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How Industrial Wiping Can Be Environmentally Sustainable

Given the number of industrial wipes used every day by large and small industrial facilities alike, is it possible for a facility’s use of industrial wipers to be environmentally sustainable? The answer is “yes” if the facility considers the entire wiper product lifecycle in its purchasing policies for this ubiquitous tool.

Given the number of industrial wipes used every day by large and small industrial facilities alike, is it possible for a facility’s use of industrial wipers to be environmentally sustainable? The answer is “yes” if the facility considers the entire wiper product lifecycle in its purchasing policies for this ubiquitous tool.

The Product Lifecycle

When selecting industrial wipers, purchasers will want to ensure that the wiper will efficiently perform the task or tasks expected of it. Purchasers should also ensure that the wiper is as environmentally sustainable as possible.

When purchasing “green” or environmentally sustainable products of any kind, many people look for the amount of recycled content in the product or for the product itself to be easily recyclable. However, while recycled content and the ability to recycle a used product are important factors, they don’t paint a full picture of a product’s true environmental sustainability. Instead, an environmentally sustainable product is one that is produced, used, and disposed of in ways that can lower its overall impact on the environment.

When examining a product’s entire lifecycle, consider the following elements:

  • How the product is designed to reduce consumption throughout its entire life.
  • How the raw materials that go into production of the product are sourced responsibly and sustainably.
  • How the use of natural resources and the amount of waste generated by the product’s manufacture are reduced.
  • How the product is packaged, handled, and transported to reduce the impact of distribution.
  • How the product performs in ways that help product users use less and waste less.
  • How the product is designed, packaged, and used so as to send as little waste to landfills as possible.

Product suppliers are beginning to conduct lifecycle assessments to give purchasers a better understanding of the full environmental impact of their products. This type of assessment is particularly useful to avoid shifting environmental issues from one place to another.

The Product Lifecycle of Rental Shop Towels

Wipers generally fall into two categories: textiles (including rags and rental shop towels) and disposables (including paper-based and non-woven wipers).

The lifecycle of a rental shop towel starts at the textile facility. New towels are shipped (oftentimes from overseas) and eventually arrive at a commercial laundry facility, consuming various types of fossil fuels along the way.

From here, the towels are distributed to their first industrial customer. After each round of use, the launderer picks up the dirty towels from the industrial customer and returns them, via truck, to the laundering facility for cleaning, which consumes additional fossil fuels. These used towels frequently contain hazardous industrial solvents and chemicals, or even heavy metals, from the processes in which they are used. These contaminants can build up in the recycled water within the launderer’s process and, ultimately, be re-deposited onto clean towels.

After the towels are laundered and possibly cross-contaminated, they are sent out again—typically to a different industrial customer, carrying their contaminants with them. Each trip consumes fossil fuels on its way back and forth to the customer. 

Back at the laundry facility, the waste from the laundering process can end up in several places. For example, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) contained in the dirty towels can evaporate into the air, affecting the environment and subjecting laundry workers to the dangerous vapors. In fact, a California launderer was recently fined almost half a million dollars for failure to meet air emission standards while processing rags that contained solvents such as benzene, chloroform, and trichloroethylene. 

Another concern is that the water consumed in the washing cycle is released or washed out, possibly containing residual solvents and chemicals left behind by the laundered towels. The effluent water is then processed by the local publicly-owned treatment works.

The laundering of reusable shop towels is responsible for as much as 95 percent of the organic, inorganic, and metal contamination in the wastewater of industrial laundries. And it is estimated that 80 percent of the 13 million pounds of hazardous contamination industrial laundries discharge into municipal sewer systems every year comes from the wastewater of laundered shop towels.

Then, there’s the matter of the sludge generated by the oil, grease, grime, and residues deposited from the dirty towels and captured within the laundry process. This sludge is usually taken and deposited into a landfill. 

Finally, while a laundered towel can be re-used multiple times, it eventually becomes too dirty, worn, and ratty for further use. Thus, it will ultimately join the sludge at the landfill.

The Product Lifecycle of Disposable Wipers

Some disposable wipers are designed from the beginning to be more environmentally sustainable than others. 

For example, in terms of the raw materials used to produce the product, one new environmentally responsible wiper recently launched into the marketplace contains 40 percent post-consumer recycled fiber in the base sheet—meeting the EPA’s Comprehensive Procurement Guidelines for industrial wipers—and up to 100 percent post-consumer recycled fiber for packaging. The 40 percent post-consumer recycled fiber comes from old corrugated containers at one of the producer’s mills, converting up to seven cardboard boxes into finished product and saving this material from entering a landfill. Another disposable wiper is manufactured using sorted office paper waste as pulp, converting up to a 500-page ream of paper into the finished product and saving this material from entering a landfill. 

Wiper purchasers would be wise to look not only at the recycled content of wipers, but also at the source of any virgin fiber used to make sure it’s being sourced sustainably.

Purchasers also would be wise to investigate how the wipers are manufactured. Does the manufacturer limit the amount of energy and water consumed to produce the wiper? Are they using innovative manufacturing technologies to help reduce the amount of raw materials needed to produce the wiper?

  • Even a 10 percent decrease in manufacturing material waste per wiper can save:
  • 1,656 tons of fiber = 8,598 trees saved.
  • 3,948,408 gallons of water = Enough to fill up 197 backyard
    swimming pools.
  • 23.6 billion BTUs of energy.

Another key step in the wiper’s product lifecycle is how and where it is transported. Everything from the fuel efficiency of the vehicles used to transport the wiper as well as the locations of the facilities in the supply chain through which the product moves all have an impact on the wiper’s environmental footprint. Decisions made by the wiper producer at the product design stage play a role here.

Efficient usage is another factor in a wiper’s product lifecycle. Because disposable wipers are designed from the start to handle specific wiping tasks (e.g., the wiper you choose to wipe up grease from the shop floor isn’t the same wiper you would use for detail and final assembly wiping), they are engineered to provide exacting performance. That means, in many cases, fewer wipers can be used for a specific wiping task than with textile-based shop towels or rags.

In terms of disposal—the final step in the wiper lifecycle—disposable wipers are designed to be disposed of in a landfill. But while that may seem less than desirable from an environmental sustainability point of view, consider the following:

  • By selecting the right task-engineered disposable wiper for each wiping task, users can use fewer wipers, thus sending fewer wipers to landfill. Some disposable wipers are sturdy enough for extended use, which can also reduce the number of used wipers sent to landfill.
  • By selecting disposable wipers shipped with less packaging material, users can send less packaging material to landfill.
  • Disposable wipers are responsible for 30 percent less landfilled solid waste than laundered shop towels, contributing only one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s landfilled waste.
  • Some suppliers of disposable wipers offer a zero-landfill option where waste is converted to energy through incineration, thereby diverting the wiper waste from a landfill.


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