Automotive shops, manufacturing and industrial facilities often will rent shop towels from uniform companies. These towels are used to wipe up grime, oil and other contaminants in the facilities.

Chris Nolan, president of H.T. Berry Co., in Canton, Mass., has had success getting customers to make the switch from rental towel programs from uniform companies into purchasing wipers from his company.

"A lot of times, customers are willing to allow us to do an analysis converting to wipers from rags," says Nolan. "We've had good success selling wipers. It takes some time for customers to let us come in and do a site survey and some analysis, but when we do that, it really makes their eyes pop out on what they save."

As many as six additional charges are often associated with laundered shop towels besides the actual rental fee. These include a damage fee, an energy charge, a delivery charge, a replace fee, and an environmental/fuel surcharge fee. These additional fees can increase the overall cost of renting shop towels by as much as 25 percent, and, oftentimes go unannounced to customers at the time of signing a contract, according to distributors.

"You could show customers a six to eight month return as far as them doing a disposable wipe system vs. shop towels," says Ryan Myers, vice president of Myers Supply & Chemical in Little Rock, Ark. "It's also more environmentally friendly to use wipers than rent shop towels because of the laundry process."

Another selling point distributors point to is the fact that there is less environmental impact when using disposable wipers vs. laundering towels. Some pollutants are discharged into the public wastewater system during laundering as well as emitted into the air. The absorbency, strength and size of a towel also can diminish over several launderings.

Distributors also say that by switching out towels for wipers, it is promoting a better environment for employees. Distributors point customers towards a 2003 study by The Gradient Corporation titled "Evaluation of Potential Exposure To Metals In Laundered Shop Towels." The study found that "clean" rental shop towels frequently contain lead, cadmium, iron, antimony, oil and grease. In the same study, the Gradient Corporation found that someone using laundered shop towels could accidentally ingest enough lead to cause them to exceed safe levels. Oftentimes, metals are not completely removed from rented shop towels during the laundering process and can be transferred from the shop towel to a person's hands and ultimately ingested. Plus, after laundering, rental towels often are not returned to the same facility, carrying its contaminants with them.

In addition to being a potential health and safety problem for workers, there are still misconceptions about the environmental benefits of rental shop towels, distributors say. For example, a study conducted by Lockheed Martin Environmental Services found that 30 percent more solid waste is sent to landfills from the processing of laundered shop towels than from disposables. The study went on to state that sludge from laundered wipes is potentially more threatening to human health and the environment, noting that "water washed sludge contains approximately 22 percent water which could increase the mobility of these pollutants into soil and ground water."

Even laundered shop towels end up in a landfill after about 10-15 uses, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.