A Closer Look at How Humanity Deals With its Hydrocarbon Waste

The world needs petroleum-based products, but they come at a price — can we reduce its impact?
Trevor English

Petroleum and petroleum-based products dominate our world today. From plastics to oils to practically everything we use on a daily basis, petroleum is involved in some form or fashion in its lifecycle or manufacturing. But petroleum-based products like the ones we use on a daily basis produce a significant amount of hydrocarbon waste that has to be dealt with. 

To a significant degree, this waste is never seen by consumers, rather it is a byproduct of manufacturing techniques that then can become environmental pollutants. However, hydrocarbon waste isn't just a manufacturing byproduct, this type of waste is all around us. So what is it?

What is hydrocarbon waste?

Hydrocarbon waste specifically is any waste that contains hydrocarbons, which are molecules produced through the refinement or derivation of fossil fuels. Hydrocarbons are organic compounds, or molecules, that contain only carbon and hydrogen. These types of compounds are naturally occurring in crude oil, which is formed through the intense decomposition of organic matter over time. 

While a significant portion of hydrocarbon waste is produced through chemical manufacturing, petroleum-based end products tend to become hydrocarbon waste at the end of their lifecycle. Common hydrocarbon waste products come from tires, rubbers, plastics, asphalts, diapers, and gasoline. 

But if these waste products are all around us in the products we use in our daily lives, how concerned do we need to be about their proper recycling?

How dangerous is hydrocarbon waste?

It is no secret that the petroleum industry is a major polluter. Because petroleum is such a diverse compound, it can be used in many aspects of human life for some sort of utility. Crude oil and natural gas are utilized either as energy or as raw materials to manufacturer products. 

All of the waste from the petroleum industry and the products that petroleum ends up producing are toxic to certain degrees. Some byproducts are volatile organic compounds, which can pollute air, water, and soil to levels that cause severe injury and death to human and other biological life. The ocean also happens to be a major catch-all for the world's hydrocarbon waste. Bottles, microplastics, chemical spills, oil spills and more pollute the world's waters, with devastating effects on sea life. Hydrocarbon pollution in the air is leading to global warming, with all of the other problems that this causes. 


The toxicity of all of these hydrocarbon waste products is on a wide scale and is difficult to measure. The pollutants are made up of monocyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, straight-chained hydrocarbons, and many other oils that vary in toxicity. 

One of the most toxic petroleum byproducts is that of benzene, along with its close relatives toluene, methylbenzene, and xylenes. Together, these are known as BETX substances and they can cause severe damage to humans, plants, and animals. 

Aside from human toxicity, these chemicals can have drastic effects on ecosystems. Entire food chains can be disrupted due to the concentration of certain hydrocarbon waste products. For example, oils can kill fish rather quickly, so quickly that ecosystems and food chains don't have proper time to adapt to the shift in resources — leading to the collapse of entire food chains in a short period of time. When fish aren't killed by these chemicals, the chemicals will often concentrate in the meat of the fish, eventually making their way into other animals and humans, where they act as carcinogens. 

Benzene itself causes leukemia in humans and can increase the risk of other infections in humans by weakening the immune system. 

With the danger and environmental concerns of hydrocarbon waste products established, how does one go about recycling them?

How hydrocarbon waste is recycled

Most hydrocarbon waste recycling relies on companies to take the lead, though there are increasing government regulations around the chemicals and their byproducts. Certain recycling companies exist that collect hydrocarbon waste materials, particularly fluids like antifreeze, sludge, petroleum, and more that can then be chemically neutralized, although even once neutralized, they must still be disposed of.

Hydrocarbon wastes aren't easily remade into other products, though some plastics can be. In most cases, the recycling of hydrocarbon waste involves neutralizing the compounds through chemical processes and extracting the remaining compounds that can then be reused for manufacturing and producing new products down the line. 

Proper recycling and disposal is necessary for hydrocarbon wastes, however, in order to avoid steep financial and environmental impacts to companies or environments. One of the biggest risks with hydrocarbon wastes is the long-lasting effects they can pose in a contaminated area. If the waste is distributed throughout a region, cleanup and recycling can become practically impossible. That's why the disposal and recycling process is often completed directly after the waste is created. 

With the industry being rather a niche, considering the variety of hydrocarbon waste products, many companies have taken it upon themselves to create their own hydrocarbon waste recycling programs. Sometimes this is necessary in order to meet new waste management laws.

The latest tech in hydrocarbon waste treatment

In the educational space, Rowan University chemical engineers recently developed an optimial pipe flushing process in conjunction with the EPA that reduces waste from petroleum and oil production. 

The EPA granted the team nearly $300,000 over two years to optimize pipeline cleaning and flushing operations so there would be less waste from the petrochemical industry. Because of the diversity of oil and lube products created by the petroleum processing industry, it's common for the same machines to be used for the manufacturing of different chemicals. During this process, or rather the transition between processes, the equipment has to be properly cleaned. 

By optimizing this chemical downgrading process, the team is hoping to reduce hydrocarbon waste from chemical companies significantly. 


Another notable project is that of a new hydrocarbon waste treatment site in Togo, Africa. The site will help lessen the environmental impact of the chemical storage company of Lomé in the region, protecting residents from chemicals as well as crops from contamination. Much of the work of the waste treatment site will be cleaning and sanitizing the chemicals that leaked around the plant, removing up to 99 percent of the hydrocarbons from the surrounding soil.

The treatment of hydrocarbon waste is, of course, a rapidly growing industry as hydrocarbons are used in virtually every space. Researchers are even studying bacteria and microorganisms that can eat and process hydrocarbon waste for recycling and waste management. 

In oilfields and on well-sites, some research is devoted to better extraction of the remaining hydrocarbon fluids to leave well sites less polluted. One research study involved utilizing supercritical carbon dioxide to extract the remaining chemicals.

Projects like these, both privately funded and those funded through grants for educational institutions are leading the way in hydrocarbon waste treatment. 

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