Oil absorbents are materials that pick up liquid through absorption or adsorption or a combination of both. Although sometimes used as sole agents in recovery of a small spill, they are usually used to pick up the last traces of oil. Environmental Protection Agency rules state that absorbent materials and recovered oil must be properly disposed or recycled according to local, state and federal regulations.
Commercial, industrial and agricultural facilities involved in oil processing, drilling, storage or the transportation of oil-based products are required to follow guidelines to control and prevent spills from occurring and contaminating the environment. Equipment and vehicles involved in transferring oil between locations are required to meet EPA Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) guidelines. These rules include maintaining proper storage facilities and containers and following clean up and disposal procedures. Oil absorbents should repel water in addition to attracting oil in order for them to be effective.
Absorbents fall into three categories: natural organic, natural inorganic and synthetic. Natural organic materials include peat moss, hay, ground corncobs and other carbon-based items. Inorganic absorption materials include clay, perlite, vermiculite, glass wool, sand, kitty litter and volcanic ash. Polypropylene, polyethylene and polyurethane. Rags, pillows, specially manufactured padding and similar fabrics may be used as a first line defense for mopping up smaller oil leaks or spills. Examples of oil absorbents are listed on the EPA’s National Contingency Plan Subpart J Schedule.
According to the Illinois EPA, absorbent fabrics can be laundered or pressed dry for reuse as they are not considered a solid waste. Waste water from laundered rags, however, may be subject to pretreatment or to regulations regarding oil disposal. Organic and inorganic absorbents saturated with oil, particularly those made of granular material, may be burned for energy recovery or returned to the supplier or a service company for recycling. In some cases, businesses may send oil absorbents to landfills if they meet local exemptions and if the material is in a container that does not contain excess moisture.
Oil by itself is not considered hazardous by the EPA. According to CCAR-Greenlink, however, approximately 30% of state governments require that oil disposal must be managed in the same manner as other hazardous substances. Absorbents contaminated with solvent or gasoline or another material that may ignite, be toxic or corrosive in addition to picking up oil may also be subject to hazardous waste guidelines under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Automotive repair shops often encounter these situations, as well as printing shops and other businesses involved in the manufacture and use of inks and paints.