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Reusable Textiles Greener Than Disposables

Reusable shop towels, food service napkins and healthcare isolation gowns have a lower impact on the environment and performed better than disposal products in lifecycle assessments, according to research presented at TRSA’s Leadership & Legislative Conference.

The “cradle to grave” performance of the reusable items was superior to disposals in head-to-head comparisons involving acidification, eutrophication, ozone depletion, fossil fuel depletion and smog creation, according to the life cycle study conducted by engineering and scientific consulting firm Exponent.

Reusable napkins and shop towels were greener in most match-ups against disposable items. However, the results for napkins varied because the range in paper-making impact is large and reusables’ washing impacts are relevant, especially for heavier products, said Randall Wentsel, Exponent’s senior managing scientist who performed the research.

The study concluded bulkier goods, both paper and cloth, can have significant environmental impacts. However, reusables’ effects decrease when washings per napkins rise, the study said.

The raw materials and manufacturing process for shop towels was the primary driver of the reusable product’s green performance. The impact of polyester from disposables is considerably larger than cotton production from reusables, said Wentsel. However, reusable shop towels didn’t fare as well in the eutrophication comparison. Reusables did perform better in scenarios involving heavyweight disposables and their associated landfilling burden.

The study was commissioned by textile services organization TRSA, which represents 98 percent of the industrial laundry facilities in the US, to provide a comprehensive profile of reusable textiles as the more sustainable choice for industrial, food service and healthcare businesses. Previous studies compared only the competing products’ solid-waste generation, said TRSA. A report on the study’s findings will be submitted shortly for critical peer review.

TRSA launched a Clean Green Certification program last year to recognize companies that meet its requirements for water and energy efficiency, including reusing, reclaiming and recycling resources. The Clean Green certification gives the industry’s customers third-party verification that its reusable textiles are laundered in an environmentally friendly manner, TRSA said.

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