OSEA Safety Blog

Used Oil v Waste OIl

Wednesday, November 1, 2017 Brenda Griffin

It never fails, when I ask attendees during a hazardous waste class what types of hazardous waste they generate at their facility, one answer shouted out is, “waste oil.” And my response is always, “Are you positive you generate “waste oil” and not “used oil”? At this point, there’s a pause with eventually someone questioning. “Waste oil. Used oil. What’s the difference?”

Well, actually, there is a big difference.

We typically think when it’s time to get rid of something, that something is a “waste”. And this is where the confusion sets in on the differences between the wording, used oil vs waste oil.

Yes, we want to “get rid of” oil that has outlived its performance value….so we automatically call it a waste. But, when it comes to oil, or any waste, the first question to ask is, “is it a hazardous waste?” And it also helps to understand the definitions regulators assign to oil that you want to get rid of.

Let’s look at some definitions and examples:

Used oil is oil that has been used, and, as a result of such use, is now contaminated by physical or chemical impurities. The classic example is used oil drained from the engine of a truck or vehicle, and then stored for reuse, recycling, or shipping offsite. Typically, it is regulated as “non-hazardous waste,” by most states, yet a few will still regulate it as hazardous waste. So, it depends on the regulations in place where you live and why it’s important to know these differences. In New York State, used oil is regulated as a non-hazardous waste while Massachusetts regulates used oil as hazardous waste.

So, why would something that is contaminated with chemical and physical impurities not be considered a hazardous waste (one might ask?). Used oil regulations are based upon the "Recycling Presumption," which states that used oil that acquired hazardous characteristics during its use as an oil (as a lubricant, for example) is exempt from hazardous waste regulation on the presumption that the oil will eventually be recycled. (Emphasis on eventually be recycled.)

Mixing the oil with hazardous wastes or “disposing” the oil instead of recycling it invalidates the presumption. Provided that no mixing or disposal occurs, the oil is subject to its own set of regulatory standards, whether or not it displays any hazardous characteristics. Therefore, unlike other wastes, there is no need for a used oil generator to perform a hazardous waste determination upon the used oil being generated.

Here are some examples of used oil:

  • Synthetic oil — usually derived from coal, shale or polymer-based starting material.
  • Engine oil — typically includes gasoline and diesel engine crankcase oils and piston-engine oils for automobiles, trucks, boats, airplanes, locomotives, and heavy equipment.
  • Transmission fluid
  • Refrigeration oil
  • Compressor oils
  • Metalworking fluids and oils
  • Laminating oils
  • Industrial hydraulic fluid
  • Copper and aluminum wire drawing solution
  • Electrical insulating oil
  • Industrial process oils
  • Oils used as buoyants

On the other hand, this is what used oil is not:

  • Oil that is bottom clean-out waste from virgin fuel storage tanks, virgin fuel oil spill cleanups, or other oil wastes that have not actually been used.
  • Products such as antifreeze and kerosene.
  • Vegetable and animal oil, even when used as a lubricant
  • Petroleum distillates used as solvents
  • Used oils mixed with hazardous waste
  • Oils that do not meet EPA’s definition of used oil can still pose a threat to the environment when disposed of and could be subject to the hazardous waste regulations and management practices.

Waste oil is oil that has not been used, but is found to be unsuitable for its originally intended purpose. For example, a 55-gallon drum of oil was opened only to find that the cap on the drum had leaked, and now the oil was mixed with water…. or gasoline, solvents, paints (anything that contaminated the original oil) etc., rendering it unsuitable for its original purpose.

So, we can’t use it and want to get rid of it…. but it’s not “used”. In fact, it may even be contaminated with hazardous waste. Used oil, by the above definition, that contains over 1,000 parts per million of total halogens is presumed to have been mixed with a listed hazardous waste unless otherwise demonstrated and must be managed as a hazardous waste. And this can happen quickly when other wastes are mixed into a drum of used oil.

And there’s the rub – waste oil is a “hazardous waste.” In terms of regulations, it's a completely different material than used oil and is managed a completely different way.

So, most oils start out as used oil (non-hazardous waste shipped off site for recycling) and can quickly turn into waste oil (hazardous waste) when not carefully managed. That’s why it’s important to train employees on proper management of all wastes, not just used oil, making sure to keep wastes segregated and to not mix wastes together or consolidate different wastes into one container.

Bottom line - If used oil is mixed with fuels or solvents, used oil has now turned into waste oil which can be expensive to dispose of properly, and would be considered a hazardous waste and managed as such. Whereas used oil is managed as a non-hazardous waste (although some states choose to manage both used and waste oils as hazardous wastes. Why? Because states are given direction to regulate waste equal to federal Environmental Protection Agency requirements and the flexibility to go above and beyond the federal regulations is they so choose.)

Now are the differences sinking in? The difference goes beyond two words (used vs waste) to two different management methods (and two different disposal methods and associated fees.)

And to keep things clear, facilities must use proper labeling of used oil tanks, containers, and associated piping. The label, “Used Oil,” must be used at all locations. And why understanding these differences is so important to both understand and execute.

So, does your facility generate used oil or waste oil?

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