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Earth Day Reflections: The Auto Repair Industry’s Role in Dealing with Waste

Shop-Ware Founder and CEO, Carolyn Coquillette founded (and still owns) her own repair shop, Luscious Garage, the world’s first shop certified as a Benefit Corporation. This shop management software company model considers additional stakeholders in addition to making a profit for their shareholders.

When I started Luscious Garage, I committed to proving that auto repair could make profits, inspire customers, and consider its environmental impact. Shortly after opening, my rep at a parts distributor dropped by to deliver a poster that exclaimed: “Auto Repair: We were green before it was cool!”

I remember the design as if it were yesterday. It showed a bright green tree growing out of frantic pile of splattered oil and car parts. The leaf canopy opened at the top and the copy sprawled large across the middle over the trunk. It was tone-deaf in so many ways. I held onto it for years since I found it so amusing and simultaneously troublesome.

The Aftermarket Paradox

Within the auto industry, cars are typically considered a good thing. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. But it’s complicated for auto repair. Our job is to make owning a car less problematic and that includes the ways that cars are hurtful to people and to the environment. For folks working inside the business, it can be hard to square, but there is a lot to be said about what auto shops contribute to the cause. Of course, we’re not actually green, yet we are less damaging and that is still hugely important.

When cars wear out, they make a mess but they also create an enormous amount of waste pretty much all of the time, just by their nature of operating. Repair shops, both dealership and aftermarket, “take out the garbage” in so many ways. They’re doing this for the manufacturers that get to sell their vehicles without having to take responsibility for their products’ impact in service, out on the road, and at the end of life.

Auto repair shops carefully collect and dispose of countless amounts of:

  • Motor oil
  • Coolant
  • Transmission fluid
  • Brake fluid
  • Differential oil
  • Scrap metal
  • Tires and other rubber materials
  • Bulbs
  • Batteries and E-Waste
  • Packaging material from everything exchanged on cars (all parts, fluids, etc.)

An auto shop’s proper disposal of these materials keeps them from entering the environment. Take the motor oil, for instance. I remember my old boss back in Michigan telling stories about pouring used oil into a hole in the ground behind the shop. Later, he would add lye to the soil-testing equipment when the EPA came by. People used to pour coolant down the drain and mechanics would clean their hands with gasoline (it works great), so we’ve learned a lot on many levels.

Motor oil is not only collected; it can be re-refined. This has been a passion of mine since I opened my garage in 2007 and we still pour it. This is a great example of actual recycling and making use of existing materials without having to pump the new stuff out of the ground. And that’s just one of the fluids we deal with every day.

Oil recycling - small

Parts Recyclers Play a Key Role

The ability of shops to easily and cost-effectively manage all the waste streams they are faced with depends on the engagement of their municipality. However, there are activities within the aftermarket ecosystem that assist with this on extra levels. For instance, entrepreneurial haulers get paid based on the amount of waste material they collect. Additionally, there are dealer and vendor cores issued for sending a removed part back to the place from which it was purchased for disposal or remanufacturing.

This is a great segue to remanufacturing. Buying remanufactured parts, once prevalent, is the essence of the recycling concept. Unfortunately, it is currently in decline. Dismantlers, now known as “recyclers,” such as LKQ and others, allow shops to purchase used parts and recycle on the front side of the repair. This is also helpful, but not an equivalent.

Of course, none of this works for small businesses unless it makes economic sense. For Luscious Garage, we wanted to attract the hybrid market in San Francisco. Was I motivated personally? Of course, and I’ve shared that in classes on how to develop a hybrid/EV/green-focused vertical at training events like VISION KC. You have to truly care before you hang that “green” shingle in the front of your business. Otherwise, customers will smell the greenwashing a mile away…just like the poster my parts rep gave me.

But my caring wasn’t going to pay the bills. Our environmental concept had a market that we deliberately sought to capture as an earnest solution. Without that, we could have recycled parts for six months before we ran out of money. If it doesn’t make financial sense, a business can’t follow it.

Bigger Than Profits

This is where the automotive industry deserves recognition for building green methods native to shop flows, even if shops don’t necessarily associate these efforts with tree-hugging.

Whether you identify as an environmentalist or not, everyone on this planet needs this planet and a livelihood to support themselves and their families. I am proud of the automotive aftermarket’s efforts every day, every year, and throughout previous decades. Auto shops have helped manage the impact of automobility on our planet, and they will continue to play a central role as long as we continue to drive.

While we dream of an all-electric future, the precedent of electronics is to simply throw the broken thing away. We cannot and will not do this with electric cars and automotive professionals will make it possible.

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