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Written by Emilie Wood, Writer and Event Coordinator, UCSB Living Lab

As consumers, we are faced with decisions every day about what to do with our waste. On a campus like UCSB, we can choose to compost, recycle or send our trash to the landfill. But if we choose to recycle, what is the fate of that waste once it enters the recycling system? Is it really better to recycle, and how do we know? Dr. Brandon Kuczenski, an assistant researcher in the Bren School at UCSB, studies industrial ecology and environmental informatics as applied to recycling systems. After pursuing an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, he realized that, “I had always been concerned about the environment, recycling and resource consumption.” Dr. Kuczenski followed this interest, pursuing research in these two areas.
He was driven to begin this research when he realized he had no answer to skeptics who doubted the benefits of recycling. As he began this work, he soon uncovered the complexity of this system around the country—with its many stakeholders and stages in the recycling process—and different recycling incentives offered in each state. Consider a plastic beverage bottle: first the bottles have to be recycled by the consumer, and then they must be a collected and hauled to a central location, sorted from other products, then delivered to a facility to actually recycle the plastic, before finally being used in a way that displaces the consumption of virgin plastic.
Through analyzing the life cycle and flow of materials for plastic bottles, specifically those in the California Redemption Value, or CRV, program, Dr. Kuczenski determined that “recycling [these] bottles is unambiguously good.” The system in California derives its success mainly from its decentralized character, accruing a large amount of recyclable material with little environmental cost. In fact, the average distance traveled by a bottle from discard to recovery is 145–175 km, and the post consumer phase of the bottle requires significantly less energy compared to the pre-consumer phase of the bottle.
Dr. Kuczenski was so inspired by the success of the PET plastic bottle recycling system in California that he expanded his research to include motor-oil recycling, which given our automobile-obsessed society, is an important opportunity to save resources by reusing oil. Oil is a much-discussed topic, and our dependency on it spans broadly. Motor oil is one direct use of oil that provides recycling opportunities. California is the only state that regulates used motor oil as a hazardous material, and there are costs associated with tracking and properly disposing of the used oil under California state code. These costs are burdens for companies who manage used motor oil, raising the cost of oil recycling in-state. California has a plethora of data on motor oil because its hazardous waste status requires companies to track and report all motor oil usage and movement. Because it is expensive to obtain permits to recycle used oil, there are only a few facilities that can do so in the state of California and Dr. Kuczenski worked closely with them to better understand the recycling process.
Recycled motor oil can take 3 forms: refining for use again as motor oil, burning as fuel or refining into a diesel fuel. All three routes have significant savings with regards to the environment. Recycling used oil decreases human impacts on global warming, excess nutrients in rivers, ozone depletion, smog creation, and resource depletion when the recycled product is used in place of primary oil. The best recycling option is re-refining the used oil into motor oil again because this is the only option where no oil is burned, thus limiting the release of combustion emissions into the atmosphere. All of California government vehicles are required to use recycled motor oil. Some service stations and oil change businesses accept used motor oil, and offer recycled oil for sale. So next time you have your oil changed or are purchasing motor oil, you can ask for recycled motor oil!
Dr. Kuczenski is a busy man with all of this research on recycling systems, but his thirst for knowledge continues! His current work focuses on the management of information about the environmental performance of industrial activities, and the transfer of verifiable information from scientific and industrial communities to consumers. He is working on publication of environmental impact studies known as life cycle assessments as online interactive tools to enable people outside of the research community to access and interpret the results. He expressed his concern that “some research is hard to present, and hard to transform into legislation,” and he hopes this tool will facilitate open discussions broadly across disciplines because it presents the research in a verifiable and accessible way. He wants this tool to easily present comparisons between studies to improve methodology and report results more consistently. Dr. Kuczenski affirms, “what I want is adaptability by the industry, because as long as people are environmentally conscious these questions will be asked,” and without open and transparent access to environmental data, “answers will be hard to find.”
As our society continues to progress and consume, we will continue to generate waste. If we can better understand how our current recycling systems work, perhaps we can build even better, more encompassing systems in the future so we can recycle and reuse more materials. This is especially important with materials like oil, which are finite, highly valuable, and harmful to the environment. Dr. Kuczenski understands that consumer knowledge is key to encourage more sustainable, environmentally minded decisions, and the best way to facilitate this is through an increase in communication between research, industry and consumers. He believes, “information is key; it comes down to the consumer to know what to do with a product at the end of its life, and it is the role of research and government to give consumers access to information so they can most accurately make that decision.”