Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Solving the largest form of water pollution in the world, Oil Pollution in Parking Lots, Garages and Job Sites

We’ve all heard the saying “Think Globally, Act Locally”. When it comes to environmental damage, this saying best applies to oil pollution in parking lots. Basically, the pollution is all those drips and drops that nobody notices. This article is designed to provide readers with a clear understanding of the breadth and depth of the problem, its devastating effects on the environment, the legal situation and the options available to us for cleaning up the mess at home and at work.

When we think about oil pollution, most of us think about large oil spills like the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Such incidents capture major media attention flashing across TV screens around the world and rallying people to action when they see the vast devastation on the evening news. We find ourselves shaking our heads, stating “Isn’t that terrible? Something has to be done about those polluters.” SURPRISE! The truth is that major spills represent less than 4% of the global oil pollution problem according to the global monitoring program run by the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF). Scientists call these major events ‘source point pollution’.

Source point pollution is a problem; there’s no doubt about that. However, the major oil pollution problem is from non-point source pollution – the drips and drops that cannot be traced to a major spill yet are spread out over millions of polluters. DRIPS and DROPS multiplied by millions! Research at the Canadian Petroleum Products Institute (CPPI) has shown that more than 250 million litres of oil (that we are presently aware of) disappears into the Canadian Environment each and every year. This is over twelve Valdez spills or over 100 spills in North America of that magnitude on an annual basis. Stop and think about those numbers. You and I (until I realized it) and millions of others are drowning our environment in oil by drips and drops.

The Global Picture

When we first become aware of this problem, most of us cannot comprehend the magnitude of the destruction, the effects on the environment – let alone envisage some possible solution to the problem. Yet, this new awareness sits uncomfortably at the edge of our consciousness and we start noticing that every parking lot we walk through has these ugly, messy oil stains, and when it rains, we can watch the oily rainbows wash down the drain and sometimes, we find ourselves wondering how much more oil our streams can take before they choke .

This same observation, made by Professor Ken Hall and Gillian Larkin M.Sc. at The University of British Columbia, lead to the research published in a landmark study entitled “Hydrocarbon Pollution from Urban Runoff in the Brunette Watershed“. What makes this research so important is that they defined all the various points where oil enters the environment and determined that the number one source of discharge occurs when we start and stop our cars. What occurs is that the oil dripping on the parking surface is being carried by rainwater or harmful cleaning practices down the storm sewers. This oil then sticks or glues itself to sediment and bio-accumulates in our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, poisoning the base of the food chain. By tracing the oil from the streams, the researchers followed it back to the major discharge points – parking lots; the more numerous the cars, the more serious the oil leakage, the more serious the pollution.

What’s being done to solve the problem?

Obviously, with a problem of this scope and impact, we reassure ourselves that someone out there must be addressing the situation. However, the question we should be posing is whether attempts at solving the problem are being successful. Many people from government, industry and environmental enforcement personnel are taking action to slow this chronic problem. Unfortunately, results to date have been limited, mainly due to lack of coordination and awareness of cost effective and practical ways of cleaning up small amounts of oil. To make matters worse, many well-intentioned people are using toxic cleaners and solvents combined with recovery materials that just end up back in the dump – more and more pollution.

Some municipalities that are addressing the problem employ a two-tiered approach. The first step is banning cleaning methods that worsen the problem and the second is ensuring that property owners have a pollution reduction strategy. To develop a plan or reduction strategy and ultimately solve the problem, three key areas need to be addressed jointly: (1) Enforcement, (2) Education and Intervention, (3) Technology

1. Enforcement:

Currently, the Fisheries Act in Canada and the Clean Water Act in the USA states clearly that discharging deleterious substances directly or indirectly into the environment is illegal and subject to stiff penalties. However, these are federal laws and in most municipalities, they are not enforced unless an Environmental Protection Officer stumbles onto the illegal activity or a person complains prompting an investigation.

The current trend is for municipalities to enact some variation of a ‘zero discharge’ policy when cleaning buildings, bolstered by stiff penalties. Zero discharge basically means that when cleaning is occurring, all the waste water is captured and collected before it can get down a storm drain. The objective of these strong penalties is to cause people to stop and think before they flush all the waste oil and toxic cleaners down the drain. A similar approach could be used in an apartment building if the responsibility for cleaning up the oil from their parking spot rests with the individual.

2. Education and intervention

Obviously, enforcement alone will not work unless the education and technology is available to the polluter. However, it does work effectively if the polluter is set on the right track. A case in point occurred a few years ago when a well-meaning contractor was cleaning roofs with laundry detergent and letting the rain wash away the residue. The Enforcement officer tracked the discharge from the streams back to the contractor. Instead of fining and shutting him down, the official sent him to our firm to learn an environmentally safe approach to the cleaning of roofs. We suggested two key approaches, the first of which was to switch to one of our eco-certified cleaners in order to eliminate that portion of the pollution, and the second was to stop the direct discharge into the storm drains by disconnecting the bottom of the downspouts from the houses thereby letting the ground filter the waste. The end result was a happy, well-informed contractor providing better results to his clients and protecting the environment (win-win-win).

Enforcement officers and scientists often use a term called ‘Best Management Practices’ (BMP’s); this simply means what is the best way of handling the problem. In the case of oil and discharge in parking lots, the layperson’s rules are as follows: (1) Fix your leaking car (o.k. that’s obvious); (2) Use a suitable absorbent/adsorbent to capture the drips and break down the oil so you end the waste stream. Products such as Flubber dust can be placed in the sunlight and the oil molecule is split and you can re-use the material. Do not us cardboard boxes, kitty litter, peat moss, polypropylene pads etc. as most of this material ends up in the garbage and back into our water table. (3) When power washing, use an Eco-logo certified non-toxic cleaner and capture the waste water and filter out the oil, heavy metals, brake dust etc. Filtered or polished water then can be discharged into the septic system. Again use a licensed contractor with the right equipment so that the oil does not go down the drain or is simply transferred into the garbage.


In the case of cleaning practices for oil in parking lots or any other buildings, the three key consideration are as follows: (1) The cleaner/stripper. (2) The equipment, (3) The waste generated.

If you were to turn these into questions for a contractor or someone developing a plan for your building, you would want to know if the cleaner proposed is Third party validated or has other valid proof as a “Green Cleaner” so that you do not add pollution or poison to the waste stream. A case in point of fake green claims is that of manufacturers making the claim that their product is biodegradable. To this, I always respond that so is plutonium, the real question is what does it kill in the meantime? With today’s level of technology, there is absolutely no reason for consumers or the environment to be exposed to toxic elements found in a large majority of household and industrial cleaners.

Also of concern are equipment and waste handling, two issues that go hand in hand. Anyone can rent a pressure washer and blow oil down the drain/sewers or attempt to catch the oil with absorbents of limited effectiveness. If you want to find out if someone really is equipped to handle your oil waste problem, ask him/her how their equipment cleans and handles the waste so that it is not discharged illegally. If they try to skip over this topic or cannot provide a simple answer, keep shopping for a contractor who is informed and employs environmentally safe practices.

As for equipment, there are basically two main types of set-ups. The first is a pressure washer (hot or cold) combined with a drain catch unit and sump pump. The contractor applies the cleaner to the stains and power washes to the sump pump and vacuums the water into drums. The disadvantage of this process is the cost of waste handling is high due to the volume of water used (four to eight gallons per minute). The other alternative is to do the same cleanup process and neutralize and filter the water with super absorbent media then reuse the water which is a process I developed and patented. The advantage of this process is that the oil is retrieved and recycled at a reasonable cost. This same methodology can be used in car washes etc. and actually save money by minimizing the chemical use as well.

So with all of these considerations, what it all comes down to in the end is recognizing that oil pollution may be the largest form of pollution killing our oceans, lakes, rivers and stream. Who can tackle this problem? Each and every one of us, every home owner, with a little bit of education combined with the proper technology and some common sense, can do his/her part to clean up this mess properly which will ultimately lead to solving the problem.