Charley Wilson has been passionate about fixing cars since he was a teenager, but he can hardly be called a grease monkey. This becomes apparent the moment one walks into the service bay of the 34-year-old’s Asheville, N.C., repair shop. The floors have neither a drop of oil nor a mark of grime, and there is no drain where he could have easily washed them away. When Wilson first moved in, however, he scraped a half inch of caked-on filth off the floor, and cleaned and sealed a drain that led to a nearby river.

But Wilson is not just a neatnik, he’s The Organic Mechanic—an early adopter of a new approach to auto repair.

Wilson’s three-year-old business is just one of many across the country redefining what is traditionally viewed as a dirty business. The powerful solvents used to cut grease in most auto shops can cause pollution—not only in their production and disposal, but during use, as they give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Automobile fluids that aren’t disposed of properly, such as oil and antifreeze, can also contaminate landfills and pollute local waterways. But a movement to make auto repair shops greener is underway. Some eco-minded mechanics are simply taking it upon themselves to offer their customers cleaner options, and, increasingly, national and local programs are aiming to bring more shop owners into the fold.

So what’s so “organic” about Wilson’s shop? To begin with, by collecting grease he eliminates the need to use absorbents: kitty litter–like substances that many shops use to soak up oil spills and then throw away. Although oil is regulated as hazardous waste, the contaminated absorbents are not, and they often reach landfills undetected. “When you throw away the absorbents, it’s like pouring oil straight into the landfill,” says Wilson, who started exploring greener auto repair practices in college when he was fixing cars to put himself through school. He became so fascinated with the work that he dropped his plan to become a veterinarian and opened his shop instead.

Wilson has since found a plethora of ways to make repairs cleaner and more efficient. He recycles his oil by selling it to a refinery, and then buys back the re-refined oil. He has also invested in a bioremediation device—a special sink that contains bacteria to break down and wash away grease. Small measures like using a refillable bottle containing a biodegradeable, citrus-based degreaser also help his cause. 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,” says Wilson. “What we’re offering customers is another way to make a little bit of a difference.”

As environmentally conscious consumers continue to look for ways to lessen their impact on the planet, Wilson and other green mechanics believe their way of doing business will catch on. In the meantime, they’re trying to educate consumers and establish credibility in an age of greenwashing and insincere marketing tactics.

To that end, many local groups have established programs to certify eco-friendly auto repair shops. One such program, the Bay Area Green Business Program, started a green auto repair program in the San Francisco area ten years ago; about 150 repair shops are now on board. The program targets regulatory compliance, pollution prevention, energy and water conservation, and waste reduction.

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

That marketing edge is one of the reasons green auto repair shops remain competitively priced, shop owners say. And although the cost of environmentally friendly products is often higher than their standard counterparts, in many cases, simply changing their practices (such as capturing spills in pans instead of using absorbents) costs nothing. In fact, owners actually save money by reducing the amount of absorbent they have to purchase. Other improvements may cost more up front but will eventually yield savings.

Mechanic David Pothier, for example, installed radiant heating floors and a heater fueled by waste oil when he opened Cars Unlimited 20 years ago on Martha’s Vineyard. The entire system cost more up front, but paid for itself through reduced utility bills. It also reheats the shop more quickly than traditional heating systems after the bay doors have been opened, keeping the shop a balmy 72 degrees all through the cold northeastern winters, Pothier says.

Though on the rise, the number of mechanics greening their shops remains small. A 2001 study by the non-profit Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair (CCAR) GreenLink estimated fewer than five percent of auto repair shops were in total compliance with safety and environmental regulations. That group hopes to change those numbers with a safety and pollution prevention training course that teaches federal regulations and promotes practices that go above and beyond those rules. More than 4,000 shops have enrolled in the course and more than 2,200 high schools and colleges teach the curriculum to students, says Robert G. Stewart, president of the association.

“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.”

Story by Mark Vanderhoff. This article originally appeared in Plenty in August 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007