How Do I Manage My Used Rags And Other Absorbents?

Information presented in this publication is intended to provide a general understanding of the statutory and regulatory requirements governing managing used rags and other absorbents. This information is not intended to replace, limit or expand upon the complete statutory and regulatory requirements found in the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and Title 35 of the Illinois Administrative Code.

How are used rags and other absorbents generated?

Used absorbents At automotive service stations and other small businesses, minor spills and leaks of used oil and other liquids often occur during activities such as vehicle maintenance, machinery repair, and fluid servicing. Used rags and other absorbents are generated during the cleanup of these spills and leaks. Rags are also used to (1) apply cleaning solvents to parts and (2) wipe parts clean of dirt and excess liquids such as oils and cleaning solvents.

There are two main types of absorbents: (1) absorbent fabrics, which can often be laundered and reused, and (2) disposable granular absorbents. In addition to rags or towels, types of potentially reusable absorbent fabrics include the following:

  • Pads
  • Sheets, rolls, or blankets
  • Socks or tubes
  • Pillows
  • Booms

Disposable granular absorbents commonly used to clean up leaks and spills can consist of materials such as the following:

  • Wood (chips or fiber)
  • Corn cobs
  • Peat
  • Sawdust
  • Clay
  • Cork
  • Paper (wipes or towels)
  • Plastic
  • Diatomaceous earth
  • Pumice
  • Rice and cotton seed hulls

Absorbent fabrics can be wrung out, laundered or pressed dry for reuse. Certain granular absorbents are made from recycled materials and can also be reused or burned for energy recovery. The appropriate absorbent for your business depends on your needs; however, you should choose absorbents that can be recycled or have the potential for beneficial reuse whenever possible. Contact your local absorbent supplier for details.

How do I manage used rags and other absorbents?

Certain management requirements and exemptions apply to  used rags that do not apply to other used absorbents. In general, the easiest and most effective way to manage used rags is to launder them. Used rags that are laundered are not considered a solid waste and therefore are not a hazardous waste. Therefore, testing of the rags and other hazardous waste requirements are not necessary. In addition, using a laundry service can save you money by reducing rag purchase and disposal costs.

Absorbents contaminated with used oil from which the used oil has been properly drained or removed are not considered used oil unless the absorbent contaminated with used oil is burned for energy recovery. For more information on the definition of and management requirements for used oil, either see the fact sheet titled "How Do I Manage My Used Oil and Used Oil Filters?" or call the Illinois EPA Office of Small Business.

Used absorbents contaminated with hazardous substances other than used oil, especially solvents, paints, and inks, should be evaluated as potential hazardous waste and managed accordingly. For more information regarding hazardous waste requirements, see either the fact sheet titled "What is a Hazardous Waste?" or call the Illinois EPA Office of Small Business.

Washing machine If you use a laundry service for your used rags, contact it to find out if any restrictions apply to the type or amount of contaminants on the rags it can receive. If you launder your own used rags in your shop, contact your publicly owned treatment works (POTW) to find out if it can accept the wastewater you discharge or if the wastewater needs some type of pretreatment. DO NOT launder your own used rags if your wastewater does not discharge to a POTW.

To effectively manage your used rags and other absorbents, keep used absorbents that contain hazardous materials separate from nonhazardous used absorbents and store all absorbents in appropriately labeled containers. Also, do not dump excess liquid wastes into containers of used rags or other absorbents; instead, manage liquids separately.

How do I reduce the amount of used rags and absorbents that I generate?

Spilling waste barrel Reducing the amount of used rags and other absorbents that you generate is environmentally responsible and can save you money (for example, reduce disposal costs). The most effective way to reduce the amount of used absorbents that you generate is to reduce the number and quantity of spills, overfills, and leaks that occur during your operations. This can be accomplished by implementing the simple, low-cost pollution prevention (P2) ideas summarized below.

  • Conduct routine inspections of liquid storage areas for leaks.
  • Perform regular preventive maintenance of machinery, equipment, containers, and tanks, such as tightening and replacing leaky seals, gaskets, and dispensers.
  • Train employees and implement good housekeeping measures.
  • Use appropriate equipment for material storage and transfer such as containment pallets, funnels, and self-closing, nonleak faucets.
  • Minimize the number of trips and distance related to material transfers to reduce the chance of accidental spills.

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mop and bucket To encourage good housekeeping, establish an award program for employees with the cleanest bay or work station.

These ideas can help reduce spills and leaks; however, spills and leaks are sometimes unavoidable and require cleanup. The additional P2 ideas summarized below can help you reduce the amount of used rags and other absorbents generated during cleanup.

  • Use drip pans under leaking cars, machinery, and pipes or under removed parts to catch liquids directly rather than cleaning them up with absorbents. The liquid could be reused or more easily recycled, particularly if you use separate drip pans for different liquids.
  • Use a vacuum, squeegee and dustpan, or dedicated mop to clean up most of a spill before using absorbents. The liquid could be reused or more easily recycled.
  • Keep spill containment and cleanup materials in convenient areas and train employees when and how to use them.
  • Store partially used absorbents in closed, labeled containers for reuse.
  • Reuse or wring out absorbent materials using extraction devices such as centrifuges, wringers, or compactors to recover used oil and other liquids for reuse or recycling.
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Don’t line drip pans with rags or other absorbents, which creates unnecessary wastes that can be more difficult to reuse or recycle than the liquid in the drip pan.

How do I obtain more information?

For more information regarding used rags and other absorbents, call the Office of Small Business Helpline at (888) EPA-1996 or the DCCA Small Business Environmental Assistance Helpline at (800) 252-3998. All calls are considered confidential, and the caller can remain anonymous.

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