Industrial Wipes Hang in the Balance

By Karen Bitz McIntyre, Editor | October 8, 2012

As manufacturers continue to wait for a ruling from the EPA, nonwovens wipes continue to compete.

A few months ago, industry watchdogs proclaimed the wait was over when it comes to lifting onerous hazardous waste regulations from disposable nonwoven wipes in the industrial setting … after nearly three decades of fighting. Today, experts predict—like most governmental matters—movement on this legislation will have to wait until after the election.

Therefore, most of the experts interviewed by Nonwovens Industry for this article report that—in advance of these regulations—they are conducting business as usual, developing new products and strategies that will move their businesses forward whether or not the government moves forward (as expected) with repealing these regulations.

“We don’t have a crystal ball to see what and when things are going to happen,” says Stephanie Rossignol, marketing director, manufacturing segment at Kimberly-Clark (K-C). “So, we are just blazing forward with our business plan, examining ways to make workplaces safer.”

The regulations in questions stem from laws enacted in the 1970s to govern the treatment and storage of hazardous waste in the U.S. While these laws subject wipes to stringent and expensive waste management requirements, they have not impacted laundered wipes and rags that have been used with solvents. This difference has given laundered rags an unfair advantage over single-use nonwoven wipers for more than 30 years, industry experts say. The nonwovens industry has been fighting this mistreatment since 1985 when Kimberly-Clark made a formal complaint.

Since that time, the nonwovens wipes market has faced a series of ups and downs in leveling the playing field.

In 2003, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a framework of conditions for dealing with industrial wiper disposal, but it contained unfair labeling and grammage requirements. The next year, INDA, the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, partnered with the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) to compel the EPA to conduct more risk analyses, which resulted in the 2009 publication of revisions to the requirements. These revisions lifted some of the more restrictive requirements and by the time the EPA held a town hall meeting in 2010, there were few challengers. Now, two years later, it seems a ruling will have to wait a few more months.

While details of the final ruling remain under wraps, industry experts at the World of Wipes (WOW) conference this summer said they expect the final rule will exempt single-use wipes in industrial settings from the waste regulations while laundered shop towels, which are subject to looser state regulations, will be brought under federal mandate. At that time, Jessica Franken, direct of government affairs at INDA and others closely monitoring the ruling predicted the rule would be published in August, which at the time seemed reasonable considering the draft final rule was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for final review in late April.

“I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given the far too numerous delays this rule has endured, but we learned in early August that the OMB review had stalled due to a backlog of rules being evaluated by OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA),” she explains.

In September, INDA met with senior OMB officials to remind them of the rule’s lengthy history as well as its many benefits. Although the officials at the meeting were not permitted to offer insights on timing, INDA was encouraged by the fact that the most senior OIRA official, deputy administrator Kevin Neyland, attended the meeting, which hopefully means they recognize the importance of this issue. Still, Franken expects the OMB will wait on this until after the November presidential election to avoid any potential for controversy.

“My hope is that if they can’t move it beforehand, things will start to move forward shortly after the election,” Franken says.

If this unnecessary legislation is eliminated, companies that participate in this market, like Kimberly-Clark and Chicopee, can share findings that shop towels are no more environmentally friendly than single-use wipes. Additionally, they are no less expensive. Industry analyses show that hidden costs of laundered rags—including rental fees, delivery and fuel charges and replacement and disposable—make them about 18-28 cents per use while the average cost of a single-use wipe is about 16 cents.

To date, growth in the industrial wipes market has lagged behind the consumer wipes market and much of this can largely be blamed on regulatory issues. Currently, industrial wipes comprise only about 38% of the total wipes market in North America and experts expect this share could grow as these burdens are lifted. Especially as growth in consumer wipes is impacted by market maturity and penetration, new markets, like industrial ones, will be important moving forward.

Wipes for Worker Safety

K-C’s Rossignol admits that her company has been following the saga of the industrial wiper ruling for many years, but given this judgment is solely the decision of the EPA, K-C has continued to build an industrial wiper business based on what it thinks is safe for the industrial workspace.

“I can’t really give an opinion on the ruling because we don’t really know what the final rule will be,” she says.

Still, one year ago, K-C developed a campaign called “The Dirt on Shop Towels,” which educated consumers on the benefits of disposable wipers over shop towels. Among the information available on this website, www.thedirtonshoptowels.com, are the findings of a 2011 Gradient study that found “clean” shop towels sampled from 26 different industrial sites were significantly more contaminated with heavy metals than in 2003.

The laundered shop towels tested in the 2011 study by Gradient contained seven heavy metals that exceeded health-based toxicity limits: antimony, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, copper, lead and molybdenum.

This study also showed the concentration of six heavy metals were significantly higher than the original study: aluminum, barium, calcium, copper, lead, magnesium and sodium.

Residue of these materials can cause serious health effects. Beryllium can cause sensitization, lung and skin disease; cadmium and cadmium compounds are known to cause cancer as well as kidney, bone and lung cancer; cobalt can result in lung and heart problems; and copper, when orally ingested, may cause nausea, vomiting, liver damage or even death. Additionally, long-term exposure to lead can cause severe damage to the blood-forming, nervous, urinary and reproductive systems. Uncontrolled exposure to very high levels in the workplace has resulted in fatalities.

As shop workers get wind of the ill effects shop rags can have on their health, many are in favor of converting to disposable wipes. In a survey released by Kimberly-Clark Professional earlier this year, nearly four in five manufacturing workers agreed that shop towels should be banned if they are not 100%-free of hazardous materials after laundering. The survey exclusively targets production floor employees and is representative of the millions of U.S. manufacturing workers who use shop towels every day, in industries such as automotive, aviation, printing, food and beverage processing, as well as metals and equipment manufacturing.

Harris Interactive conducted the survey online on Kimberly-Clark Professional’s behalf in November 2011 and it reflects responses from 263 U.S. manufacturing workers who spend at least 50% of their time on the production floor. 

The results show that once the potential contamination risks of laundered shop towels are known, workers nearly universally agree on the need to seriously address the issue. However, worker knowledge is limited, with only 44% of workers citing awareness of an exposure risk after shop towels are laundered.

“This survey demonstrates an urgent need to further educate manufacturing workers about shop towel safety issues,” says Kim MacDougall, research scientist at Kimberly-Clark Professional. “Workers care deeply about their safety, and overwhelmingly express that shop towels delivered as clean should be free of any residual contaminants. Once fully informed of the safety issues surrounding shop towel contamination, workers will demand that these unnecessary risks be addressed in their workplace.”

Wipes Make Themselves Known

In response to demand for more choices in the industry marketplace, Kimberly-Clark Professional introduced a high performance wiper last year. Wypall X90 Cloths provide 75% more oil absorption and 35% more water absorption than Wypall X80 Wipers.

The product is ideal for heavy wiping, prepping surfaces with solvents, and cleaning metal shavings and rough surfaces.

The high absorbency of these wipes, which are also available with 40% post-consumer recycled material, means that fewer are needed to clean up tasks. And because the wipers are reusable, workers can get more mileage out of every sheet.”

This translates into 35% less product waste versus other industrial wiping solutions as well as greater efficiency and productivity. Disposal and freight costs and required storage are also reduced when compared to other types of wipers. Wypall X90 cloths are also portable, so wipers can be taken wherever they are needed.

Wypall X90 Cloths were created by a unique manufacturing process: hydroentangling polyester fiber for softness and oil absorbency and wood fiber for water absorbency with an ultra-strong spunbond material via Kimberly-Clark Professional’s Hydroknit fabric technology. These two plies are then bonded together to create an extremely efficient and absorbent cloth.

According to Rossignol, products like Wypall outperform industrial shop rags because the nonwovens technology behind them allows them to absorb and clean more effectively and efficiently than the scrap textiles usually used in shop rags. Also offering a full range of products to industrial workplaces is Chicopee, a PGI-owned maker of wipes for a number of markets. Among its offerings to industrial applications is Econoline, a universal wipe, the Super-Twill, which can take on just about anything thanks to the extra strength, size and durability and the Triko-Tex, which is ideal for more delicate jobs.

And, for those seeking greener solutions, Chicopee’s J-Cloth 3000 is setting a new standard in industrial cleaning. The first fully biodegradable, compostable cleaning wipe, this unique product combines strength, absorption and unsurpassed sustainability. In addition to its listing as one of Tomorrow’s Cleaning Journal’s Top Products of 2011, the J-Cloth 3000 was also awarded the Innovation Trophy for Best Product at the Europropre exhibition. The DIN-Certco seedling logo and Food Contact Clearance are further evidence that the J-Cloth 3000 combines effective, hygienic cleaning with ultimate environmental friendliness.

“Professional cleaning is all about effective, hygienic practices and products,” Chicopee executives report. “The J-Cloth 3000 combines these standards with a biodegradable, compostable product that is the leader in sustainable cleaning wipes. It’s simply the greenest clean available.”

Promoting the green message is one way nonwoven wipers are competing against disposable rags. Additionally, nonwoven wipers are gaining traction due to supply shortages in shop rag materials, which are being caused by the textile markets evolution into Asia as well as more efficient manufacturing processes, which have led to more scrap material.

“During the last 12 months, the rag replacement programs, both new and reclaimed, have had a major problem with supply,” reports Jeff Slosman, president of National Wiper Alliance.

A big factor for this is increasing cotton prices, which have forced clothing manufacturers to strip cotton from reclaimed materials and feed it back into their operation. What waste is being produced is going back into China, Slosman adds.

“This is a big growth opportunity for nonwovens,” he adds. “It’s a matter of dollars and cents really; nonwovens are going to $1.50 per pound while the scrap is $1.70.”

New Pig Focuses on Worker Safety

While it remains focused on industrial wipes applications, New Pig’s products use nonwovens to tackle a variety of challenges in the industrial workspace. Last year, the industrial products company introduced the PIG Grippy Traffic Mat rug. Billed as a revolutionary absorbent mat with a one-of-a-kind adhesive bottom that stays put, no matter what, Grippy Traffic mat is heat-fused and needlepunched for long-term durability, according to executives. The rug will not rip, shred or fray, even under heavy foot and forklift traffic.

Available in a number of product types, including toolbox liners, a workbench liner and a floor drip mat, in addition to absorbent mat pads and traffic mat rugs, the Grippy Mat was developed to address the challenges of worker safety in high-traffic work areas, walkways and anywhere slippery floors are a problem. The PIG Grippy Traffic Mat Rug soaks up leaks, drips and overspray without bunching up, curling and sliding, and peels up easily without leaving residue behind. It’s been tested and certified by the National Floor Safety Institute (NFSI) as a high-traction surface, which can reduce slip and fall claims by as much as 90% when used as part of a floor safety program.

PIG Grippy Traffic Mat Rug absorbs oils, coolants, solvents and water—a typical mat sized at 32 inches by 50 feet long can absorb eight gallons of liquid.

A poly backing creates an additional barrier to prevent absorbed liquids from passing through to the floor. To enhance absorption and retention of liquids, PIG Grippy Mat features a spunbond top layer with heavy-duty stitching and eight layers of fine-fiber polypropylene.

In addition, PIG Grippy Traffic Mat cuts easily with scissors or a utility knife.

According to brand manager Mark Woytowich, the Grippy Mat builds off of New Pig’s success in absorbents that have been evident in the marketplace for years. In fact, New Pig first entered this marketplace in 1985 when it developed the original Pig absorbent sock, which changed lead and spill management forever.

“What people like about the new product—and we’ve sold absorbent mats for years—is that it stays put no matter what. That’s evident in our marketing,” Woytowich explains.

New Pig previously sold an absorbent mat with carpet tape on the bottom so the customer could get it and peel off the layer; however, the new product features an adhesive bottom and comes in a roll. The fully adhesive bottom does not bunch up like other mats might, causing a tripping hazard.

“Our business is to create products that other people can use to make their operations safer, cleaner and an all-round better place to work,” Woytowich explains. “We have been involved with nonwovens since the beginning. We are an absorbent company and that is our main business. We are always looking at new opportunities for our customers.”

In other new product news, earlier this year New Pig Corporation introduced the PIG Battery Acid Spill Kit in a See-Thru Bin for neutralizing and cleaning up battery acid spills quickly. Ideal for maintenance and storage areas, the PIG battery acid spill kit contains PIG Socks, loose absorbents and wipers formulated specifically for neutralizing and cleaning up battery acid. The kit also includes personal protection equipment (PPE), including a full-face shield. The kit’s see-through container allows for quick inventory inspections and features built-in handles for grab-and-go spill response. Easy to store, the PIG Battery Acid Spill Kit in See-Thru Bin fits easily on a shelf and can also be mounted to a wall.