Environmentally Safe Fluids in the Marine Industry

By MarEx 2012-06-25 14:03:37

By Mark Miller
CEO, Terresolve Technologies

Industry-wide need for “readily” biodegradable and non-toxic lubricants and fluids

Across the globe, an increasing amount of emphasis is being placed on researching and implementing environmentally safe and sustainable initiatives. Bio-fuels, wind energy and renewable fibers are just a few of the environmental alternatives that have recently made headlines. Over the past several years, marine construction services, dredgers, pile drivers and fleet operators have all been exploring eco-friendly products. While contractors attempt to lessen their carbon footprint, many unscrupulous lubricant marketers (some of them major oil companies) are misrepresenting the environmental validity of their products.

One of the main reasons for using biodegradable fluids is that vast amounts of industrial lubricants inevitably find their way into the environment. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates more than 700 million gallons of petroleum enter the environment each year, more than half of which is through irresponsible and illegal disposal. Industry experts estimate that 70% to 80% of hydraulic fluids leave systems through leaks, spills, line breakages and fitting failures. This high percentage is striking considering petroleum, a widely used fluid in the industry, has an extremely toxic nature that damages living organisms, including plants, animals and marine life, for many years. The need for replacing hazardous fluids with more environmentally safe alternatives becomes obvious when taking into consideration the vast quantities of fluids that leak into the environment. The Army Corps of Engineers, Coast Guard, EPA and state and local governments are increasing the range of responsibility of lubricant releases, such as by imposing significant fines, shut downs and clean-up costs, to make the transfer to environmentally safe fluids a higher priority for the industry.

In addition to regulatory pressure, marine contractors and equipment operators are frequently faced with clients and stakeholders who are concerned with petroleum hydraulic fluids entering the environment. Even a small petroleum leak contaminates an area and causes it to be classified as hazardous.

Oil spills
Even with the best maintenance program, there is still a very high possibility of a hydraulic fluid spill. All large fluid releases result in a Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) clean up, and even small petroleum hydraulic fluid spills are “reportable events.” These events involve a great deal of clean-up cost, administrative procedures and punitive fines that can range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While spilling large quantities of biodegradable hydraulic fluid is still considered under RCRA to be a reportable event, agencies are required to evaluate biobased oils differently than petroleum-based oils. As awareness of biodegradable fluids increases, state and federal agencies become more lenient regarding fines and clean-up costs. In fact, there are several case studies documenting releases of several hundred gallons of vegetable-based hydraulic fluid into environmentally sensitive areas with no fines and minimal clean-up expenses. In most instances, the operator was able to continue working while clean-up efforts were underway. Since fluids that are biodegradable are non-toxic and break down into natural components, there were no long-term negative effects to the ecosystem.

Environmentally Safe
There is no uniform definition of “environmentally safe,” however many factors are taken into account when trying to define the term, such as biodegradability, ecotoxicity, bioaccumulation and renewability.  While throughout the United States and internationally there are a wide range of environmentally preferable definitions, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have taken initiatives to clarify environmental performance and testing methodology.

While the ASTM 6064 has defined biodegradable as a function of the degree of degradation, time, and test methodology, there are two widely used designations for biodegradability: readily and inherently. Readily biodegradable is defined as breaking down rapidly in the environment by a specific amount in a specific time frame. Inherently biodegradable is defined as “having the propensity to breakdown,” with no defined amount or time frame.

A readily biodegradable product degrades more than 80% within 21 days (primary degradation) as measured by one test, and greater than 60% in 28 days (ultimate degradation) as measured by another test. A readily biodegradable fluid will degrade long before environmental damage has occurred, making it the preferable choice over inherently biodegradable fluids.  Readily biodegradable fluids require little long-term bio-remediation. Vegetable-based lubricants and some synthetic products exhibit ready biodegradation.

An inherently biodegradable product breaks down very slowly over time, usually in terms of years. These types of products can persist in the environment for several years, continuing to cause substantial damage. They require long-term remediation due to the environmental persistence. Typically, these products are petroleum-based like conventional lubricants. Chart 1 illustrates the difference in degradation timing of a readily biodegradable product compared to an inherently biodegradable product.

Chart 1

Looking at Chart 1, it is easy to see the difference between a readily biodegradable product and an inherently biodegradable one.

The industry continues to require more and more environmental stewardship. It is very likely that soon the industry will mandate using environmentally acceptable lubricants. Making the switch from petroleum fluids to high quality, readily biodegradable lubricants requires careful consideration. Contractors should take into account their equipment, their customers and their stake holders. Operators should also be certain that their “biodegradable” lubricant is truly biodegradable and will meet the performance required by their equipment.


About the Author
Mark Miller is the CEO of Terresolve Technologies, a Cleveland-based company that provides non-toxic, biodegradable lubricating products. Miller has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Tufts University and an M.B.A. from Manhattan College. He has engineered, sold and marketed lubricants and lubricant additives for over 30 years.

Terresolve Technologies, a Cleveland-based company, is dedicated to providing non-toxic, biodegradable lubricating products that deliver exceptional performance.   For more information about Terresolve, field test results and all of its environmentally friendly products, visit their web site at www.terresolve.com or call (800) 661-3558.