Encouraged by the phenomenal success
of disposable nonwoven wipes, manufacturers are now turning their
attention to industrial markets.
|Laundered shop rags have enjoyed a large
market share due to inequitable regulation for disposal set
by the EPA.
High-end segments with critical manufacturing environments, including
aerospace, electronics, pharmaceutical, printing and automobile finishing
are boosting demand for cleanroom, surface preparation and other specialty
The result is a situation where manufacturers are vying for share
in a market traditionally dominated by reusable, laundered shop towels.
Currently, some estimates show laundered shop towels hold nearly 90%
of the industrial wipers segment, but nonwoven wiper manufacturers
are projecting gains in the 6% range during the next several years.
This currently lopsided market is partly a result of environmental
measures intended to regulate the disposal of industrial wipers and
the solvents that are applied to them.
Laundered shop rags have enjoyed relative immunity from these regulations
due to a misconception that laundering for re-use makes them more
environmentally friendly than their disposable counterparts.
A classification difference between laundered and disposable wipes
has exempted laundered rags from the definition of hazardous waste,
and the nonwovens industry is bearing the brunt of this misclassification.
The classification of nonwovens wipers as hazardous waste and the
costs and efforts involved in safe disposal of these products give
them an unfair disadvantage against laundered towels.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington D.C., has jurisdiction
over waste disposal in the U.S., and the Federal law governing the
storage, handling and disposal of hazardous waste is known as RCRA,
the Resource Conservation Recovery Act. For the past 18 years, the
nonwovens industry, spearheaded by INDA, the Association of the Nonwovens
Fabric Industry, has pressed EPA to classify all industrial wipers
by the solvents applied to them, not by the substrates themselves.
These efforts have yielded minimal results until recently, when EPA
proposed a modification to its hazardous waste management regulations
under RCRA for certain solvent-contaminated materials including laundered
shop towels and disposable wipes.
On November 23, EPA sought to clarify Federal standards regarding
the handling, transportation and disposal of wiping products that
are treated with industrial solvents.
For the first time, regulations would include laundered shop towels
into the RCRA program. Since Congress passed RCRA in the 1970s,
the EPA has exempted laundered shop towels from RCRA waste disposal
standards as long as the state governments regulated the laundering
of shop towels.
Shop towels have historically fallen under jurisdiction of EPA’s
Office of Water Management because their solvents are removed in
the laundering process and returned to public water supplies for
processing. This exempts them from the definition of solid waste
and by extension hazardous waste. Unlike laundered wipes, since
day one, disposable wipes have been regulated under the Office of
Solid Waste and could earn the hazardous waste definition if certain
criteria are met.
While EPA feels this proposal would resolve long-standing issues associated
with the management of industrial wipers, representatives of the nonwovens
industry believe otherwise and recommend that more be done to protect
the environment and level the playing field for wipes—a product
some studies show to be superior.
“There is definite growth in the industrial wipes market,
with projections in the 4-6% range annually through 2008,”
said Paul Farren, vice president, and general manager nonwovens,
Georgia-Pacific, who predicted that such an action could propel
industrial wipe growth to nearly 10%. “There have been problems
in the manufacturing segment due to the EPA regulations. Although
no overnight changes are expected, if the rules are modified, any
change would present an enormous opportunity.”
Generally speaking, laundered shop towels remain exempted from solid
waste classification, and thus may never be classified hazardous
waste. Generators must store and transport them in covered containers
after use, and ensure they are not dripping with solvents, a condition
that would allow launderers to refuse a shipment. Once a laundry
accepts the shipment, the generator’s responsibility is finished.
Disposable wipes, if certain conditions are met, can be exempt from
the definition of hazardous waste but have always been classified
as solid waste.
They too must be stored after use by the generator in a covered
container but, when transported to a disposal facility, the container
must clearly identify the cargo as contaminated with solvents. If
disposal is to occur at a municipal solid waste incinerator, the
non-laundered wipers must contain no free liquids. Disposal at a
municipal solid waste landfill requires the rags be dry and contain
no more than five grams of solvents. Therefore, removing solvents
is yet another responsibility placed on the generator.
Additionally, EPA has published a list of solvents, such as acetone,
that under no conditions can be placed in a landfill.
The nonwovens camp finds the EPA’s inequitable disposal requirements
between the wipes and towels questionable, since contaminants possessing
the hazardous characteristics of ignitability, corrosivity, reactivity
or toxicity must be disposed of according to guidelines set under
RCRA, regardless of the wipe style.
“The industrial laundry rhetoric is that laundered shop towels
are environmentally friendlier than non-laundered wipes, which simply
isn’t supported by the facts,” said Robert Peterson,
business manager, new business development, for DuPont Nonwovens,
“The soil on the laundered wipes ends up in the landfills,
via launderers sludge. If it isn’t captured in sludge it can
be released into public rivers and streams. So really it’s
Although the primary EPA goal is to establish a Federal framework
for the handling and disposal of industrial wipers and the solvents
applied to them, the conditions, as written, can be viewed as both
advantageous and par for the course for laundered shop towels. A
fringe benefit for the laundered towels, regardless of the proposed
rule change, is end users with an eye on the bottom line will be
reluctant to pay extra disposal fees for wipers deemed hazardous.
Truth in economics
Hidden Costs for Laundered Shop Towels
Exempt from the costs associated with hazardous waste, one would
believe laundered shop rags are the most economic choice for their
In reality, however, hidden fees charged by launderers can add up.
Laundries assume the user will lose or damage up to 10% of the towels,
and automatically tack on fees to cover costs associated with this
Waste and management costs passed on to the user are generally an
additional 15%. Many launderers will charge users for an inventory
level, not actual usage and factor cost by weight.
In terms of inequities, INDA’s concerns lie in the fact that
identical solvents require labeling for transport to landfills and
incinerators but not for release into public drinking water sources.
Eyebrows are raised because non-laundered products destined for
landfills, must be dry; yet laundered towels containing the same
solvents need only meet non-dripping standards.
“RCRA is not about the towels; it’s about the waste they
contain,” warned Ralph Solarski, of Kimberly-Clark, who serves
as president of INDA’s Focused Interest Committee for Wipers.
INDA believes all wiping products should be exempt, under certain
conditions, from the designation of hazardous waste, but conditions
regulating disposal should be equitable for both types of wiping products
and related to the solvents they contain.
Peter Mayberry, INDA director of governmental affairs, Washington,
D.C., said that INDA agrees with a standard of no dripping. To remove
the maximum solvent, INDA feels generators should hand wring the wipes
before placing them in disposal receptacles. “Hand wringing
should be required because it would…facilitate recycling of
used solvents and ensure minimum negative impact on human health and
the environment,” added Mr. Mayberry.
|Rental shop towels can
come back unclean or otherwise impaired, causing concealed dangers.
Nonwovens Wipers Advantages
Despite regulations hampering a nonwovens’ bid for a greater
market share, industry leaders cite education as an invaluable tool
in expanding that segment.
Several reports laud productivity advantages of task-engineered
wipers over laundered shop towels. Advances in fibers, production
and dispensing technique make task customization simple. The right
wiper can be used for the right job, ensuring consistency in performance.
Nonwovens wipers also benefit workplace safety with a consistently
clean environment that is free from contamination, while rental
shop towels can return from the laundry unclean or impaired, causing
concealed dangers. These include metal shavings from lathing operations
that can injure faces and hands and residual oils and chemicals
to cause skin rashes. Furthermore old, worn, less-absorbent rental
shop towels may allow chemicals to come into contact with hands.
A recent study conducted by environmental consulting firm Gradient
Corporation, Cambridge, MA, evaluates potential exposure to metals
in laundered shop towels. Samples of towels, which had been used
and then laundered, were collected from 23 locations in 14 states.
They were then submitted to an independent lab, which analyzed them
for 27 metals, as well as for oil and grease.
All of the laundered shop towels contained oil and grease, and many
contained elevated levels of metals, such as lead. The study concluded
that metals on these towels can get onto hands and then inadvertently
get into the mouth and be swallowed. Based on using 2.5 towels per
day, the study also showed that the amount of lead that someone
might accidentally ingest from the laundered shop towels was essentially
equivalent to California Environmental Protection Agency’s
(CalEPA) Maximum Allowable Daily Level (MADL) for reproductive toxicity.
More frequent daily use of the laundered towels was shown to have
more dire results, including higher exposure to antimony and cadmium.
|DuPont has enjoyed success
in the industrial market with its Sontara EC engineered-cloth
wipers. They are more versatile than cloth rags, stronger and
more durable than paper and less expensive in use than both.
Nonwovens producers blame too many years of inequitable EPA regulations
on the industry’s lag in developing newer, better wiping technologies
for industrial applications. Those already in the market develop their
product’s quality and delivery rather than invest in new technology.
G-P’s Mr. Farren said his company is further developing its
airlace technology blending the benefits of airlaid pulp with spunlace
technology to penetrate industrial markets. Airlace possesses the
strength required for use in industrial fabrics, and G-P continues
to experiment with various fibers to improve its balance of strength
“The technology for applications in the industrial market
is there, but a lot depends, of course, on the EPA regulations,”
said Mr. Farren.
While DuPont has achieved significant success with its Sontara Industrial
Wipers, the first nonwoven sterile wiping product to be designed
specifically for use in the pharmaceutical, medical device and biotech
industries, the company’s Mr. Peterson agreed that EPA regulations
are hurting the segment.
Some wipes producers, such as Chicopee, a subsidiary of PGI Nonwovens,
design their products for specific industrial applications and the
proposed regulations should have relatively little impact.
Elizabeth Offringen, Business Unit Manager, Industrial Wipes, PGI
Nonwovens, said the company sees moderate growth in the market, particularly
in applications requiring low linting and minimal particulate release
performance. PGI, she said, is continuously being awarded new patents
that combine hydroentangling and spunmelt technology for use in future
|With nonwoven material,
industrial wipes producers can guarantee customers wiper size
and quality control.
In the European market, particularly Eastern Europe, Radoslaw Muziol,
vice president, Novita SA, Poland, said the demand for industrial
nonwovens wipes has not yet reached its potential. Citing education
and time, Mr. Muziol believes that as more Eastern European countries
join the European Union, the standard of hygiene will rise.
Larger companies that don’t rely specifically on the industrial
wiper segment may weather the wipes issue, and focus on more lucrative
markets until the climate is right for further research and development.
Smaller operations with stakes in the industrial market must keep
a close eye on the issue while staving off lean times as U.S. industries
continue to move jobs overseas.
In 1996, Jeffrey Slosman started his industrial wipers manufacturing
company, National Wiper Alliance, Asheville, NC, and chose nonwovens
materials for production because they allow him to guarantee his
customers exact wiper size and quality control.
Mr. Slosman said he enjoyed early success from a robust customer
base, but unfortunately, as the U.S. industrial market shrinks,
so too, does the pool of nonwovens customers.
Asked what the future may hold for National Wiper Alliance, Mr.
Slosman is cautiously optimistic. The rule proposal, he said, is
only the beginning in an uphill battle for survival.
“Five years from now we will still be competing to secure
the same market share, but a lot will depend on how any proposed
regulation is interpreted by the EPA. No matter what’s written,
most importantly is how it’s enforced.”
Based on public feedback about the proposed rule change, the EPA
has three avenues to choose:
Approval, as published in November; make changes based on public
input or simply decide not to issue a final ruling on this matter.
Regardless of the decision, every day hazardous materials are dumped
into the environment through loopholes in the rules that govern
them, and INDA will be on the front lines as long as it takes.
“We are encouraging EPA to address this issue and to go final
with a rule that accomplishes increasing solvent recovery/recycling,
protecting human health and the environment and providing clear,
simple guidance to the hundreds of thousands of businesses that
will be impacted,” said K-C’s Mr. Solarski.
The right thing to do is for EPA to take action and eliminate the
confusion and complexity that has existed for years.”