This is not science fiction. Microbial sinks for light-duty parts cleaning are available for up to $1,500, and a growing number of service shops are using them to create a cleaner environment.
Because the microbes feed on oil, the solution needs to be replaced
only every few years, reducing waste disposal costs. Shops that have used the sinks said the payback is less than two years.
Microbial sinks are among the methods prescribed by the California Environmental Protection Agency as part of a free training program designed to make automotive shops more environmentally friendly. A shop that goes through the training and makes the state's recommended improvements is recognized as a green shop.
The goal is to introduce procedures and equipment that will clean the environment and reduce labor and disposal costs for service shops. The emphasis is on pollution prevention, rather than penalizing shops for creating environmental hazards.
"The program gives participants an advantage to market themselves as a green shop and also helps comply with local environmental inspectors for wastewater run-off and air emissions," said Tim Ogburn, a California EPA scientist who is marketing the program for the state. "It makes for a cleaner shop and better employee morale."
In 1998, the California legislature appropriated $1 million toward a four-year pollution prevention training program for oil refineries and automotive repair shops. The program for repair shops was launched last year and expires in 2004, Ogburn said. About half the budget goes to educating repair shops.
The state EPA has trained 600 service shops and local governments in pollution prevention. The local environmental agencies in turn train more shops. Two state EPA regional offices in northern and Southern California coordinate the training.
The training includes an environmental evaluation of the shop to spot potential hazards, consultation on how the shop can be improved, educational literature and taped training sessions.
The training videos cover: replacing petroleum-based parts cleaners with water-based cleaners; replacing aerosol brake cleaners with water-based, non-aerosol brake sprays; recycling waste antifreeze properly; buying bulk chemicals generally available in 1- to 55-gallon drums and using them in refillable spray bottles; cleanup and spill prevention; and effective floor cleanup.
Worried about fines
The program started as a tough sell, but service shops gradually are coming around to its benefits, Ogburn said. Some shops worried the environmental evaluations would lead to fines. But the pollution prevention program is separate from enforcement efforts, and its goal is to work in partnership with repair shops to clean up the environment.
Said Bob Remy, dealer for Downey Ford Inc. in Downey, Calif., whose dealership has gone through the training: "Normally they (regulators) come in with a little notepad and look to fine you. But this is an opportunity for the state of California to come out here and, as a partner, see how we might do things differently and be better at what we do."