Understanding the Difference Between Used Oil and Waste Oil

Travis Richardson, Noria Corporation

There is a lot of time and money invested in getting good, clean oil delivered to industrial sites around the world today. Upon initial reception at proactive, best-practice facilities, a lubricant may be tested for cleanliness, go through a filtration system and stored in a climate-controlled lube room prior to being staged for later use.

When needed, these lubricants are introduced into a machine where they will lubricate components until they have reached the end of their life, but then what? While assessing lubrication programs in multiple industries it is clear to see the amount of detail put into the front half of a lubricants life.

However, it often gets noticeably quiet when you ask most people about how the lubricants are handled once they are drained from a machine. The general consensus is to put these oils in containers labeled used or waste oil and have them removed from the site. However, there are federal and state regulations as well as cost benefit factors that can be affected by the handling of these lubricants.

Before we review how these lubricants should be handled, let’s first go over the difference between used oil and waste oil. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines used oil as any oil that has been refined from crude oil or any synthetic oil that has been used and, as a result of such use, is contaminated by physical or chemical impurities. To break down this definition a little more, let’s go over the origin as well as machines it might come from and the contamination that makes it used oil.

In order to fall under the used oil specification, it must have started as crude oil (refined oil from the ground) or synthetic oil (man-made oil from petroleum materials). Drained lubricants that derived from vegetable or animal oil can not be classified as used oil.

Typical machines that used oil might come from include vehicle engines, industrial gearboxes and pumps, compressors and even hydraulic units. The physical contamination that makes these lubricants fall into the used oil category might include metal shavings or debris from the machines they are used in, while the chemical impurities can come from the reaction of the lubricant with the above-mentioned contaminants.

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Waste oil is any oil that has been mixed with a known hazardous substance. This oil might come from a machine where a lubricant and a chemical that is a known hazardous substance, such as cyanide, have a potential for mixing.

A brand-new drum of oil could also be considered hazardous waste before ever being put into a machine if it is exposed to another hazardous substance. For this reason, it is extremely important to keep lubricants – both used and new – away from hazardous substances. The Resource and Recovery Act (RCRA), which is an EPA document that describes how to handle and control hazardous waste, classifies hazardous waste in the following ways:

  • Characteristic – Waste exhibits hazardous characteristics such as corrosivity, reactivity, ignitability or toxicity.

  • Acutely hazardous – Waste is fatal to humans at low doses, lethal in animal studies at particular doses or otherwise capable of causing or significantly contributing to an increase in serious illness.

  • Listed as hazardous – Waste is capable of posing a substantial present or potential hazard to human health or the environment when improperly managed.

Waste oil also includes new oils that have halogen concentrations that exceed 1,000 parts per million (ppm). Halogens include the following elements fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, astatine and tennessine. One of the main ways halogens are found in lubricants is through the use of additives.

If lubricants that use additives contain the aforementioned elements and exceed 1,000 ppm, they would fall into the waste oil category. One exception to this would be metalworking fluids that contain chlorinated paraffins, which might be excluded from the 1,000-ppm rule if they are going to be reclaimed.

Now that we have a clear understanding between used oil and waste oil, let’s discuss how to handle these lubricants and what happens after they leave your garage or industrial site. One of the first things you will want to do is find out your local area and state regulations on how to handle these lubricants.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma (Noria’s headquarters), residents can take up to five gallons to most major auto parts stores, as well as the city recycling center, free of charge. When handling used oils in an industrial setting, lubricants are generally brought to a storage container or containers that should be labeled used oil. It is very important to label these containers properly as it could cost up to 10 times more to dispose of waste oil as opposed to used oil as there are different regulations for the way they are handled.

Tank materials, spill containment specifications and any necessary records of the contents of the tank should be noted in local and state regulations. A few general rules to follow are to have a containment that meets or exceeds 10 percent of the total stored volume, and to have an alarm set that will alert users the container is more than 90 percent full.

Another key point is to keep any hatches or openings in these containers shut at all times to avoid catching rainwater; generally companies charge per gallon to dispose of used oil and if the tank has any water in it, you are getting charged for it. If it is waste oil, it should be properly labeled as well and kept away from used oil to avoid contamination and making it waste oil. Some used oil haulers will bring separate containers out for specific oils, which makes it easy for them to reclaim and use again.

So what happens with these lubricants after they are removed from your site? Certain used oils go through a reclamation process where they are filtered of any contaminants they may have and used again in the machines they were removed from. Although this process doesn’t take lubricants back to their original condition it does, however, clean them up enough to be used either one or multiple more times.

This is a huge cost benefit for the site as they don’t have to pay disposal fees or the price of new oil every time they change the lubricant. While most sites pay to have used oils removed from their storage, there are certain companies now that don’t charge you to haul off your used oil; they will actually pay you for it. When companies do this, they are generally doing one of two things; either refining it to be used as a base oil or using it as heating oil.

When utilized as a base stock, these used lubricants are run through a stringent refining process to be cleared of any impurities and oxidation compounds they may have, while heating oils are stripped of any moisture they might have before being used.

There is much confusion among industry today about whether to label consumed as oil used oil or waste oil. Used oil is any oil that has been refined from crude or synthetic oil and has been contaminated as a result of its use. Waste oil is any oil that has been contaminated with known hazards by use or from its original ingredients.

There are multiple options for how lubricants are managed when they are drained from a machine. They can be decontaminated and used in the same machine, reclaimed and used for base stocks or stripped of moisture and used for heating. Federal, state and local regulations have set standards on how to handle the lubricants and, if not followed, legal and financial ramifications may be incurred.

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About the Author

Travis Richardson is an associate technical consultant for Noria Corporation. He holds a Level II Machine Lubrication Technician (MLT) certification and a Level II Machine Lubricant Analyst (MLA...