Used shop towels and wipes

Used shop towels can become dangerous waste if they are contaminated with harmful substances, such as cleaners and solvents. Contaminated shop towels can be dangerous to employee health and the environment if they are improperly managed. We work with businesses that generate shop towels. We also work with industrial laundries that clean shop towels to help reduce the amount of harmful chemicals they use. We help them identify less-harmful substitutes and establish effective management practices. 

If you handle towels according to these management practices, they do not have to be counted as a dangerous waste and you are not subject to generator, transporter and permitted treatment, storage, and disposal facility requirements in the dangerous waste regulations.

If you dispose of contaminated towels, you must manage them as a dangerous waste.

Durable shop towels can be recycled through an industrial laundry, even if they designate as dangerous waste. If shop towels are handled correctly, they will not count toward your dangerous waste totals or generator status. Follow these best management practices.

Do not dispose of solvents by pouring them into containers of used shop towels. Such practices constitute disposal of dangerous waste and are subject to full regulation.

Do not accumulate used towels for more than 180 days before sending them for recycling.

What should you use?

  • Use cloth or shop towels made with durable materials that you can clean and use again. Reuse and recycle.
  • Use non-dangerous or less-dangerous cleaning solvents. Look for solvents that do not contain chlorinated compounds.

Remove liquids

Remove free liquids before tossing soiled shop towels in containers. Do this by hand-wringing or pressing while wearing protective equipment. An explosion-proof extractor or centrifuge can remove even more free liquids, but must be suitable for use with volatile and flammable substances. Collect and reuse liquids or manage as dangerous waste.

Choose a recycler

Make sure the recycling facility you use meets local sewer discharge limits and other applicable environmental regulations. Do not use recyclers that discharge dangerous wastewater to a drain field or that discharge cleaning solvents directly to the air.

Container practices

Collect, transport, and store used shop towels with dangerous solvents in closed containers. These containers should be:
  • Compatible with the materials stored in them.
  • In good condition.
  • Labeled with the words “contaminated shop towels.”
  • Adequately separated to allow access for emergency equipment in case of fire.
Separate incompatible wastes and maintain secondary containment. Ask your recycler for handling information.

Flammable materials

Manage containers holding flammable materials according to all local fire department standards. 

  • Sufficiently separate from all external sources of ignition.
  • Place clear "no smoking" signs at all accumulation areas.
  • Meet the minimum property line setback requirements for accumulation areas.
  • Container type, color, and labels must meet local fire department codes.

Employee requirements

The owner/operator must ensure that all employees are familiar with waste handling and emergency procedures relevant to their responsibilities during normal facility operations and emergencies.

  • Employees must know the location of all fire extinguishers and fire alarms.
  • Clearly display the fire department number next to all phones.

Other regulations

Make sure you meet all applicable federal, state, and local environmental standards. Some of these may include:

  • Pre-treatment requirements for the discharge of wastewater to a publicly owner treatment works
  • Requirements for maintaining closed-loop systems (for dry cleaners) or other recycling systems
  • Requirements for the proper disposal of pre-treatment and/or recycling residuals

Rules will be changing

We are currently going through a rule writing process that will change management requirements for this waste stream. When the rule is finalized, this guidance will no longer apply. Find more information on the rulemaking. From now until the new rules are finalized, you are expected to follow the management practices explained above.