When selling your service of shop towels, napkins or isolation gowns, TRSA’s 2013 life cycle assessment (LCA) is your go-to resource to prove the superior sustainability of reusable textile products compared with disposables.
Commissioning the LCA was a major investment by TRSA in communicating the virtues of the linen, uniform and facility services industry to your customers and prospects. This research quantifies the natural resources needed and waste generated in the manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal of various reusable and disposable versions of these products. “The findings suggest that across the wide variety of available products’ materials and weights, reusables have the lowest environmental impact throughout their normal life cycle,” explained TRSA President and CEO Joseph Ricci.
Results reinforce TRSA members’ longstanding competitive advantage over disposables manufacturers due to the favorable economics of textile reuse and commercial laundering. Now reusables’ lower environmental impact can be added to the case that they are the more sustainable option for businesses.
According to the study, disposables’ impacts are driven primarily by raw materials, followed by manufacturing energy. Reusables’ impacts are dominated by laundering and, to a limited extent, by raw materials production.
“This is solid evidence that across the board, the combined water, energy and chemical impact of commercial laundering and reusable textile service intrudes less on our planet than the same impact from manufacturing, transport and use of disposables,” Ricci said. “While no study using broad parameters can take into account every possible substitution, it’s clear that in scenarios where the two compete most closely, reusables prevail.”
Exponent, Inc., based in Menlo Park, CA conducted the LCA. This engineering and scientific consulting firm is known for tackling some of the most complex technical problems the United States has encountered, hired by government in the wake of the World Trade Center collapse and Hurricane Katrina, for example. Of particular relevance is Exponent’s experience evaluating large-scale environmental and public health issues. The company practices 90 scientific and engineering disciplines with a staff of 900 located in 20 domestic and five international offices.
To add expertise to the projects, Exponent consulted with Boston-based PE International, which operates from 20 offices globally to assist clients in measuring, understanding and managing their business practices to create sustainable and quantifiable value. With in-house experts on the environmental impacts of paper and textile products production, PE had previously assessed such cradle-to-grave impacts associated with cotton, paper, nonwoven materials, plastics and other materials used in the conversation around reusable vs. disposable materials.
For isolation gowns, the assessment found that regardless of product weight, resource consumption or waste, a disposable always contributes more to global warming than its reusable equivalent. Even the most resource-conservative and least wasteful disposables have a greater impact than the worst reusables.
In the case of napkins, a single use of a heavier, intensely washed reusable (usually found in mid-priced or upscale restaurants) has significantly less impact than a single heavier disposable. A single, smaller disposable with recycled content (fast food) has slightly less impact than a single use of a lighter reusable. But when fast-food patrons use multiple disposables in a meal, that thin margin disappears.
Reusable shop towels have less impact on global warming, fossil fuel depletion and smog creation. In addition, when you compare typical (median) practices and techniques, reusables had less acidification (sulfur dioxide creation) potential. Because reusables are produced primarily from byproducts of cotton processed for other textile products, they are far better for the environment than creating the synthetics needed for disposable industrial wipers.
To view the complete LCA report, go to
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