Wiping Out Misconceptions About Cleaning Cloths

Cleaning Cloth Blog Cleaning Cloth Blog
Dan Daggett
Vice President, Corporate Sustainability
Feb 01, 2022

Although significant progress has been made in preventing certain infections, about one in 25 hospital patients has a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) on any given day. Fortunately, infection rates can be reduced by selecting the right disinfecting products, using correct tools and implementing proper procedures. Disposable wipes make it easier for employees to clean and disinfect environmental surfaces and patient care equipment and show promise as one solution to reduce HAIs by reducing risk for cross-contamination.


However, many healthcare organizations have concerns about the impact disposable wipes have on solid waste. To evaluate these impacts, Diversey worked with the independent consulting firm thinkstep to create a life cycle assessment (LCA) screening model. The LCA model compares environmental impacts between disposable disinfecting wipes and reusable cleaning cloths and can be used to help healthcare facilities make an informed decision.


Disposable Disinfecting Wipes

Pre-wetted disposable wipes that deliver effective disinfectant solutions to surfaces in healthcare can offer advantages by simplifying the process and reducing the likelihood of mistakes.  Pre-wetted disposable wipes do not require users to dilute concentrated disinfectants or determine how much solution needs to be applied to a surface.  Simple procedures that specify when to use a new disposable wipe can be implemented to reduce risk that a reusable wipe would be used in multiple rooms, which can increase risk of cross-contamination.


Although disposable wipes weigh less than 1/3 of an ounce, they are not recyclable and add to the solid waste generated in a healthcare facility. In a landfill environment, the plastic polymers used in a non-woven wipe will not readily break down. Healthcare organizations with sustainability goals often include reduction of solid waste as a target, making disposable wipes less desirable. 


Reusable Microfiber Cloths

While many people assume that reusable cleaning cloths are more environmentally friendly, the reality is much more complex. Reusable cloths do produce less landfill waste, as they are not thrown away after a single use like disposable wipes, and have a smaller carbon footprint. Cleaning cloths like MicroQuick™, part of the Diversey GREENGUARD® Certified System, are made from durable microfiber allowing many uses before disposal.


Reusable cloth does wear down with use and laundering.  One study (EPA, National Risk Management Research Laboratory) cited an industrial use average of 12 uses before having to be discarded. In our current LCA model, we assumed the reusable wipes would be used 50 times before being discarded, which is based on our experience in healthcare. Diversey’s experience also suggests that 15 percent of the reusable microfiber cloths are misplaced or lost before being used 50 times.


The environmental impacts of reusable cloths should also consider the disparate amounts of disinfectant used in cleaning. Pre-wetted, disposable wipes are very efficient with disinfectant use. Reusable cloths use more disinfectant solution during application with trigger sprayer or from a bucket.  


Finally, laundering reusable cloths requires many resource-consuming steps, including heating water, applying chemical detergents and using electricity to power the laundry machines. Laundering also ties up facility space and requires heating, cooling and lighting. Additional energy is used if the cloths are transported off-site for laundry.


Laundry, disinfectant use, wipe loss, and disposal have to be taken into consideration before concluding that reusable wipes have a better environmental profile.  

-- Dr. Ilham Kadri


Life Cycle Assessment 

To fully understand the environmental impacts of a product or system, it’s necessary to perform a life cycle assessment (LCA), which is a full accounting from cradle (i.e. raw materials) to grave (i.e. disposal). At each stage of a product’s life cycle, the LCA calculates all the environmental impacts. The advantage of an LCA is it can help compare two systems that might have different impacts at different stages.  


For the LCA model, we compared Oxivir TB disposable wipes versus TASKI Microfiber wetted with Oxivir RTU. To make sure we were comparing the two systems fairly, we determined what was needed to equally disinfect one hospital room. The LCA gave us the environmental impacts across a variety of categories such as carbon footprint, ozone depletion, water pollution, air pollution and solid waste.


Surprisingly, the results showed that disposable wipes have a more favorable environmental profile across all impact categories except ozone depletion. This is contrary to other publications that have suggested disposable wipes are worse for most environmental impacts. The Jewell study did find that disposable wipes contribute to less eutrophication (a form of water pollution) than reusable cloths. As with all LCAs, a number of assumptions go into the model which may not be true for a particular facility, including the number of times a washable cloth is reused before it is disposed.  


With this screening model, we now have a great baseline to help healthcare organizations make informed decisions.  As a knowledge leader, Diversey can customize our LCA variables to help our customers evaluate their situation understand the true environmental impacts.


For additional details about the study, please contact Dan (Daniel.Daggett@Diversey.com).