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The search for the right environmentally friendly lubricant (EFL) is an ongoing pursuit in many plants. The results of such quests can differ greatly, depending on an organization’s understanding of the type of product it is actually seeking and how it is to be used.

There are many interpretations of the term “environmentally friendly” when used in conjunction with the word “lubricant.” Here are the five most common:

  • The lubricant is “friendly “or non-toxic to the natural environment when in use, and quickly biodegrades without harm when spilled or disposed. (This is the most common interpretation used by oil companies.)
  • When exhausted of its additive packages through extended use, the lubricant base stock is renewable and, therefore, considered to be a sustainable resource based on reduced oil consumption.
  • The lubricant is capable of extended drain intervals (long a claim of synthetic products) and, therefore, friendly to the environment, again based on reduced oil consumption.
  • The lubricant can be used to reduce energy and a user’s carbon footprint. Due to their lubricity and performance under extreme operating conditions, many synthetics play a role in efficiently reducing a machine’s energy consumption, while delivering savings in CO2 emissions.
  • A specialty lubricant is designed to address issues related to specific working environments. For example, an overhead conveyor on an automotive-assembly paint line calls for a chain lube designed with tactifier additives to ensure the lubricant doesn’t drip on to newly painted automobile surfaces. Or a food-processing plant calls for specialty lubricants that, among other things, will not cause harm to humans or the plant’s products.

Lubricants marketed as “environmentally friendly” will vary in their base oil and additive combination and may fit any or all of the above interpretations. Making the correct choice for an application requires the purchaser to provide the lubricant vendor with some basic information on the product’s intended use.

If you and/or others on your team are tasked with making this type of decision, be ready to answer the following questions and provide supporting information:

  • WHAT is the reason for the plant’s move toward an environmentally friendly product? Are you looking to implement or comply with a legislative, corporate or department mandate/program?
  • WHERE do you intend to use the product(s)? You will need to explain the type of equipment being lubricated and its manufactured product, e.g.. is it a conveyor system for painted products, a bake-oven drive system, or a release agent for baking pans, etc.?  (At this point, the purchaser should also describe the working environment/conditions in which the lubricant must operate, e.g. extreme hot or cold [oven/freezer, indoor/outdoor], continual or occasional water presence [process water, washdown water, humidity, etc.]. The lube supplier will also want to know if the EFL is to be applied on a single machine, production line, or plant-wide, as well as what current product(s) it is intended to replace.)
  • HOW is the lubricant to be dispensed to the bearing surface or point? The answer will determine if the EFL is to be in the form of oil or grease, and if it can contaminate the product. You will also need to answer if the lubricant will reside in a closed reservoir; be delivered through a total-loss automated distribution system; be misted; or be applied manually.

Typically, when searching for an environmentally friendly lubricant, many organizations begin by evaluating lubricants used by food and beverage or pharmaceutical operations in the mistaken belief that “food grade” is another way of saying “environmentally safe.”

Food grade lubricants are classified according to how they are to be used in a plant environment. For example, H1-classified lubricants (the only true food grade lubricant) are used when there is potential for incidental food contact. If the allowable trace contact amount of 10 parts per million, or 0,001% is exceeded, the food is deemed unsafe for human consumption.

H2 lubricants are general lubricants that can be used where there is no possibility of contact with food. H3 lubricants are generally edible oils used to clean and prevent rust on hooks, trolleys, racks etc.

Although an H1 food grade lubricant is designed to meet defined toxicity requirements for human beings, it may be toxic to anima land marine life.

True EFL’s are designed to degrade quickly and naturally with non-toxic decomposed fractions and are generally based on renewable sources.

If your plant is shopping for a guaranteed non-toxic lubricant, explore  USDA certified bio-based products. These lubricants are formulated with base products that originate from renewable biological sources, such as vegetable oils or organoclay, and are readily biodegradable and free from heavy metals and other toxic ingredients.

Performance-wise, EFLs formulated with vegetable oils can offer features such as a high viscosity index and high flash point, as well a high degree of protection against friction and wear protection due to the natural lubricity of the vegetable-based oil. On the downside, such lubricants may not work well in adverse temperatures and could have a shorter shelf life than standard or synthetic products.

If you want to make sure you are choosing
the “right” EFL for an application,
work with a reputable lubricant supplier.

Purchasing the right environmentally friendly lubricant for an application is just the first step in a process. Keep in mind that the environmental-friendliness of the selected product will only be as good as your lubrication program. Check out the following tips. They can help keep your plant’s EFLs “friendly” throughout their service lives:

Tip #1: When changing from a less environmentally friendly product, work with the lube supplier to correctly purge all old (previous) product from the lube-system reservoir, lines, bearings, etc. This will usually require the use of an interim flushing or cleaning product.

Tip #2: Review your receiving practices to ensure environmentally friendly lubricants are stored correctly and separate from other lubricants in your plant.

Tip #3: Use only new, dedicated transfer equipment for each new lubricant introduced into the plant to prevent cross-contamination with other lubricants.

Tip #4: Ensure all reservoirs and transfer equipment is product labeled with the correct lubricant type and viscosity to ensure the right lubricant is being used in the right place.

Tip #5: Don’t over-lubricate. Ever. Over-lubricating not only overheats and reduces the life of both bearing and lubricant, it increases lube consumption and exposes the product to the environment unnecessarily.

Tip #6: Follow all of the lubricant manufacturer’s recommendations for spillage and lubricant disposal.TRR

Ken Bannister has 40+ years of experience in the RAM industry. For the past 30, he’s been a Managing Partner and Principal Asset Management Consultant with Engtech industries Inc., where he specializes in helping clients implement best-practice asset-management programs worldwide. A founding member and past director of the Plant Engineering and Maintenance Association of Canada, he is the author of several books, including three on lubrication, one on predictive maintenance, and one on energy reduction strategies, and is currently writing one on planning and scheduling. Contact him directly at 519-469-9173 or kbannister@theramreview.com.

Tags: lubrication, lubricants, sustainability, environmental health