Grease Monkeys Go Green

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Illustration by Ryan Cox

When “Organic Mechanic” Charley Wilson first moved into his repair shop in Asheville, North Carolina, he had to scrape half an inch of caked-on filth off the floor and then clean and seal a drain that led to a nearby river. Today, the floors have neither a drop of oil nor a mark of grime (and there is no drain where he easily could have washed such pollutants away).

Wilson’s three-year-old garage is just one of many across the country that are redefining what is traditionally viewed as a dirty business. The powerful solvents that are used to cut grease in most auto shops often release air-polluting volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when they are being manufactured, used, and disposed of. Automobile fluids that aren’t disposed of properly, such as oil and antifreeze, contaminate landfills and pollute local waterways.

Wilson, 34, recycles his oil by selling it to a refinery, and then he buys it back. He’s also invested in a special sink that contains bacteria to break down and wash away grease in a process called bioremediation. Small measures like using a refillable bottle containing a biodegradable, citrus-based degreaser also help. Behind the shop, double-walled storage bins prevent accidental leakage of used antifreeze and oil until the liquids are picked up for recycling. The parking lot is as clean as the service bay, so rain doesn’t carry pollutants into storm drains. “You’re making an impact at different levels,” he says. “What we’re offering customers is another way to make a little bit of a difference.”

A number of organizations around the country certify ecofriendly auto repair shops. One of them, the Bay Area Green Business Program, formed in the San Francisco area 11 years ago; some 150 repair shops are now on board. The group targets regulatory compliance, pollution prevention, waste reduction, and energy and water conservation.

Participating mechanics say that having a green seal of approval has been great for business. Dana Meyer, who has taken pains to run an environmentally responsible business since he installed water-conserving foot pedals on his sinks back in the ’70s, says the official benchmark has brought more conscientious customers to his Albany, California, shop. He displays his certificate prominently near the service desk, mentions it in advertisements, and receives referrals from the program’s website (

This sort of marketing technique helps green auto garages remain competitively priced, shop owners say. And while the cost of environmentally friendly products is often higher, changing practices–capturing spills in pans instead of using absorbents, for example–often costs nothing (owners actually save money by reducing the amount of absorbent they have to purchase). Other improvements, while they may cost more up front, often yield eventual savings. Mechanic David Pothier installed radiant-heat floors and a heater fueled by waste oil when he opened Cars Unlimited 20 years ago on Martha’s Vineyard. The system paid for itself in reduced utility bills.

In 2001 the Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair GreenLink estimated that fewer than 5 percent of auto repair shops were in total compliance with safety and environmental regulations. That number is on the rise, though, in part because of the nonprofit’s safety and pollution prevention training, which teaches federal regulations and promotes practices that go above and beyond those rules. More than 4,000 shops have enrolled in the course, and nearly 1,000 high schools and colleges teach the curriculum to students, says Robert G. Stewart, president of the group. “We’re training a whole new generation, and an existing one,” he says. “If everyone in the shop has that heightened sense of awareness, it’s going to be so much easier.”

Excerpted from Plenty (Aug./Sept. 2007), the magazine that makes it easy to be green. Subscriptions: $12/yr. (6 issues) from Box 621, Mt. Morris, IL 61054;

How Green Is Your Auto Repair Shop?

Just ask: It might feel awkward to question a mechanic about the shop’s practices, but it’s one of the fastest and most direct ways to find out how environmentally friendly it is, says Organic Mechanic Charley Wilson. Break the ice by asking what the shop does with used oil.

Size it up: Preventing spills and pollution is a major component of being environmentally responsible. Most conscientious shops will keep their floors, parking lots, and other spaces very clean, says David Pothier, owner of Cars Unlimited: “Generally, if it’s a clean shop, it’s run right. If you see trash or junk cars, I would steer clear.”

Check the certification: Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair GreenLink’s “S/P2” (safety and pollution prevention) label indicates that a garage’s employees have undergone training in environmentally friendly practices. Many states and municipalities have more extensive certification programs that not only help the shops become greener but also let consumers know who’s making the effort and who isn’t.

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