Research that proves how reusable shop towels, foodservice napkins and healthcare isolation gowns are more sustainable than their disposable counterparts was presented at TRSA’s Leadership & Legislative Conference.

Findings of life cycle assessments of these products indicated that from “cradle to grave,” these reusable items demonstrated superior environmental and human health performance. They scored better in a majority of documented scenarios: best- and worst-cases for resource conservation and pollution control across all phases of the lives of these reusables vs. their disposable counterparts, from raw material extraction through production, use and end-of-life.

Conducted by Exponent Inc., Menlo Park, CA, the research found that the reusables in all three product categories had a lesser impact on global warming than disposables and also performed better in head-to-head comparisons involving acidification, eutrophication, ozone depletion, fossil fuel depletion and smog creation. Such across-the-board superiority was evident in the analysis of isolation gowns. For napkins and shop towels, reusables’ median performance was greener in most such match-ups.

Randall Wentsel, PhD, the Exponent senior managing scientist who performed the research, said the results for napkins varied because “the range in paper-making impacts is large and reusables’ washing impacts are relevant – especially for heavier products.” Thus, bulkier goods, both paper and cloth, can have significant environmental impacts, but reusables’ effects decrease when washings per napkin rise.

On shop towels, Wentsel noted that raw materials and manufacturing drove the scores. “The impact of polyester from disposables is considerably larger than cotton production” from reusables, he said, although the latter didn’t fare as well in eutrophication and to a lesser extent in acidification. Reusables compare better in scenarios involving heavyweight disposables and their associated landfilling burden.

Reusable isolation gowns are superior across-the-board largely due to the use of polypropylene in disposables; its impact is more significant than the environmental effects of making reusables with polyester and laundering them. “Nonwoven manufacturing further increases the difference,” Wentsel observed.

TRSA commissioned the Exponent study to provide a comprehensive profile of reusable textiles as the more sustainable choice for industrial, foodservice and healthcare businesses. Previous studies compared only the competing products’ solid-waste generation. Assessments of complete lifecycles meet “demand for greater transparency and traceability of sustainability performance across the supply chain,” he said, which businesses and government are increasingly demanding.

The TRSA study’s research is nearly complete and a report will soon be submitted for critical peer review.

TRSA’s Leadership and Legislative Conference is an annual Washington event in which member textile services companies voice their individual preferences for how TRSA should allocate resources (committee meetings) and visit congressional offices (Hill Day) to promote their companies and protect the industry.