Tips for Properly Disposing of Used Automotive Fluids

I just changed a bunch of my car's fluids, where should I take them?

The fluids that (non-electric) cars need to move under their own power, stay lubricated, be efficient, cool, and steer are all toxic and environmentally unfriendly. It’s a bummer and an inconvenience, because you can’t just dump the stuff down a drain when it’s used up and you need to get rid of it. But there are right ways to dispose of regularly occurring automotive waste products which we’ll discuss in this post.

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But it can be tough to figure out how and where to dispose of them; since they can’t get thrown out with normal waste, unfortunately it often takes a bit of research and time out of your day to do so. You’re on the right track by reading this blog.

Oil, old gasoline, brake fluid, power steering fluid, automatic transmission fluid, gear oil, batteries, old air conditioning refrigerant – they all require proper disposal. As do their contaminated filters. Here’s where to dispose of them, or how to find out where to dispose of them. What’s also important to keep in mind, is it looks like there are often limits to the capacity of fluids you’re transporting. For example: bringing in used engine oil every two to four changes is probably fine, though it depends on what your vehicle’s capacity is. It’s also a good idea to store these liquids in their original or approved containers. Gasoline, for example, can dissolve certain rubbers and plastics and you wouldn’t want a container full of stale car juice to pop.

Getting Rid of Used Motor Oil Is Pretty Easy

Luckily, this most-regularly changed fluid is the easiest to get rid of. There are city, county, and even state-run operations in all 50 states to bring used engine oil and filters to. It’s a good idea to make sure the apparatuses you’re hauling them in are strong and sealed tight, preferably in their original containers. You don’t want the stuff exploding if they get knocked around in the trunk, or slip out of your hands right in front of a surly, menacing city employee.

There is slight rub to disposing of oil: from my research, government-run oil and filter disposal sites can be very, very few and far between. Just check out the list here from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works – seven of the eight sites for all of LA County are currently closed.

Fortunately, the private sector has us covered here. Most auto parts-specific stores that sell oil also accept waste oil. I bring my old oil and filters to an AutoZone by my house and they don’t even charge a disposal fee. Certain areas of the country might charge a small disposal fee, though.

However, the private-sector option isn’t always convenient. If you live in a rural area, or there just aren’t many auto parts stores local to you, it might take up more of your schedule to do the right thing and keep noxious chemicals out of area wildlife’s bloodstreams.

Tips for Properly Disposing of Used Automotive Fluids
Image: City of Los Angeles

Everything Else Is a Little Harder To Ditch

Unfortunately, disposing of everything else takes a little more time to research and figure out. This is why many DIY home mechanics end up with jugs of bad coolant or brake fluid in their garages for years. Indefinite storage is technically one option – you could always just get high-quality containers and hoard your poisons forever. But that’s suboptimal for many reasons.

Finding out where to bring the rest of these brutal fluids requires checking your state and local government websites, and finding out what the protocol is per fluid. The good news is it seems like sites that take them, take all of them, but they must be in separate containers (mixing is a big no-no). The bad news is it can eat up a decent portion of your weekend to do so. Locally to me, the City and County of Los Angeles make all of this info readily available.

In Los Angeles, it could take a good chunk of your Saturday or Sunday to dispose of everything depending on how far you live from a disposal center or how busy it is. The city of LA used to do mobile collection sites, making it a bit easier, but in light of the current COVID-19 pandemic those are on hold.

What you’ll want to search for is “household waste disposal” in your town, getting your answer of “where, when, and how” should be relatively easy. The main annoyance is that the collection might only happen once a year, or maybe there’s a collection center but it’s only open at odd hours. Be prepared for a mild inconvenience on logistics.

What makes up for these inconveniences is you can often knock out a ton of hazardous material disposal in one trip: old AA batteries, old electronics, propane canisters, paint, household chemicals, and more. They also explicitly state what cannot be disposed of; sorry, collections of spent uranium pellets and unused munitions have to be taken elsewhere.

Cleanup Is Important, Too

Tips for Properly Disposing of Used Automotive Fluids
Keep nature healthy. – Image: Peter Nelson

Another responsible way to ensure you aren’t inadvertently decimating local fish populations, or giving cute little animals birth defects is to always properly store, clean up, and seal these fluids. Having a plan in place to clean up fluids if you spill them on your driveway is important, such as keeping kitty litter on-hand to soak it up (and then properly disposing of), or having a method to catch these fluids if they spill. Old cardboard works great and can be disposed of with everything else at aforementioned collection sites. Convenient fluid containers make life easy too, like Garage Boss oil drain pans. Proper labeling can make them excellent for catching and storing other fluids than just oil.

Coolant is especially critical to clean if you have pets; the stuff tastes sweet to some dogs but could kill them if they try to lick it up.

Also, if your vehicle has sprung any kind of a leak, its best to remedy sooner than later. We all know the jokes; stuff like “it’s not a Land Rover unless it’s leaking something” or “Oil leaks are one of the joys of BMW ownership.” It’s good for a chuckle, but also be a decent person and take care of said leaks as soon as possible. Not everyone’s always in the right financial shape to quickly take care of a potentially expensive rear main seal or head gasket job, but do your best. Keeping something under the car to catch these leaked fluids is a good temporary solution; how long does it take to slide a piece of cardboard under the car and weigh it down?

Taking the time to find out where you can locally dispose of hazardous waste, and then doing so, is the duty of every DIY wrencher. Whether you’re inclined to be as friendly to the environment as you can, or are just not looking to give anti-right to repair dickheads more reasons to hate what you do. The more responsibility amongst our ranks the better.

Peter Nelson

Peter NelsonPeter Nelson has been wrenching on and playing with cars since he started driving them quickly between the cones at Chicagoland autocross events in his late teens. Nowadays, he can be found wringing out his Mazda2 at tracks all over California. His writing background includes Winding Road, Donut Media, and Autolist.com. He's also an avid cyclist and '80s/'90s action film connoisseur. Contact the author here.