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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/3/11

A Motor Oil Company That's Both Green and Responsible? Check out Universal Lubricants

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My guest today is John Wesley, CEO of Universal Lubricants. Welcome to OpEdNews, John.  You're in the motor oil business, but with a difference. Can you tell our readers a little about your company?

photo credit: Universal Lubricants

Universal Lubricants was founded in 1929, the time of the internal combustion engine. But for the past four decades, Universal Lubricants has been an American leader in used oil collection, new oil refining and distribution. Unlike other companies that simply bottle re-refined oil, Universal collects, refines, blends and re-distributes its own green motor oil insuring that every quart, every gallon consistently is of the highest quality for optimal performance. We never lose guardianship within the chain, making us the only closed loop provider of motor oil. And that's a big deal for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, over 1.3 billion gallons of oil is consumed in the U.S. each year, and only 10 percent of it is re-refined. The rest of the used oil is either improperly disposed of, or burned as an industrial fuel whereby eliminating a reusable energy resource and severely damaging our environment.  Secondly, using re-refined (or recycled oil) cuts fossil fuel use, lowers emissions and reduces environmental impact. It also ensures that used oil does not find its way into our water supply where it can have a myriad of harmful effects. And thirdly, conserving our oil resources can lessen our dependency on foreign and other crude oil sources; cuts down on energy use as compared to the process of drilling and refining crude oil from the ground. 

Furthermore, Universal Lubricants' ECO ULTRA, the re-refined or recycled motor oil product, has one of the highest percentages of recycled oil (70%). So yes, Universal Lubricants is a company with a difference because we are entirely committed to environmental best practices and sustainability both in our processes and our products.  

You say that Universal Lubricants has been involved in used oil collection for the last 40 years.  It sounds like you were way ahead of the curve, environmentally speaking.  How did that come about?

Frankly, many companies used to view business and environmental stewardship as inherently conflicting; to do one better, companies thought they had to sacrifice performance in the realm of the other. I suppose you can say Universal Lubricants was ahead of the "curve" because as a company, we never adopted that model or that frame of mind.  Again, we were founded in 1929 with a commitment to providing advanced, customer-focused services and products that would save our users time, aggravation and of course, funds. Developing a "closed-loop" process to distribute our own green motor oil was a natural extension of these same principles that made sense as a financially driven business and as a socially and environmentally responsible company. And I'm happy to see that many other companies in our industry and others have reconciled their views of generating profits with developing products and policies that safeguard the environment, too.

That makes total sense to me. It's staggering to imagine what our country might have been like if all businesses had this orientation. Please give us a sense of the scope of your business. You have plants in how many locations? Do you plan to expand to recapture even more of the used motor oil that drives our nation?

To answer your questions about scope, Universal Lubricants currently operates 28 facilities in 14 states and a state of the art re-refinery plant, which is adjacent to our company's headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. Our re-refinery is one of the world's most technologically advanced, and is one of only four such facilities in the United States. Additionally, Universal Lubricants employs 380 of the absolute best American workers.

But as I mentioned, the U.S. consumes about 1.3 billion gallons of motor oil per year, and only 10% of that gets recycled. Not only is this environmentally dangerous as the oil from one engine change can contaminate up to a million gallons of water, but it's economically nonsensical. So, as a company that's entirely dedicated to reversing this trend, of course we're pursuing exponential growth.

Since the beginning of this year, we've dedicated our marketing effort to moving ECO ULTRA into the professional/commercial space.  It's been adopted with great success in a wide range of industries including construction, dealership and retail fleets across the U.S. For example, earlier this year, we announced a business alliance with Enterprise Holdings to close the car care loop. Beginning at Enterprise's airport service centers in five states, Universal Lubricants will collect the spent motor oil of Alamo, Enterprise and National vehicles, proceed to re-refine the waste fluid into ECO ULTRA, and then circle the product back into Enterprise cars and light trucks in those markets, completing a self-sustaining cycle that will repeat itself an infinite number of times.   

That said, we are now shifting our focus to the consumer market--we think that consumers are ready for it and I'm happy to see that Valvoline is doing the same. Education and outreach are going to be paramount to the success of this product, so utilizing traditional, online and social media as well as advertising we are going to drive home that ECO ULTRA green motor oil provides Americans the performance and reliability they expect in a top quality motor oil--that it's the smart choice, the right choice.

What a powerful image -  that the discarded oil from a single oil change can contaminate up to a million gallons of water.  It will definitely stick in my mind.  So far, you've talked a lot about the company. Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to know more about you. When did you come on board and how did you initially become interested in environmental issues? Which came first?

I've spent 25 years in the petroleum business, and during that time, I've seen a lot of waste. Let's face it, this industry isn't exactly known for environmental stewardship. Yet, I think that's exactly what marked my transition to Universal Lubricants as transformative--it was an opportunity to stay in a business familiar to me, work with a substance I had heretofore considered a waste discharge, and promote its acceptance not only as something useful, but as a fundamental resource with myriad economic and environmental benefits. And frankly, I think this "aha!" moment of mine mirrors many people's experiences, when they first realize that individual interests, combined with focused ingenuity and commitment to sustainability, are not incompatible with the interests of the planet. 
With ECO ULTRA, auto enthusiasts can still be "car guys" while simultaneously tending to environmental sensitivities. Recycled motor oil isn't the whole solution to our country's oil and gas situation, but for now, it's an essential piece of the puzzle. And every day, that's what motivates me to roll up my sleeves a bit higher and promote ECO ULTRA not only as a product, but as a shift in outlook. Everyone, everywhere, no matter his or her interests, can find small, but powerful ways to take care of the world around us.

Your product and philosophy do quite well in the "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" strategy.  What else would you like to talk about, before we wrap this up?

Universal Lubricants has taken huge strides to catalyze the green motor revolution, based on the sustainable practices made possible by incredible R&D efforts which have resulted in our state-of-the--art refinery technologies and facilities. Recently however, bio-based motor oils have been touted as a "green-er" alternative to recycled petroleum based products. I'd like to take a moment to call that claim into question.

Made in part from the animal fat of beef slaughter byproducts , bio-based motor oils have the potential to derail elegant re-refining processes; in much the same manner as a cooking oil clogs a kitchen sink.

Really? I never heard that before.

Except this time, much more is at stake--expensive capital, jobs, and the product's effect on car performance.  All modern re-refineries today rely on crucial cleansing processes--yet, when vegetable-based and animal fat-based products are subjected to these necessary and unavoidable steps, an unwanted chemical reaction known as "saponification" occurs. Saponification involves hydrolysis of esters under basic conditions to form an alcohol and the salt of a carboxylic acid (carboxylates), producing a soap-like solid from the fatty acid derivatives. This solid can cause irreparable harm during the re-refining process, spoiling the product -- if not halting the re-refinery altogether.

What's more, in an increasingly interconnected world, it's not only the motor oil industry which will be affected by the entry of bio-based products into the oil inventory. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that as of January 2011, food prices around the globe had risen to historic highs, without signs of abatement in sight. With increasing stress on global food supplies, social and political dilemmas abound from implementing potential food sources in industrial applications.

For the foreseeable future, America will continue to be reliant on petroleum based products. It's incumbent upon each and every one of us to find ways to lessen our environmental impacts in ways that make good economic sense. The average four-quart oil change using ECO ULTRA helps preserve our natural resources while reducing America's need for foreign oil by two barrels. By choosing ECO ULTRA today, we each can prepare ourselves and America for a better tomorrow.

Thank you for talking with me, John. I learned a lot in the process!

Universal Lubricants website

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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