As global concern for environmental sustainability grows, so too does the need for industrial practices that make a clear accounting of the environmental impacts of production. Unnecessary waste of resources is a major area of concern—especially when it comes to industrial lubricants.
When we imagine oil waste produced in the industrial sector, we may picture a pile of rusting, used-oil barrels waiting to be disposed of. But in fact, even before oil has reached this state, it is often drained and replaced due to oxidation or other factors that compromise its performance. The unfortunate reality is that in most circumstances, used oil is disposed of to make way for new, clean oil. While this waste is considered “normal” in the industry, new technologies are beginning to change this reality and allow us to do more to re-use oil in machine lubrication applications.
What is considered used oil?
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the standards and definitions of hazardous and non-hazardous materials in 1976 by enacting the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). According to the RCRA (and its various amendments), used oil is refined crude oil or synthetic oil that has become contaminated with chemical or physical impurities as a result of its use. 1980 saw the passing of the Used Oil Recycling Act (UORA), which led to the development of regulations regarding oil management and disposals practices by the FDA. These regulations were further altered in 1992, creating tighter restrictions.
In the European Union (EU), used oil management is regulated under the Waste Framework Directive (WFD). This directive aims to bolster industrial recycling practices and promotes the avoidance of waste generation. Within the WFD, used oil, or “waste oil,” is defined as any mineral, synthetic, or industrial oil that has become unfit for use as a result of its function.
The three main avenues for oil reuse are reclamation, recycling, and regeneration. Each method is suited for different scenarios, and each has differences in cost structure and environmental impacts.
Oil reclamation is the recovery or salvaging of oil with the intention of returning the oil to its original service for a time. The process is performed mostly through non-chemical means. Oil reclamation rescues oil from the normal degradation cycle, typically through water absorption and the removal of acids, sludge, and other contaminants. Mainly, the oil is being cleaned by removing some of the most common causes of oil degradation — at least if it’s not too late.
Oil reclamation is generally done onsite but can also be done off-site — a process that involves the retrieval, treatment, and then return of the oil. However, having oil reclaimed off-site could introduce a risk of cross-contamination. Special care must be taken to avoid this.
Not all oil is eligible for reclamation. Most motor oils, for instance, cannot be reclaimed. Additionally, oils that require specific or proprietary additives are not easily reclaimed through existing processes.
Unlike reclamation, where the cleaned oil returns to performing its original job at least temporarily, recycling involves transforming used oil into other valuable products. Once an oil has reached the end of its useful life, it can be drained from the machine and repurposed or re-refined.
Used oil that is relatively clean but is not eligible for reclamation can be turned into burning fuel for furnaces and other combustion-based industrial processes. However, if the used oil is badly contaminated, it will likely need to be treated before being recycled. Waste recycling companies will generally handle this process to ensure that the used oil complies with local regulations.
As with reclamation, some oils are not eligible for recycling. Eligibility depends heavily on the oil’s status, either hazardous or non-hazardous. Oil that cannot be recycled should be treated and handled properly before disposal.
Oil regeneration is a more advanced process that entails the restoration of a machine’s oil to a “like new” state, allowing the same oil to be used over and over, sometimes extending its service life indefinitely. While there are multiple solutions on the market that use the term “oil regeneration,” each method for returning oil to a “like new” state is different.
SKF RecondOil takes a customized and holistic approach that employs Double Separation Technology (DST).
With DST, oil is regenerated: contamination is removed, additives are adjusted, and the oil is ready to be used again in the same application rather than being disposed of or recycled into another application. In some cases, the oil comes out of the DST process in an ultra-clean form—purer than when it was new.
By using an oil regeneration system, industrial lubricants are no longer simply a disposable and consumable product needed to keep machines running. Instead, they become an asset, something to be maintained over a long service life like our machines themselves. Maintaining highly clean lubricating oil in machines has been shown to extend machine life significantly as well, bringing down the total cost of ownership in a variety of ways.
Which option is right for me?
Ultimately, an industrial company that is committed to maintaining assets with sound environmental practices and efficient lifecycle costs may find that recycling oil is the best choice for certain, limited applications applications, while other, more critical or larger-volume systems could benefit from reclamation or regeneration.
In each instance, it is important to work closely with solution providers to identify your goals and needs and make a decision that accounts for oil compatibility concerns, performance requirements, additives in use, as well as local environmental considerations and regulations. By taking a holistic view of our lubricated assets, we can make better decisions that lower total cost of ownership while reducing the environmental impact of production processes.