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Institutional Laundries Feeling Pressure to 'Go Green'

Michi Trota |

CHICAGO — The pressure to “go green” is making itself felt in the institutional laundry industry. Environmental regulations pertaining to the uses of chemicals are speeding forward and concerns regarding water and energy conservation are more prevalent than ever.
It’s becoming a question of how rather than if an institutional laundry can adopt more environmentally friendly practices.
“The trend for companies to ‘go green’ has been increasing for some time now,” Max Guzman, a senior program leader for Ecolab’s Textile Care Division, said upon opening the National Association of Institutional Linen Management’s (NAILM) recent audio conference, How Green is Your Laundry?
Many companies are adopting environmentally friendly policies as a way to generate a positive public image and appeal to customers and potential partners. Wal-Mart, for example, says it will no longer carry products that contain nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), a chemical often used in detergent formulas.
Then there are the various environmental regulations, restraints and guidelines that have been enacted on state and local levels in recent years.
Maine, Michigan, New York, Vermont and Wisconsin have instituted statewide regulations requiring the use of nonphosphate/phosphate-free products only, while others, such as Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana and Maryland, have adopted similar bans, but still allow exceptions for laundries and healthcare facilities.
While many of these initiatives aren’t compulsory, “they can still influence how textiles are laundered,” cautions Guzman. “Just because these regulations are not compulsory now doesn’t mean they won’t be compulsory later.”
Guzman believes that given the current trend, institutional laundries are faced with the choice of implementing changes now before they are required, or waiting until changes are mandated by law.DEFINITION OF 'GREEN' IS STILL EVOLVING
“The definition of green, of what makes a product environmentally friendly, is still evolving,” admits Guzman. “But there are standard guidelines that can help laundries gain a better understanding of what green practices and products are.”
Organizations such as Green Seal, EcoLogo and the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Design for the Environment (DfE) evaluate how environmentally friendly products are, while the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) assesses how efficiently commercial buildings deal with water, energy and waste.
There is also the Hospitals for a Healthy Environment (H2E) project, which is a joint venture between the American Hospital Association (AHA) and the EPA to reduce the impact of healthcare facilities on the environment.
Its objectives are to reduce mercury waste, to reduce the overall volume of waste and to identify pollution-prevention opportunities.
“H2E offers institutional laundries some opportunities to implement environmentally friendly changes,” says Guzman. “For instance, they support the use of reusable textiles as a means to reduce waste.”
However, Guzman also notes that while using reusable textiles does reduce the amount of overall waste produced by institutional laundries, there are potential drawbacks.
“Using reusable textiles may lead to an increase in chemical waste from increased laundering,” says Guzman. “It depends on the chemicals you use in your laundry process and how your facility disposes of waste water.”
Processing laundry requires a very high level of energy, water and chemical consumption. An ideal sustainability position focuses on a complete solution integrating these three issues.
“The amount of water, energy and chemical used has a significant effect on both the environmental and financial bottom line,” Guzman says.
Only .03% of the total world water supply is available for human use, underscoring the need for technology that allows for water conservation and recycling. Also, the quality of available water is affected by chemical wastes and byproducts.
“The wash process can contaminate the water supply by adding soluble and insoluble components,” says Guzman. “As a result, costs continue to rise for the use and discharge of quality water.”
The obvious solution is to find ways to reuse and recycle water from the laundry processes. However, there are potential disadvantages as well.
“The quality of reusable water may be compromised, leading to poor wash results,” says Guzman.
Reducing the amount of water used will also eventually increase the concentration of pollutants in the waste water. Every time water is reused, the amount of chemicals increases until the water is finally discharged, he says.
“Despite the potential drawbacks, water recycling and reuse is a necessary step to creating an environmentally friendly laundry,” says Guzman.
Finding more efficient ways of consuming energy is another way institutional laundries can reduce their impact and cut back on costs.
“Energy-recapture technologies are one way to optimize the amount of energy used in the laundry process,” says Guzman. “The ideal solution would combine the use of energy-efficient equipment with an energy-recovery system.”
Lowering wash temperatures can also reduce the amount of energy needed to heat water. However, lower wash temperatures will also increase the need for more effective detergents and vigilance regarding infection control.
“When you wash at lower temperatures, you have to be careful in dosing correct amounts of bleach and oxidizers to maintain sanitary standards,” says Guzman.
While there are no current regulations requiring proof of proper bleach and oxidizer doses in the laundry process, Guzman advises keeping records nonetheless.
“Keeping in mind the current trend toward environmental regulations, it is not a bad idea to be prepared,” says Guzman.
This is especially true concerning the industry’s use of chemicals and detergents.
NPEs are a main class of alkylphenol ethoxylates (APEs) that is widely used as a cost-effective surfactant in detergent formulas. While inexpensive, their breakdown products can be toxic to humans.
“Institutional laundries should look for detergents that are based on alternative chemical formulations with less toxic byproducts,” says Guzman.
The use of phosphates in detergents, sours and water softeners is also an issue.
“Phosphates released in waste water can have a detrimental effect on aquatic waterways,” says Guzman. “They cause aquatic plant life to overgrow, resulting in problems in water delivery systems and an imbalance in local aquatic ecosystems.”
Laundries should be aware, however, that alternative detergents can be more expensive and less efficient. To obtain the same wash performance, more surfactant may be needed. Also, alternative detergents may have more foam and, if not formulated correctly, could affect wastewater treatment plants.
Additionally, phosphate-free laundries may need two products to replicate the effects of phosphates – one to affect metals in water, and one for water hardness.
Making the necessary changes to convert an institutional laundry into a more environmentally friendly facility may sound daunting, but Guzman believes it can be done with the right kind of help.
Keeping up with the changes in environmental policies and technology may require a lot of time and investment, but he firmly believes that in the end, institutional laundries can benefit.
“It is entirely possible to continue delivering high performance for customers while maintaining environmentally responsible practices,” says Guzman. “We must do our part to ensure environmental stability.”
With public opinion turning favorably toward environmentally friendly practices, going green may be just as healthy for business as it is for the environment.

About the author

Michi Trota

American Drycleaner

Editorial Assistant

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