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Equipment/Tools / Maintenance / Safety
May 2013 Feature 4

Making The Case For Reusable Shop Towels

Association verifies how and why these are safe, durable choices.

May 14, 2013
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Those of us with decades of industrial laundry experience were not the least bit surprised by the results of new TRSA research that proves the cleanliness of laundered shop towels.

These findings discredit the disposable wiper industry’s attacks on these laundered reusable shop towels.

Essentially, the new data supports what we have always known.

Who’s ever heard of anyone getting sick from using clean shop towels?

How could trace remnants from washing be consequential, considering that our industry long ago mastered the science of cleansing these items to maximize our value to customers?

The only reason these questions are being asked is because it’s the disposables industry doing the talking and there’s not much to say.

Reusable Benefits

In fact, reusable shop towels are greener, less costly and more effective than paper or nonwoven products for removing industrial soils.

Some companies hoped they could make a safety argument because they’ve got nothing else to hang their hats on. It didn’t work.

The study found that worker exposures to 27 chemical elements were below thresholds for potential human health hazards.

This research incubated towels in synthetic human sweat for one hour and measured the resulting leachate to determine the releasable quantity of each element that could be transferred to the skin of workers using the towels.

From those quantities, towel-to-hand transfer of the elements (and subsequent hand-to-food or hand-to-mouth transfer) were estimated within the risk assessment framework used by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other authoritative agencies.

Overall, the assumed conditions of towel use represented by the TRSA exposure model were conservative, such that the resulting exposure estimates likely overstated actual exposure.

Still, hazard indices for all 27 elements were below EPA thresholds, putting health questions to rest.

Field Research

Alternatively, TRSA could have avoided research by simply publicizing the industry’s track record and critiquing the dubious exposure modeling that resulted in the disposable industry’s unfounded claims.

Instead, we sought to maximize the marketplace’s comfort with laundered shop towels by engaging ARCADIS, a recognized international research firm specializing in environment issues.

We wanted to quantify the industry’s shop towel cleanliness level.

Roughly 20 years ago, we felt the same way about the positive environmental impacts of reusables compared with disposables.

Again, we had a track record and in this case, the law was behind us.

Because a shop towel is washed and reused (about a dozen times) before disposal, even if it’s used to wipe a substantial amount of solvent, it’s not considered hazardous waste, unlike a disposable used for the same purpose.

Soiled towels are not disposed — and, therefore, are not waste — until after they have been cleaned.

Also, we had EPA’s materials management mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle” on our side.

Paper towels are responsible for 1.1 to 1.3 billion pounds of waste per year in the United States; wipes used by businesses account for 260 million to 300 million pounds of these.

An industrial user who converts from paper to cloth for any type of wiping attacks America’s largest solid waste problem.

Still, in the 1990s, we were compelled to quantify.

We felt we should generate data on shop towels’ superior economics and limited environmental impact compared with disposables.

We calculated that:

  • A wiping task that requires two disposables alternatively handled by one shop towel that’s sent for washing immediately after performing the task costs 15 percent less; the disposables generate 2.6 times as much solid waste as the shop towel.
  • A normal wiping task handled by one disposable towel (then discarded) that could have been performed by a shop towel three times before washing costs 44 percent more and generates 3.9 times the solid waste.

Shining The Lights On Environmental Issues

Last year, TRSA saw the chance to shine an even brighter light on the environmental impacts of these products, deciding to conduct lifecycle assessments (LCAs) of disposables vs. reusables.

The study proved that reusables create less solid waste than disposables from the harvesting of raw materials through manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal.

But, solid waste is just one factor in defining a product’s cradle-to-grave environmental impact.

LCAs consider a wide variety of such impacts, including energy consumption and water and air discharges.

TRSA’s thorough review of researchers resulted in the selection of Exponent Inc., Menlo Park, California, for the LCAs.

We sought a firm that would command maximum respect in the scientific community.

Exponent is known for tackling some of the most complex technical problems our nation has encountered, hired by government in the wake of the World Trade Center collapse and Hurricane Katrina, for example.

Of particular relevance is Exponent’s experience evaluating large-scale environmental and public health issues.

The company practices 90 scientific and engineering disciplines with a staff of 900 located in 20 domestic and five international offices.

The TRSA LCAs (also assessing reusable and disposable foodservice napkins and healthcare gowns) are nearly final, ready to be sent to a critical review panel, as required by the ISO standard for LCAs.

Initial Findings

Preliminary results indicate that across the range of production scenarios — the different business practices and techniques deployed by the millions of organizations around the globe in making and using these products and their raw materials — reusable shop towels have less impact from cradle-to-grave than their disposable counterparts, regarding global warming, fossil fuel depletion and smog creation.

In addition, when you compare typical (median) practices and techniques, reusables had less acidification (sulfur dioxide creation) potential.

Exponent found that early stages in these products’ lives — raw material extraction and manufacturing — have greater environmental impact than their later-life phases.

Shop towels are superior in this respect in large part because they are produced primarily from byproducts of cotton processed for other textile products.

This is far better for the environment than creating the polyester needed for disposables.

This plows new ground (no pun intended) for the textile services industry, which is naturally focused on touting our products’ green virtues in their later-life phases (use and disposal).

Again, not surprisingly to those of us with “soap suds in our veins,” the TRSA LCA research shows that reusables compare better in scenarios involving heavier disposables and their associated landfilling burden.

Why wouldn’t they?

We invest much time and energy into processes that extend the lives of reusables so they do not end up in landfills prematurely.

Economics drive quality.

Industrial launderers don’t just wash shop towels, we own them.

Because we provide them on a rental basis, we must ensure they remain clean and useful for as long as they are in service.

That means paying very close attention to soil removal and absorbency as they are reused.

The latter is critical to maintaining their competitive edge against disposables.

Science And Proactive Steps Applied

Preserving this capability is a science and requires diligence.

It starts when soiled towels are retrieved from our customers’ shops.

We prevent their waste disposal challenges from becoming problems for laundering by refusing to carry free liquids in the containers in which soiled reusable textiles are shipped back to our facilities for washing.

In some cases, centrifuges are used to wring out shop towels on the customer’s site.

Also, we use nylon or mesh bags to retrieve them and we stipulate how they are accumulated for our weekly pickup.

One technique involves storing soiled towels in a 30-gallon drum with a grate the width of the drum inside, close to the bottom.

Towels sit in a mesh bag hanging down inside the drum from the rim.

Excess liquid on the towels drips through the bag and grate to the actual bottom, which has a spigot for the customer to drain the excess.

“No free liquids” is a shop towel launderer’s mantra.

Most state governments agree that the lack of dripping ultimately disqualifies shop towels bound for laundering as hazardous waste and frees them from being regulated as such.

By this fall, EPA intends to codify this as a federal rule.

Some companies specialize in the most difficult towel work.

My boss of 30 years, the late J. Stanley Coyne of Syracuse, New York, was known as the “Father of the Shop Towel.”

Coyne Textile Services has long mastered the customer communication necessary to ensure that businesses don’t mishandle problematic soils (solvents, oils, greases) and accordingly make towels impossible to launder — and that their people wipe correctly so this doesn’t overexpose them to these soils.

Such education is the key to maximizing safety.

TRSA’s best practices for shop towel users include:

  • Employees must wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as gloves and safety glasses. Slip-resistant shoes are recommended.
  • No smoking or open flames allowed around soiled shop towels.
  • Practice appropriate personal hygiene. After handling soiled shop towels, wash hands and face prior to eating, drinking, smoking or performing any other activity that could involve hand-to-face contact.    
  • Keep soiled shop towels separate from all other goods.

Coyne's customers hail from various manufacturing and service industries and accordingly soil towels with a variety of chemicals.

Some towels are squeezed at the laundry after being retrieved so they are only slightly damp before washing.

Coyne captures the extract for reuse in another industrial process, such as fuel blending in cement manufacturing.

Shop towels are washed separately from other goods, such as uniforms, floor mats and other types of towels, for longer periods of time with different chemistry.

These “wash formulas” consist of multiple fills for flushes, breaks (injection of wash chemicals) and rinses.

It typically requires an hour or more to wash a load, usually at higher water temperatures than formulas for other products; steam is often part of the equation.

Cooler water flushes help at the beginning of some towel formulas to minimize odors.

Temperatures are varied throughout the wash cycle.

Using a large washer is also a key factor.

“Wash wheels” are several feet in diameter, lifting and dropping shop towels over that distance.

Machines that handle up to 1,000 pounds of goods at a time are used, providing whatever action is needed to help remove soils.

Modern machine programming controllers enable washers at the proper time to change speeds, shift rotational direction, change water temperature, inject steam, dispense cleaning chemicals and move on a timed cycle throughout the lengthy laundering process — all without machine operator intervention.

Absorption quality tests help verify washing success.

Here is a really simple approach I use with customers: fill a bowl big enough to hold a shop towel with water; dip the towel to saturate, wrap a rubber band around it; and put it in the bowl.

If the towel sinks, it’s absorbent. How much?

Testing kits are available to assess how uniformly and quickly a shop towel absorbs liquid.

Water should spread at the rate of 10 seconds or less per inch and the pattern of absorption should continue to be relatively even across the towel, not jagged.

Shop towel processing is relatively expensive for laundries.

Companies that specialize in solvent-laden reusables bear significant capital and operating expenses.

Typically, processing shop towels is the most expensive and time-consuming washroom function — 40 percent to 70 percent more — any industrial laundry undertakes.

Because of this level of business investment, we must produce clean, absorbent and safe shop towels to generate the necessary return.

Charles Brigham is member relations director for TRSA, the Alexandria, Va.-based advocate for the textile services industry. Previously, he spent 43 years in commercial laundering and dry cleaning, mostly with Coyne Textile Services, Syracuse, N.Y. Rising through Coyne’s administrative ranks, Brigham moved into laundry operations, advancing to plant general manager (York, Pa.) and regional GM before becoming executive VP, operations. At TRSA, he recruits members, stages education programs and promotes the industry and association.

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