this recycling approach helps both the environment and consumers.

While commercial oil change services across the country have adopted proper recycling programs, a large number of drivers continue to change their own motor oil, typically young men, often fans of NASCAR and other auto racing leagues. Kern County is home to a large community of stock-racing fans, most of whom maintain their own cars.

Traditionally, oil recycling efforts aimed at this group have focused on the collection of used oil and not on promoting the use of the end product. With demand for re-refined oil low, the availability of collection centers has suffered, as has the amount of used oil being recycled.

The Kern County Used Oil Program was created in 1995 to change the public's opinion and behavior regarding oil recycling by convincing them that a recycled oil product was as good or better than virgin oil. Once assured of the re-refined oil's quality, consumers were able to recognize that recycling their own used oil was the most beneficial option for both themselves and the local environment.

Marketing data has shown that auto products that gain acceptance in the auto racing world generally have a high perceived value among retail consumers. In seeking to enhance the reputation of re-refined motor oil, Kern County partnered not only with oil manufacturers and retailers, but auto parts stores, race tracks, and auto race teams to test, promote, and market re-refined motor oil. County officials persuaded race teams to use and endorse the re-refined product, conducting public tests and telling fans where to buy the product in the county.

Using such targeted and innovative marketing, Kern County's oil recycling program has profited greatly. Before the implementation of the program in 1995, there were three collection centers operating in Kern County, collecting approximately 3,000 gallons of used oil, with only 15 gallons a year of re-refined oil being purchased. In 1999, over 30,000 gallons of used oil were collected at 60 different locations, and slightly over 50,000 gallons of re-refined oil were purchased in the county.