Shopping for an environmentally friendly lubricant

Ken Bannister
November 21, 2017
Written by Ken Bannister
In these days of heightened eco awareness, the search for an “environmentally friendly lubricant” or EFL has become a common quest.
The search results however, can differ greatly depending on your understanding of the term and how the lubricant is to be used. There are many user interpretations of the term “environmentally friendly lubricant,” and the following five are the most common:
  1. The lubricant is friendly or non-toxic to the natural environment when in use, and will quickly biodegrade without harm if spilled or disposed of (the most common interpretation used by oil companies);
  2. When exhausted of its additive packages through extended use, the lubricant base stock is renewable and is therefore a sustainable resource based on reduced oil consumption;
  3. The lubricant is capable of extended drain intervals – long a claim of synthetic versus mineral-based lubricants – and is therefore more friendly to the environment, again based on reduced oil consumption; 
  4. Lubricants used to reduce energy and a user’s carbon footprint. Due to their lubricity and performance under extreme operating condition many synthetic lubricants play an active role in efficiently reducing machine energy consumption whilst delivering a correlative CO2 emission saving – great for the environment!
  5. Specialty lubricants designed specifically to address issues related to specific “working” environments. For example, an automotive assembly paint line overhead conveyor chain lube designed with tactifier additives that ensure the lubricant that does not drip on to the newly painted automobile surface, or a food manufacturing / processing plant’s requirement for specialty lubricants that will not cause harm to humans or significantly degrade its products if they come into contact with the product.
Choosing the right lubricant product to fit your needs
Lubricants offered for sale and marketed as “environmentally friendly” will vary in their base oil and additive combination and may fit one to all of the above interpretations. Making the correct lubricant choice requires the purchaser to provide the prospective lubricant vendor with some basic information on its intended use that should include:

•    WHAT is the reason for your choice to move toward an environmentally friendly product? Are you looking to implement or comply with a legislative, corporate or department mandate/program? (Canadian lake regions occasionally require mines to use biodegradable lubricants.)

•    WHERE do you intend to use the product(s)? You will need to explain the type of equipment being lubricated and its manufactured product. Is it a conveyor system for painted products? is it a bake oven drive system or is it a release agent for baking pans? At this time, you should also describe the working environment/conditions the lubricant must operate in. For instance, extreme hot or cold (oven/freezer, indoor/outdoor), continual or occasional water presence (process water, wash down water, humidity)

The lube supplier will also want to know if the intention is to apply the EFL product on a single machine, production line or plant wide and the current products you are intended to substitute
•    HOW the lubricant is to be dispensed to the bearing surface or point will determine if it is to be oil or grease and if it can contaminate the product. You will need to answer if the lubricant will reside in a closed reservoir? Will it be delivered through a total loss automated distribution system? Will it be misted?  Will it be manually applied?

Traditionally, when searching for an environmentally friendly lubricant, many will commence their search with lubricants used by the food and beverage or pharmaceutical industry in the belief that a food-grade lubricant is an environmentally safe product. Beware – this is is not automatically the case!

Food-grade lubricants are classified according to how they are to be used in the 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, and 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 animal and 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 you are looking for a guaranteed non-toxic lubricant you are best to start your search with a 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, ESL’s formulated with vegetable oils can offer features such as high high viscosity index and high flash points, and offer a high degree of friction and wear protection due to the natural lubricity of the vegetable based oil. On the down side, these lubricants may not work well in adverse temperatures and may have a shorter shelf life than standard or synthetic lubricants.
Working with a reputable lubricant supplier is the best course to ensure you choose the right product for your application and needs.

Ensuring your environmentally friendly product stays that way in service
Purchasing the right environmentally friendly lubricant that meets your needs is only the first step of your journey. Your environmentally friendliness is only as good as your lubrication program. The following application tips will ensure your environmentally friendly products stay that way throughout their service life!

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

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

Tip 3: Use only new and dedicated transfer equipment for each new lubricant introduced into the plant to ensure cross contamination with other lubricants does not occur;

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: Do not over lubricate! Over lubricating not only overheats and reduces the life of both bearing and lubricant, it increases lubricant use and exposes the lubricant to the environment unnecessarily;

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

Purchasing and using environmentally friendly lubricants is not only good for a healthy environment, but it also provides a good reason to update and modernize your lubrication program and ensure machine health by placing the right lubricant, in the right place, at the right time, in the right amount!

Ken Bannister is the author of the bestselling Lubrication for Industry, (Industrial Press, 2005) and co-author of the new Practical Lubrication for Industrial Facilities, (Heinz P. Bloch and Kenneth E. Bannister, Fairmont Press, 2016). Ken is an asset management consultant who specializes in lubrication program reviews to ISO 55001 standards and lubrication certification training for all industries. He can be reached at Engtech Industries Inc at 519-469-9173, or by email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

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