Beyond Consumer, Wipes Growth Continues

By Karen McIntyre, Editor | October 16, 2006

nonwovens' displacement of laundered rags continues in industrial and institutional markets

The industrial and institutional wipes market continues to offer significant opportunities for nonwovens manufacturers as more users of these materials recognize the benefits of using disposable products. Expensive to launder and often breeding grounds for infections and  other hazards, reusable wipers are more frequently being replaced by disposable wipers, which offer cost effectiveness, better flexibility and more control. However, this market remains extremely price sensitive, a situation not helped by increasing raw material prices and increased  capacity, and continues to face regulatory challenges such as EPA’s Office of Solid Waste’s (OSW) mandates on solid waste disposal.

The market for institutional wipes contains several areas including food service, medical, general purpose and industrial, and participating in these different segments means responding to varied sets of needs and regulations. For instance, food service towels need to respond to food-related issues such as bacteria or cross-contamination, medical items respond to infection control and industrial needs to examine the types of hazards found in the manufacturing environment for which that wipe is intended. These needs are met through a number of types of nonwovens, mainly airlaid and spunlaced, but some other types of nonwoven materials are finding their way into this segment, thanks to the varied demands of its users.

 “The institutional wiper market is fragmented in many ways,” said Scott Eckmann, senior director of Georgia-Pacific’s wiper category. “There are different channels and customers, different applications and (the market) uses many different full line and specialty suppliers.” To handle this diversity, companies involved in this end of the wipes world can either choose to offer a broad line of cleaning products or focus on one specific niche market.

And, while the institutional market is nowhere as large as the consumer wipes market, the continued displacement of reusables is making growth in this market inevitable, and some industry observers expect that someday the institutional side of wipes could become larger than consumer. According to INDA estimates, nonwovens’ role in this category is growing 5-6% annually in North America and this rate is supposed to continue until at least 2010.

“The reason there is a lot of growth potential isn’t unusual,” said Scott Tracey, vice president of Chicopee, nonwovens producer Polymer Group Inc.’s packaged good business. “When you think about all the areas that home care and personal care wipes are replacing, it makes the growth available because there hasn’t been a whole lot of replacement on this side of the business.”

By Mr. Tracey’s estimates, nonwovens’ penetration in institutional wipes is only about 50%. The market continues to use a great deal of laundered woven towels, which are not as cost effective as nonwovens. The cost of laundering a reusable towel often outweighs the cost of a single-use nonwoven wipe. Additionally, users tend to rinse out nonwoven wipes and use them for longer periods of time; whereas wovens are thrown in the laundry basket without being rinsed out.

“When you are looking at laundering shop towels, or any towels for that matter, if you consider the cost of rental and laundry, not to mention loss charges and damage charges, the laundering of towels always proves to be a more expensive proposition than nonwovens,” he said. “Nonwovens will last longer. If you wipe up a spill with a nonwoven wipe, they are typically apertured and able to be rinsed out. A woven towel will be thrown in the bin more quickly.”

EPA Struggle Goes On

One of the key challenges facing nonwovens’ penetration into industrial wipes has been an environmental measure intended to regulate the disposal of industrial wipers and the solvents that are applied to them. Laundered shop rages have enjoyed relative immunity from these regulations due to misconceptions that laundering for re-use makes them more environmentally friendly than their disposable counterparts. The classification has exempted laundered rags from the definition of hazardous waste while nonwoven wipers have been deemed hazardous waste and the costs and efforts behind their disposal has made them unattractive in some industrial settings.

This has been a major frustration for makers of nonwoven wipers who believe that laundered shop towels have a market advantage, due largely to a powerful laundry lobby that helps maintain the status quo in which laundered and non-laundered industrial wipes are regulated by two different divisions of the EPA. EPA’s OSW is responsible for overseeing industrial laundries and its policy allows state and local governments to create their own legislation concerning what these laundries can discharge into the public water supply. Meanwhile, non-laundered wipes are regulated by EPA’s Office of Solid Waste, which maintains a national policy that prohibits disposal of soiled wipes as anything other than hazardous wipes throughout the U.S.

The nonwovens industry, however, led by INDA, has been fighting this unfair ruling for several decades and has made some inroads into leveling the playing field. Currently, EPA’s OSW is re-doing a risk assessment of a possible ruling on the matter, which w as first proposed in 2003 and is currently under review. Among the chief goals of the proposed rule is to ensure that laundered rags and disposable wipes face similar regulations. According to OSW staff, the risk assessment has to be done so that the agency can respond to certain comments that were filed in response to the rule after its initial proposition.

“While we do not know exactly what is being re-done, we do know that OSW has expressed interest in several specific issues, and has asked for data from manufacturers of non-laundered wiping products and industrial laundries,” said Peter Mayberry, INDA’s director of government affairs. “From the non-laundered side (nonwovens and disposable rags), for instance, OSW wants information regarding changing trends related to use of industrial solvents.  They specifically want data regarding the growing use of solvents that do not contain material deemed to be hazardous under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) due to state and local regulations adopted over the past five years.”
As for laundered shop towels, OSW is seeking data regarding the presence of RCRA-hazardous materials contained in sludge generated as part of the laundering process.  We also know that OSW is looking into the changing nature of landfills since the original risk assessment was conducted.  
Virtually all municipal solid waste landfills are now required to have liners, leachate systems and other devices intended to facilitate decomposition, which was not the case 5-10 years ago, and OSW’s interest in these changes could ultimately lead to a final rule that facilitates disposal of soiled wipes in landfills (as proposed, the rule makes it fairly easy to incinerate soiled wipes as regular trash, but somewhat more difficult to simply toss them into a dumpster).  OSW expects to have the risk assessment re-do finished by the end of the year, and solicit public comment on any new data in early 2007.  
Based on comments received, OSW has expressed confidence that a final rule will be issued sometime in 2008.  INDA, along with the SMART (the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association) is cooperating with OSW in an effort to collect any needed data and has been encouraging the Agency to finalize this rule before President Bush’s term expires, according to Mr. Mayberry.

Industry Marches On

Waiting for EPA’s final ruling hasn’t stopped new product innovation within industrial and institutional wipes. In fact, wipes companies have been working hard to balance the needs of their customers with the challenges of a price sensitive market.

“We have spent the last year making sure our product line is what our customers need—no more and no less,” G-P’s Mr. Eckmann explained. “That benefits them by balancing simplicity with completeness of the offering.” G-P’s latest product, GoRag uses hands-free innovation technology to dispense disposable wipers and shop towels. “There are many benefits of this electronic dispensing system including cost containment, hygiene, safety and reduction of clutter,” Mr. Eckmann added. “Costs are reduced because the locked cabinet helps eliminate pilferage and the amount of product employees grab unnecessarily. Because the enclosure on the dispenser must be locked to operate, the product stays free of contaminants in the environment, thus potentially providing even greater safety than traditionally dispensed disposable wipers.”

Beyond usage control, other key demands include health and safety, productivity and cost containment. In fact, most users of disposables chose them because of increased safety, cleanliness and more consistent quality. Of course, the cost savings is also a factor.

Chicopee has taken advantage of the flexibility of nonwoven materials by introducing new food service towels containing wipes with inherent benefits to meet the needs of specific applications. For instance, Chicopee’s new Quat-Safe towels are engineered with a patented chemistry designed not to deplete quaternary sanitizer solutions, which are used to sanitize wiping cloths and food preparation surfaces. Unlike traditional cloths, which deplete sanitizer solutions by as much as 62% after four hours, these nonwovens performed above the 200 parts per million level assuring food code standards are being met.

Launched in 2005, these Quat-Safe towels are soon to be followed by similar products that maintain the integrity of other cleaning agents such as bleach and ammonicals. “If you use a fabric that isn’t designed to work with these sanitizers or disinfectants, the fabrics can render them ineffective. They are absorbed into the rag rather than being used as a delivery tool. These nonwovens are effective in releasing the sanitizer on the surface,” Mr. Tracey explained.

Other new products from Chicopee include new designs in its Chix Utility and Chix Food service Towels with Microban antimicrobial Product Protection. Made through a spunlace manufacturing process, these towels feature better scrubbability and more apertures to capture food particles and easily rinse for reuse. The towels are color coded to prevent cross contamination. Chicopee’s All Day towels, made of pulp and polyester, are more durable compared to regular paper products, making them ideal for multiple cleaning jobs in a day. These absorbent towels with textured surfaces pick up particles and rinse easily.

Also focusing on Quat compatibility is Kimberly-Clark Professional with its WetTask Prep wipers for disinfectants and sanitizers. Billed as an ideal alternative to the use of a spray bottle or open bucket and rag, this product is available in a choice of three base sheets designed for the chemical solutions that fit a specific cleaning tasks. Users can choose the wiper that best works for their task and then add a chemical solution.

Other products available from K-C Professional include Wypall food service towels for quick-serve restaurants, convenience stores and grocery stores. The most recent introduction to this line, originally launched five years ago, is a microfiber cloth that is durable, remarkably absorbent and environmentally friendly. It can be laundered up to 300 times.

Another area seeing a great amount of play is antimicrobials, particularly in the food service area where contamination is a major concern. According to CTG/IFC Disposables’ president Bob Briggs, customers are willing to spend more on antimicrobial-based products because their benefits far outweigh the costs. “Restaurants would rather use these products even if they last for only a couple of days,” he said. “When it comes to rental towels, once they are contaminated, they stay contaminated, until they are laundered.”

Mr. Briggs’ company previously made both woven and nonwoven wipers but has phased out its rags business due to decreased demand. The company has a four-tier product line, depending on the end use requirements. Tier three and four products are launderable, spunlaced nonwovens. While they can be reused, they are not intended to be sent back to a rental company. Instead, the user can reuse them until they wear out and then throw them out. Products in the lower tiers are also made from nonwoven materials but are not designed for reuse.

The many uses for wipes in the industrial and institutional setting will continue to allow room for more nonwovens. “Nonwovens are absolutely ideal to use in these applications,” said PGI’s Mr. Tracey. “Wiping up and rinsing out is also a benefit in terms of food safety concerns. We believe the growth will be significant as education continues.”      

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