How to Safely Dispose of Your Car Fluids

Mia Bevacqua
December 27, 2018

After you’ve changed your oil or flushed your coolant, what do you do with the old fluid? You can’t just pour it in the gutter or down the drain — that’s both illegal and bad for the planet. Luckily, there are places where you can recycle used automotive fluids.

Get rid of fluids the legal way

Car fluids are hazardous waste. They’re extremely harmful to the environment, animals and people. Professional repair shops usually pay a waste hauler to collect these chemicals in bulk. But if you prefer to do your oil and other fluid changes at home, there are ways you can legally get rid of the old stuff yourself.

Recycling laws vary by location. Before draining or disposing of any fluids, it’s a good idea to check first with your local government about the rules. The following instructions are only a general guideline.

Oil-based fluids

Typically, all types of oils — engine oil, transmission fluid, gear oil, power steering fluid, transfer case fluid and brake fluid — can be disposed of at the same location. But check with your local recycler before mixing them, as some locations require they be kept separate.

Follow these steps to clean up your work area while also protecting the environment:

1. Drain the oil into a dedicated container: Be sure to drain the oil into a pan that hasn’t been used for anything other than oil changes. If you’re replacing the filter — and you probably should, as long as you’re there — turn it over and drain it into the pan as well.

After you’re done, pour the fluid into a container used only for oil. The receptacle should have a leak-free lid that won’t spill on your way to the recycler. Place any filters into a sealed container, such as an old coffee can.

Most parts stores sell drain containers designed for catching and retaining automotive fluids. These products are a great choice because they serve double duty, both as a drain pan and a storage jug.

2. Clean up any spills: If some of the fluid spills, you’ll need to clean it up. Start by applying kitty litter. Let the litter absorb the fluid, then sweep it up. Next, get rid of any stains by applying an environmentally friendly degreaser, such as Purple Power. Follow the directions on the bottle.

3. Head to your local parts store or waste management site: Most auto parts stores offer easy oil recycling. Take the fluid in a sealed container and tell an associate how much you’re dropping off. The employee will either dump it for you or lead you to a tank where you can dispose of it yourself.

Getting rid of oil at an auto parts store is both free and convenient. The only downside is most locations place a limit on how much you can drop off at once. Another option is to visit a waste management site. Generally, these locations will take more oil than a store. The drawback is, in most states, you have to pay for the service.

If you need to get rid of a used filter as well, you can do so at either an auto parts store or a waste management site.  

Engine coolant

Coolant is especially dangerous to animals. They love the sweet smell, but it’s toxic. Coolant must be disposed of separately from oils, so follow these steps to get rid of it the right way.

1. Drain the coolant into a dedicated container: Coolant cannot be drained into a container that has previously been used for oil or anything else. Be sure to drain and store the fluid in a dedicated receptacle. The containers mentioned in the oils section are good for this, too.

2. Clean up any spills: The same as with oils, use cat litter to absorb spillage and then use a degreaser on any stains.

3. Head to your local waste management site: Most auto parts stores don’t take coolant. To get rid of it, you must visit your local waste management site. For a fee, the location will dump your old fluid, then give you back your container.

Recycling is the way to go

When you take used automotive fluids to a collection site, you give them a second chance on life. Recycling engine oil, for example, reduces energy use and the need for foreign oil. Being responsible with your automotive waste is good for your local environment, and for the world.

Mia Bevacqua

About the Author

Mia Bevacqua is an automotive expert with ASE Master, L1, L2 and L3 Advanced Level Specialist certification. With 13-plus years of experience in the field, she applies her skills toward writing, consulting and automotive software engineering.