27

I have a handful of cloths that I've used to clean and grease my bike chain over the years. Each is covered in chain grease and other gunk that was once on my chain. I'm starting to wonder what I should do when my latest cloth reaches peak grossness.

It seems like there are two obvious choices:

  • throw them away and acquire new ones
    I'm not sentimental about these cloths, but I would prefer to not create unnecessary waste. I'm also vaguely aware that municipal waste forbids certain kinds of things, and maybe chain grease is one of those?

  • wash and re-use them
    Sounds okay, but what kind of soap would I use for this? And what happens to my city's water system if everyone does this (to say nothing of the plumbing in my home)?

Casual googling seems to turn up a lot of this: "soak all your rags in an ambiguous cocktail of noxious cleaners, then throw them in the washer and dryer," which sounds to me like a good way to accidentally create mustard gas, ruin my clothing and appliances, and court a house fire. And it ignores the question of what happens after that cauldron gets emptied into my kitchen sink or bathtub.

How is a reasonably conscientious person supposed to deal with their chain-cleaning rags?

7
  • 7
    Maybe I now finally have the perfect excuse for not cleaning my bikes - i'm saving the earth from toxic chain cleaning rags :)
    – Andy P
    May 21 at 22:38
  • 3
    You grease your chain? Well, that's definitely a good recipe for producing even more gunk than with the proper lube... Regardless: despite how disgusting this stuff is, I strongly doubt it's anything to worry about for throwing it away. People throw away so much nasty stuff that the facilities must be set up to cope with it. I personally use paper towels for wiping chains, and immediately dispose of them. I do share your concern when it comes to flushing degreaser-dissolved lube/dirt down the drain, would be nice to have some reference on how problematic that actually is. May 21 at 23:45
  • 2
    @leftaroundabout I've been using Dumonde Tech Lite Chain Lube for several years. So, I guess it's probably more correct to say I've been "lubing" my chain. In the context of my bike chain, I tend to use the terms "grease", "oil," and "lube" interchangeably. Sorry for the confusion.
    – Tom
    May 22 at 0:12
  • @tom That could be a good new question - what are the differences between grease, oil, "lube", wax, and carrier fluids.
    – Criggie
    May 22 at 12:42
  • 1
    Is regular clothes washing detergent really not enough to degrease a used rag? I soak the towels used to clean the chain in a bucket with water and plain detergent. That's enough for them not to damage the washing machine afterwards. I'm no chemist, but my understanding is that detergent breaks up the molecules of oils and grease. Isn't that enough? In any case, a chain washing gadget with rotating brushes greatly reduces the need for chain cleaning with rags.
    – Jahaziel
    May 23 at 20:00

9 Answers 9

15

In response to a comment, I will be explicit with the answer. The most likely ecologically sustainable way to handle rags covered in chain grease is throw them in the trash.

The contents of the chain contains not only the chemicals in the original chain lube, but a toxic soup of chemicals picked up from the road surface as you ride, especially if its wet. Washing these rags in another toxic soup of chemicals strong enough to clean them means a couple of problems - one, your washing machine is now contaminated with a toxic soup of chemicals that could end up on your cloths, and two - the toxic soup of chemicals is now running down the drain to where? Are your municipal pipes and treatment sites up to the task, or do these chemicals end up in the environment. You cloths could be ruined (what a waste, hope they are recyclable) and many of these chemicals are classed as carcinogens. If we pick apart the the environmental impact of you dying early from cancer, the is then benefit of one less person on the planet for a number of years, offset by the environment impact caused by cancer treatment of said person.

One of the biggest problems of saving the environment is focusing on the small picture (the oily rag and cleaning it) and forgetting about the down stream effect (Cancer treatment, municipal treatment capability, energy used and carbon emissions to clean the rag and make the cleaning materials and transport them to your location etc). Without fully understanding the big picture, its impossible to know what the best choice is.

If you still worried, consider how much contribution you are already making due to cycling. The rag reduced waste by ensuring maximum life of the bicycle drive line.

Explore alternates to using a rag - what was going to happen to it before you used it for cleaning? Are the alternates any better than the difference between that and sending the dirty rag to the land fill. Reality is it was probably going to endup in the landfill clean anyway.

8
  • 4
    There are actually a lot of "environmental" things that are extremely not friendly. You know those auto-flush urinals and toilets? They're battery powered. Ask your building management how many batteries they use per week for the auto-flush systems. Then you ask yourself just how many batteries are worth the water and nobody actually has an answer. The auto-flush systems just "feels" like they save water. I find it unlikely that clean water flushed down the sewer is better than disposable batteries in a landfill, but nobody actually asks these questions.
    – Nelson
    May 23 at 3:32
  • @Nelson I've just checked data sheets, they speak about 7 years 300k uses. Wouldn't it work the other way round anyway? Without auto-flush, fewer people would flush, and less water would be consumed. As a side-effect the demand for cleaning and thus more detergent (primary energy intensive) might be needed? You are absolutely right in your general conjecture. It is complicated to look at the entire network of consequences!
    – gschenk
    May 23 at 14:01
  • @Nelson a fantastic tool, an online calculator (by a urinal manufacturer, bias!): tools.international.geberit.com/en_gisa/urinal_calculator/…
    – gschenk
    May 23 at 14:04
  • 1
    This mostly makes OP feel even more worried about the waste than before without really suggesting any solutions. 'Think about alternatives' is not an answer, OP did that, didn't come up with anything useful and then asked here.
    – quarague
    May 24 at 17:21
  • 1
    @gschenk except that the auto-flush toilets at my workplace will sometimes flush 3 times during one bathroom use, if you move around. Which definitely wastes more water then if I flushed it manually.
    – Esther
    May 24 at 18:00
10

Throw them away in energy waste bin. Consider this: if you get 10 000 km of use from your bike per one thrown away rag that weighs 100 grams and is made from oil products, that's 0.01 grams of oil products per kilometer. A gasoline car consumes maybe 6 liters or 4.5 kg of fuel per 100 kilometers which is 44.1 grams of oil products per kilometer. That's 4410 times more emissions on a car than on a bike.

Even the steel thrown away in used chains is a far severe problem. 100 grams of oil products per 10 000 km is about 300 grams of CO2 emissions per 10 000 km. The chain that weighs 300 grams and is made from steel and lasts for 5000 km, releases about 600 grams of CO2 manufacturing emissions per 5000 km which is 1200 grams per 10 000 km, four times as much as throwing away your dirty rag.

5
  • 2
    Here (and in may countries) non-recyclable waste goes to landfill. That's still the best place.
    – Chris H
    May 23 at 14:31
  • 2
    Landfill isn't a terrible option either. It means the carbon in the rag isn't released to the atmosphere but rather retained. A bit of oil goes to landfill too but that's minuscule when compared to the amount of oil that drips to the road from the chain when riding in the rain.
    – juhist
    May 23 at 16:17
  • You're right. but stuff degrades in landfill (if the rag is degradable) though the resulting methane may even be captured for use. Here in the UK at least, landfills are fairly highly regulated in terms of leaching pollution into soil/water - while storm drains go straight to watercourses, some of which I swim in.
    – Chris H
    May 23 at 16:33
  • 1
    Just an aside, but it can be possible to scrap old chains and (hopefully) recycle the steel. I know a bike recycling organisation I volunteered at does that, so I keep my old chains until I have enough to make it worth a visit to them. May 23 at 19:19
  • 3
    @JosephCooper I keep a bin for metal waste in my garage, and take that for recycling (along with other things that are recyclable but not routinely collected, like scrap furniture) when I have enough to be worth driving. The metal bin is mostly bike bits
    – Chris H
    May 24 at 10:49
8

Do not try and put your oily rags through a washing machine process. Guess how I know this !

They will contaminate the machine, which is bad enough if its yours, worse again if its part of your rental or a laundromatte.

Every wash after that for days/weeks will have a scent of oil, and in the worst case the clots of oil stay in the machine's inner workings and don't get flushed with the waste-water so you can get full oil marks.

Hand-washing might work better, but at best you'll only slightly improve the cloth, not clean it fully.


In terms of ecological soundness, these rags have done a second life, serving twice the time they would if just used as clothing or towelling. You can still feel bad about putting them into the waste stream, but consider there are people who buy new rags to use the same way.

Personally I use a lot of paper towels. They don't last anywhere near as long and shred easily, but the paper breaks down quicker than cloth. I still use cloth rags where paper doesn't work well.

Another thing you can do to slightly reduce your impact is stop oiling the chain and move toward waxxing chain instead. This results in a far cleaner chain that doesn't pick up grit like oils. Downside is that its a fiddlier process and takes longer than a simple oil application.

6
  • 4
    Paper towel can't be used to remove excess oil from a chain with thick oil in it, or to clean a to-be-oiled chain. The paper towel will disintegrate when running the chain through it. You really need a strong rag. Paper towel isn't it. However, for nearly every other cleaning job on a bike, paper towels are ideal.
    – juhist
    May 22 at 13:06
  • 5
    @juhist The so-called "shop rags" made of heavy-duty paper seem to work fine. Kitchen-grade paper towel disintegrates though.
    – MaplePanda
    May 22 at 18:18
  • 1
    Toilet paper works perfectly fine to remove excess oil since the chain just glides gently through it. It doesn’t work on a dirty, sticky chain.
    – Michael
    May 22 at 19:46
  • 2
    keep in mind that any strong 'paper' towel contains a substantial amount of cotton, or worse, plastic fibres. Worst are things like 'baby wipes' or 'wet toilet paper'. Re-using your old t-shirts or socks is way better.
    – gschenk
    May 23 at 14:53
  • 1
    I know from trying to clean/descale my washing machine that stuff gets into the top of the outer (non-rotating) drum and the top of the door seal on a front-loader, but doesn't really come out again. If you've accidentally got oil inside your machine, the best I've come up with is to wash (non-filthy) rags, floor-washing cloths etc. with lots of detergent on a hot wash, and when it's finished, add plenty more hot water through the detergent drawer - not going for a full drum but loads more water than normal. Some contents helps slosh the water around more.
    – Chris H
    May 23 at 15:34
3

The literal most sustainable is almost certainly mycoremediation, i.e. find, isolate, and/or (debatably) engineer a mycelium strain that just digests the whole thing.

The problem with dismissing this as a practical option is big picture, it's one of very few options not rife with cure-worse-than-the-sickness type issues, like all the ones pointed out here.

8
  • 1
    Maybe not the easiest solution, but likely the best, and certainly the most brilliant. We need more bike shops with attached micro biology lab!
    – gschenk
    May 24 at 16:54
  • @gschenk I take it you've never had to deal with a long-neglected tubeless setup :D
    – MaplePanda
    May 25 at 5:59
  • Seems to me like a 'solution looking for a problem'. The lube is the substance that make this problem complicated, the other substances are much more significant in weight (fibers and dust) and are already common in the waste streams. For bioremediation to work, you need to know what substances you need to degrade. If you need to control the kind of cloth and lube to make sure your mycelium works (you'll probably need a strain by fiber), it's more simple to use biodegradable fibers and lube (apparently already available on the market — if the claims of the manufacturer are true).
    – Renaud
    May 25 at 7:30
  • @Renaud wouldn't a small ecosystem of different microorganisms solve that problem by being more adaptable to a range of lubricants? I don't think it would be a good idea to eat just the substrate and then leave just a gooey blob of old lubricant and biomass.
    – gschenk
    May 25 at 8:25
  • 1
    @gschenk in case of landfill. About the microplastic in natural fibers, it's true, but the rags that were used for that purpose are probably insignificant compared to the regular clothes disposed every year, it won't create a new problem. If the lube is biodegradable, you can also just let it rest a bit to be digested, and bring your clothes to the regular streams for clothing.
    – Renaud
    May 25 at 9:08
2

My rags are all old clothes, bedding, or towels - damaged or stained beyond reuse. I keep a pair of fabric scissors in the garage to cut off as much or as little as I need - currently I have a couple of pairs of worn-out jeans and a pillowcase on the go. A rag can be used in washing a bike (frame etc.) more than once, then can be used for wiping down chains, hands and other dirty things once or twice more.

Finally they go in the wheelie bin for residual waste, which goes to landfill.

2
  • 1
    Down cycling is hardly avoidable with most textiles that are not good enough to be worn any more. Using it as a rag is most likely a much more high-quality use than most recycling schemes for textiles.
    – gschenk
    May 23 at 14:41
  • 2
    @gschenk exactly - wearing/using as long as possible (and giving away for reuse, or selling, if it doesn't fit or suit anymore) is about the best you can do with textiles. Much of the recycling of damaged textile is into rags of some sort anyway.
    – Chris H
    May 23 at 14:48
2

With waste related questions, the best answer is first to check what you can do upstream, and then see what you can do downstream.

The best answer is probably simply the general waste, and use biodegradable lubricant and rags made out of natural fibers (or a resistant paper in fact, clothes and paper are made out of cellulose).

To put it shortly, the rag contains 4 fractions:

  1. the fabric itself
  2. the lubricant
  3. small particles coming from the environment, "taken" by the exposed lubricant
  4. small metallic particles from the chain

Assuming you use biodegradable lube, and clothes in natural fibers:

  • If you live in an area where landfill dominates, your "long term contribution" will only be moving 3. from the environment to the landfill and 4., which is quite secondary compared to the rest of the landfill.
  • If you live in an area where incineration dominates, everything will be burnt anyway. It's likely that 3. is already present in the waste streams (as it is coming from the environment), and about 4. there's always some metal in the general waste streams. In other words, 3. and 4. should have been already consider when designing/operating the incinerator.

[EDIT] rewritten to be more a more usable answer.

2

In countries like Switzerland the waste is burned in specialized facilities. I expect that specialized facility will burn oil just into CO2. Other substances may burn into something less nice but there is also the filtering system in the facility.

During COVID I found that my used face masks make great as cleaning cloth for the chain. They are surprisingly robust, and when one is worn, you readily have another. Unfortunately now this opportunity is already gone.

1
  • 7
    Gone? COVID is still a thing.
    – user253751
    May 23 at 12:43
1

The ocean floors naturally leak a staggering amount of crude oil daily. Nature has a way of handling this leakage. Events like the Exxon Valdez were a disaster not because of the volume, but because the amount was exposed at the same place at the same time.

There is likely little need to worry about throwing a rag to landfill, if you use cut pieces of old clothes to wipe the chain. If the pieces are small enough (one arm from an old workout T-shirt, say), you’re unlikely to exceed what would anyway go to landfill, even if you're a determined distance cyclist.

A more serious problem is what to do with contaminated (used) citrus-based degreaser. Pouring down the toilet seems unwise. That would make the municipality unhappy. For house dwellers it may be enough to let them seep in the ground far away from one's (and one's neighbours’) vegetable plots, although squirrels and chipmunks likely disapprove of this solution if the contamination is spread widely. Perhaps it’s best to consistently seep into the same location (individual users don’t produce that much anyway; bike shops would have industrial solutions) rather than in multiple spots—and hope that wildlife will sniff the location and avoid it. Building dwellers should likely use the industrial-level solution used by bike shops.

6
  • 2
    Do not just pour such stuff outdoors! Even if the municipality is less happy, they can deal with various stuff in the waste water if it is diluted enough. If it is concentrated grease, collect it the same way one should collect frying oils and similar and either throw the bottle in the waste - if locally allowed, or submit it to a dedicated waste facility. May 24 at 8:11
  • We should be clearer on the distinction between solvent-based degreaser, and strong detergents - the latter are probably OK to go into sewers and wastewater treatment in modest quantities, the former definitely aren't, and aren't good for soil either. But with straining and reuse it takes years to generate a small bottle of waste. I generate more cleaning paintbrushes from the little oil-based paint I use
    – Chris H
    May 24 at 10:53
  • 1
    @VladimirFГероямслава Good point. The reasoning goes a little like this. Household degreasers of various strengths are routinely used by all for cleaning outdoor surfaces—stairs that would be dangerous if oily, inclined driveways that likewise cannot have oil, general clean landscaping, etc. Using the same degreaser in a bike chain cleaning tool is comparable to picking up any oils from leaking automobiles. Of course this is all a discussion about used degreasers, not oily rags.
    – Sam
    May 24 at 15:27
  • 1
    @ChrisH Thanks. Clarified. But "solvent-based degreasers" are luckily hard to come by outside of industrial uses, no? If someone happens to be painting and has a bit of oil-based paint thinner on hand, they'd know what to do to dispose of it properly (and it would be a "bit" harsh if it touched the bike's paint, so they'd need to have a serious need for it).
    – Sam
    May 24 at 15:30
  • @Sam not really. There's plenty of stuff sold mainly for use with wet paint that won't do much to dry paint (and especially factory finishes on bikes); things sold as fuels; denatured alcohol; even nail polish remover (which might be the worst for your paint). But I wouldn't go using those on the bike itself, except in tiny quantities (like softening old grease in a shifter), instead I'd use them on stripped-down components
    – Chris H
    May 24 at 17:42
0

I use chain cleaner to clean the dirty oil and whatever picked up from the road. The chain cleaner fluid I use claims to be 100% biodegradable, natural, plant-based. The waste from this process just goes to grey water.

I then spray lube on the chain and wipe excess using a piece of rag. Even after cleaning, there will be black stains on the rag. I throw the rag in the washing machine together with other laundry (without my wife knowledge). The result is clean (i.e. not oily) rag with black stains still on it. No noticeable effect to the rest of the laundry or the washing machine.

Sometimes I end up with excess of rags, at that point I just put them in a bag for non-reusable fabric and drop it at nearby H&M shop, they say they recycle all kinds of fabric.

H&M Hennes & Mauritz AB (H&M) is a Swedish multinational clothing company headquartered in Stockholm.

3
  • 2
    -1 as this is not good advice: the risk of contaminating the washing machine is not addressed and far outweighs any advantage by saving the old rag.
    – gschenk
    May 23 at 14:39
  • Having got chain grease on clothes, I know how hard it is to shift the stains, but at least they don't shed marks after a wash. The small stains I get on jersey don't appear to transfer to other clothes or the machine, but I wouldn't want to do this with heavily soiled rags
    – Chris H
    May 23 at 14:51
  • 2
    @gschenk my take on washing machine contamination is the detergent is good enough to remove lube traces. It's surely gone after a few wash cycle, if not the first one. It's not hard to test yourself, just pour some lube on something and mix it with detergent solution then see how it behave
    – imel96
    May 23 at 21:30

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.