Customer Questions: How to Dispose of Used Absorbents

Person holding used oil absorbent mat during spill cleanup

Over the years, many customers have asked us how to dispose of oil contaminated material like oil absorbent pads, oily rags, dry oil and even oil-soaked cat litter. Disposing of oil-soaked absorbents depends on several factors: have the absorbents or soaked-up oil come into contact with any hazardous waste; do you plan on recycling the absorbents; and what the local and state regulations are in your location.

Is Your Oil-soaked Absorbent Considered Hazardous Waste?

Absorbents — including socks, mats, pillows, sawdust, clay, paper towels and chicken feathers — are typically non-hazardous in their virgin form and can be disposed of in a solid waste landfill. But once they take in oil, you need to make a determination.

Oil-soaked absorbent pads, socks, pillows and loose particulates might be considered hazardous if the oil and/or absorbents come into contact with a listed hazardous waste or if the oil-soaked absorbents exhibit a characteristic of hazardous waste [40 CFR 261.3(a)(2)(i)]. In this case, the absorbents should be disposed of according to the rules and regulations that govern the hazardous waste it came into contact with. (Read our article on RCRA Listed and Characteristic Wastes for details.)

Will You Recycle Your Used Oil?

When it comes to used oil, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have special management standards. These standards, however, only apply to used oil being recycled.

While it’s true that recycling can exempt you from full RCRA regulation, you may still have to follow a less intense set of rules.

The two most common methods of recycling used oil are burning it for energy recovery and re-refining.

Burning oil-soaked absorbents for energy recovery is a recycling process that involves removing water and physical contaminants from the used oil, then using it to power either an industrial process or to produce heat for cement kilns. Because used oil burns well, it is a valuable feedstock that can be used in place of virgin materials to produce heat energy.

Re-refining oil removes contaminants, and is a preferred recycling method because it only takes about one-third of the energy that it would normally take to refine oil from crude. Keep in mind that this process only pertains to liquids, so your oil-soaked absorbents would not be candidates for re-refining.

State and Local Regulations and Requirements

You should also keep in mind that when it comes to oil-soaked absorbents, many states, local municipalities and landfills have requirements that exceed the federal rules. Facility owners and managers are responsible for knowing and following those rules. For example, in California, used oil and oil-soaked absorbents are always considered hazardous and must be managed as hazardous waste.

Most states have outreach programs to help facilities understand regulations and create plans to comply with them. The EPA also has a waste decision tool, articles, webinars and other items to help facilities with disposal.

Properly disposing of spent absorbents will help your facility avoid non-compliance fines and minimize your impact on the environment.

How to Manage Oil-soaked Absorbents

Managing oil-soaked absorbents properly makes things easier for facilities and companies that will eventually recycle their oily pads and rags. Collecting oil-soaked absorbents in drums or containers that are clearly marked with the words “used oil” will help prevent them being mixed with other waste streams. Keeping the containers closed will also help keep this valuable commodity from being mixed with other non-recyclable waste.

Check out our exclusive white paper to learn more Best Management Practices for Used Oil.

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