How to Safely Store and Dispose of Flammable Rags

Rags in can of oil stain

Popular projects like painting a room or refinishing a wood deck can transform the look of your home. Improper disposal of oily rags used on such projects also can transform the look of your home but in a different way. You can safely clean paintbrushes with mineral spirits or paint thinner, but what about the rags and other materials that do not get cleaned but just get thrown away?

Spontaneous Combustion Is Real

Simply put, spontaneous combustion is a fire starting without a match or spark. It's real and, unfortunately, not so uncommon. According to a 2011 report by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), about 1,600 residences per year experience fires due to spontaneous combustion or chemical reaction. And the most common causes of these fires are oily rags.

How Oily Rags Start Fires

Products that contain certain oils dry, or cure, through a chemical reaction called oxidation. This process uses oxygen and creates its own heat. If that heat is contained, such as in a pile of oily rags, it can get hot enough to reach the ignition point of the host material; in this case, cotton or whatever the rag is made of. And that's all it takes.

Oxidation occurs with or without light, wind, or external heat sources. Piles of rags are prone to spontaneous combustion because the piles of fabric trap the heat and the fabric often has a relatively low ignition point (the temperature at which they ignite). By contrast, when you apply an oil stain to a deck or a piece of furniture, heat from the oxidizing oil is immediately dissipated into the air.

How to Store and Dispose of Oily Rags

The easiest and safest way to store and dispose of flammable oily rags is to use this method:

  • Place the rags in an empty metal container that has a tight metal lid, such as an old paint can.
  • Fill the container with water until the rags are submerged;
  • Seal the can tightly with its metal lid.
  • Take the container to your local hazardous waste disposal center or arrange a special pickup by your garbage pickup service. Many municipalities also host hazardous waste drop off/pickup days). Never pour oily water down a drain in or around your home.

Another option is to let the rags dry fully before disposing of them. The important thing here is to allow the oil product to cure fully so that the oxidation process is complete and no longer creating heat:

  • Lay out or hang the oily rags in a single layer in an outdoor area that is out of the sun and well-ventilated. Be sure to lay them on a noncombustible surface, such as bare soil or concrete; do not lay them on your recently oiled deck, for example.
  • Let the rags dry fully, for at least 2 days, but possibly longer, depending on the product.
  • Dispose of the dried rags as directed by your garbage pickup service or local hazardous waste disposal center.