Industrial Wipers: The Wait Seems to Be Over

By Karen Bitz McIntyre, Editor | July 9, 2012

It seems like the fight to lift onerous hazardous waste regulations from disposable nonwoven wipes in the industrial setting might soon be over…finally, after nearly three decades of fighting. These regulations 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. The nonwovens industry has been fighting this mistreatment since 1985 when Kimberly-Clark made a formal complaint.

Since this time, the nonwovens wipes market has faced a series of ups and downs in leveling the playing field. In 2003, the 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 that a final rule could be published as early as this month.

While details of the final ruling remain under wraps, industry experts at the World of Wipes (WOW) conference last month, 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.

By eliminating this unnecessary legislation, 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 the 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.

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