Tag Archives: oil spill

Let the science of oil spill cleanup help you in a sticky situation

Accidents will happen, and when cleaning oil spills the right solution depends very much on the size of the spill and its location. Spill Control Centre guides you through the types of product available and where they can, and can’t, be used.

Anyone watching motorsport on television will be familiar with the sight of marshals in brightly-coloured suits dashing onto the circuit with sand or cement to cover oil spilled from cars or motorbikes.

What they’re doing is making the circuit safe by covering the spilled oil to keep it off tyres, and therefore preventing skids, crashes and injury. Crucially, they’re not actually cleaning oil spills on concrete or Tarmac; they’re just making them safer.

It’s a niche spill control method, developed for fast action, but because it doesn’t involve a cleanup after a spill, could be said to have done only half the job.
Doing the whole job requires consideration of how the oil can be picked up and disposed of so it’s kept from harming the environment. What’s more, although the application of cement is good on racing circuits, there are other places where it would be entirely inappropriate.

Oil spill products described

Although there are many effective oil spill cleanup products on the market, they fall into these categories:

1. Mechanical: Useful for large volumes of oil, allowing significant recovery. Containment booms or bunds prevent oil spread, and they can be deployed as a barrier to protect unpolluted areas. Think of the way drain covers work.

2. Sorbents: These can be oil absorbents or oil adsorbents – note the subtle difference in spelling. Both draw off oil using mechanical or chemical means, and allow the oil to be taken away. Some will allow recovery of the oil from them. Absorbents change the physical or chemical properties of the spill they’re cleaning; adsorbents don’t.

3. Bioremediation: These are spores of micro-organisms in a liquid or powder, and ‘digest’ oil spills to leave water and carbon dioxide. Sounds like a miracle cure? Beware; oil contains other additives which won’t be digested, but will be left behind as pollutants. Also, effectiveness of the organisms is governed by acidity, temperature, oxygen levels and the kind of oil spilled.

4. Dispersants: For use when oil is on water. They break it into droplets which disperse further through the water, allowing natural breakdown to happen faster.

5. Surface cleaners: Cleaners break down the oil to make it easier to lift away, and are applied as a powder or liquid. The resulting mixture of cleaner and oil is still a pollutant, so mustn’t be washed down a drain.

6. Miscellaneous: This category covers thinks like sinking agents (which move pollution from the surface of a body of water to the bottom, where it remains a pollutant) and polymerisation products, which transform oil into a rubbery compound – but have potentially detrimental effects on surface or groundwater.

Spill Control

Oil spill cleanup methods and situations

Prevention is always better than cure, which is why we offer a range of measures to prevent spills happening in the first place, like these oil drum storage solutions.

Sadly, spills will happen, for whatever reason so it’s a well to be prepared, by having spill kits appropriate to your particular hazard always to hand. The following five points show what can – and can’t – be used where.

1. Sea, estuaries and tidal waters: Go for mechanical recovery, dispersants, sorbents and bioremediation. Containment booms should be used, where possible, to hold the pollution in one place Products must have approval from the Marine Management Organisation.

2. Beaches and rocky shores: Sorbents and mechanical removal are appropriate here, but be careful to pick those with Marine Management Organisation approval. In the case of protected habitats, you’ll need to consult Natural England (in England, naturally) of Commission Wales certainly before using anything, and also about the nature of what’s being protected.

3. Inland waterways: Mechanical recovery and sorbents can be used, but disposal of the sorbents must be done in line with your Duty of Care and the Hazardous Waste Regulations. Bioremediation may be an option, but it’s one you’d have to talk through with the Environment Officer, who would advise on possible effects on the environment. You may not use dispersants, and the use of surface cleaners is unlikely to be acceptable.

4. Impermeable surfaces like yards, forecourts or roads: Use sorbents and then sweep away the residue. Surface cleaners can be used, but you must be certain that any effluent will be washed into a foul water sewer. Bioremediation can be used, but only if it is subsequently swept up and not washed into drains. Dispersants are no good in this situation. There is nowhere for the oil to be dispersed to.

5. Bare ground: Free oil on the surface can be removed with sorbents, after which you’ll need to removed the contaminated soil. Neither surface cleaners nor dispersants have any value in this situation.

Disposal of oil spill products

This is a complex area, and the Environment Agency has produced a detailed advice document to help. It includes guidance not only about emergency spills but also ‘workday’ spills like ships’ bilges, harbour walls and motor vehicles, and we have included it in our advice centre, where much more information is to be found.

Moisture absorbent granules: where the magic happens when there’s a spill

They all do basically the same job, but picking the right absorbent granules for your potential spill requires careful thought. What might be spilled? How much spillage might there be? Spill Control Centre guides you through what’s available, and highlights what each absorbent granule is good at.

I can’t help thinking that, every time a customer buys one of our absorbent granule products, they’re ready to perform a little bit of magic because of the science behind the product. It’s as though millions of tiny sponges are deployed over the spill, which can’t be picked up, to turn liquid into a solid that’s easily and safely cleared away with a brush and shovel, or even a dustpan, for the smaller ones.

Of course it’s not really magic, unless you count organic chemistry as magic, because that’s exactly what’s happening. Key to the success of absorbent granules is illustrated by their use of cellulose, the world’s most common organic polymer, making up about a third of all vegetable matter.

It has a complicated chemical formula involving carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which makes it a kind of sugar, and we know how readily that dissolves.

Science has moved on a little way from using cellulose, though it still works well, to use sodium polyacrylate, which can hold 200 times its own weight of liquid, and is found in disposable nappies.

A range of absorbent materials

The arrival of alternative chemicals means absorbent granules can be more easily tailored to suit the spill they’re intended to clean up, but their effectiveness is quite remarkable.

Take a 10g pack of granules for mopping up body fluids; that can absorb a litre of fluid, turning it into a solid for easy and safe cleaning up. Not only that, but it works equally well on carpet and solid floors.

Cleaning up body fluids is a specialised area, and involves far less liquid than other spills such as chemicals, oils, and acids. For these, different materials are available, made from particular kinds of clay and even softwood.

Thank Attapulgus for clay granules!

The clay, one of the types of Fuller’s Earth, has diverse names like Bentonite, Palygorskite and Attapulgite, all derived from the places they are found – respectively near the Rock River in the US state of Wyoming, in central America, and the town of Attapulgus in Georgia, USA, where it’s surface mined and shipped around the world.
The absorbing powers of different kinds of absorbent granules come with a variety of other properties too. Some are suitable for use where vehicles need to go, because they are crush resistant; some are guaranteed to be non-slip, and others are suited to indoor garage areas or haulage yards.

Products may also be approved by the Ministry of Defence or conform to European Road Safety Regulations. What they have in common, apart from their absorbing capacity, is that they’re chemically inert and fire retardant to BS 476 Part 7.

A question of scale

At the opposite end of the scale from the 10g bag of granules for body fluid absorption are 20kg bags of construction clay granules, which are available on pallets of 70 bags.
Between those extremes there is certain to be the right product to deal with any kind of spill, and they are also available thoughtfully packed with appropriate PPE to keep the user safe when there’s a clean up to be done.

And finally…

Absorbent granules have a role to play in every cat owner’s home. Cat litter is just one type of absorbent granules product with a very specific use – which the kitten in our picture is just learning about.

Cat litter
Check our range of absorbent granules to deal with problematic spills.

Spill pallets: Ready to avert disaster when accidents happen

Cleverly-designed and robustly-made spill pallets (also known as bunded pallets) are ever-watchful spill containment solutions that will keep you on the right side of the law when it comes to guarding against workplace accidents. Spill Control Centre shows what’s available.

Control your spills.

Accidents happen, and mistakes will be made, they say; that’s why pencils have rubbers on the end. But the rubber has the capacity to erase far less than the pencil is able to write, indicating that mistakes tend to be few and far between. And when those mistakes are made, correcting them is easily done – but here’s the key: what’s left behind is far from pristine white paper once again.

And so it is for much more serious mistakes, like spills of liquids such as oil. The harm they do has potentially much more severe consequences than grey smudges on paper, and can take many years to recover.

Oil and other noxious chemicals can leach into watercourses, killing fish and other flora and fauna, and pollute groundwater supplies. And it’s such a shame that ever happens, given the thoroughness of legislation and the ease of putting preventative measures in place.

Spill pallets – sometimes known as bunded pallets – are the drip trays of the safe storage world, carefully created to match storage requirements, and, more importantly, required by legislation.


Why must you have a spill pallet?

Because the law requires it if you store more than 200 litres of oil above ground at an industrial, commercial or institutional site – and that includes factories, shops, office blocks, hotels, schools, churches public buildings and hospitals. The Control of Pollution (oil storage) (England) Regulations 2001 explain the position in England, and there is broadly similar legislation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Not only do the regulations talk about where – and where not – is appropriate for oil drum storage, and by common sense implication, other environmentally-unfriendly liquids, they are also explicit in the way materials are to be stored.

Tanks and drums have to be stored with bunding arrangements capable of holding 110% of the capacity of what’s in them. If more than one drum or tank is stored in the location, then the capacity of the bund has to be 110% of the largest tank, or 25% of the total.

What oil drum storage regulations mean for you

The Environment Agency produces a very useful guide written in simple language. The guidelines make it plain that spill pallets offer the perfect safe and effective solution. Made in durable and robust plastics they’re available with capacities from 230 litres, suitable for drums and smaller bottles, up to 1,100 litres and beyond in IBC spill pallet form.

Design factors common to spill pallets

  • Durable construction
  • Fully sealed
  • Compliant with legislation
  • Moveable by forklift (though without drums on them)
  • Strong plastic grating as base for drums
  • Weather resistant
  • Oil resistant and easy clean (naturally)
  • SWL of up to 4000kg, depending on type

Outdoor use is also possible thanks to all-weather covers, though some smaller models have hard covers fitted with roller doors to achieve the same objective.

Accidents, even as small as an accidental overfilling of a drum, will happen, and by definition always come as a surprise. Having the right spill containment means that an unpleasant surprise won’t turn into a nasty – and potentially expensive – shock.


View our full spill pallet range.


New oil absorbent uses nanotechnology

A next-generation material first initially developed for use in electronics has proven itself a capable oil absorbent for polluted waters. The new material Boron Nitride, or “white graphene”, is similar in structure to its namesake Graphene consisting of a Nano sheet of single bonded atoms laid out like a chain-link fence. A recent research report claims that when these sheets are combined it forms a coarse white powder that can soak up organic pollutants such as industrial chemicals and oil.

Oil Spill

Boron Nitride itself is obviously not new to science but when arranged in porous Nano sheets, the white powder vastly outperformed commercially available chunks of boron nitride. In tests the powder soaked up as much as 33 times its own weight in the chemical ethylene glycol and 29 times its own weight of engine oil. Better still the saturated powder also floats on water.

According to the authors of the research these properties make these porous Boron Nitride Nano sheets suitable for a wide range of applications in spill control, water purification and effluent treatment.

The research is an extension of the groundbreaking discovery of Graphene, the most well-known two dimensional nano material consisting of a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb structure. It is the thinnest material known to man and yet is also one of the strongest. Apparently it would take an elephant standing on a pin to pierce the sheet – not something you can try at home!

As was the case with graphene the key question is whether the stuff can be manufactured commercially at an economic price to challenge existing product technology in this case the tried and tested specialist oil and chemical absorbents currently available. It’s a long and no doubt costly journey from the research lab to the market place but we wish the researchers luck.

Marinas and leisure boat operators under scrutiny.

The Environment Agency and regional water companies have a statutory responsibility to enforce controls on any business activity that produces waste water generically called “trade effluent” and failure to comply with regulations may result in significant fines to your business. Added to which you have the European Water Framework Directive that was signed into law by all European Union countries in the year 2000. The Directive set an initial time frame for implementation of water improvement frameworks, which had to be operational by the end of 2012, with the detailed objectives being achieved by the end of 2015.


Marinas, commercial and leisure boat operators have a particularly hard time when it comes to compliance given the pollution potential they generate in the normal course of business. Potential sources of pollutants commonly found in many marinas include oil, fuel, boat sewage, toxic metals, solvents, antifreeze, and detergents. As figures show water pollution is on an upward curve the Environment Agency is stepping up its inspections to ensure all marina and boatyard businesses address this problem.

The best way to minimise accidental pollution is to put in place an Environmental Management Plan based on a thorough risk assessment of your business operations. Effective environmental protection is easier if you have a structured documented management plan that the workforce can refer to.

Achieving practical outcomes is based on four stages.
Identify the potential risks and environmental impact
Implement safeguards and controls including staff training and customer awareness.
Check and monitor safeguards regularly to ensure compliance with your management plan
Review your plan and adapt to changing working practices or new risks.

Ensuring environmental safety is often common sense. Siting oil and fuel tanks as far away from water courses as possible is an obvious example but you should also ensure tanks have bunds with sufficient capacity to contain any spillage. Choose spill control products appropriate to the risk and site them in close proximity to the risk. Oil only spill absorbents for example are not effective on water based effluents and no control measures will be effective if they are not readily accessible. Ensure customers, particularly boat owners on your moorings are aware of their responsibilities and know the type and location of spill control provisions available on site. You can also encourage customers to carry their own spill control kits which you can supply.

We all have a responsibility to protect the environment and after all the industry rely on having safe clean waterways to attract more boating enthusiasts.