Wiper, Shop Rags and Shop Towel ConsiderationsBack to The PIG® Library
Lately, everyone from the safety and environmental managers to the accounting office has been taking a closer look at wipers, rags and shop towels. While it is clear that these products serve many necessary functions throughout a facility; things get a little murky when it comes to determining the best option.
Saving a few dollars or even a few hundred dollars on the initial cost of a product up-front may seem impressive, but when unexpected fees crop up, parts get damaged, a worker gets injured, or the liability of improper disposal rears its head; those savings will be quickly spent.
Considering the pros and cons of three common wiping options can help determine which choice may be best for the facility — both from a financial and a liability standpoint.
Shop towels have long been an industry staple. They're used for everything from wiping sweaty brows to picking up small spills.
Some facilities use shop towels because of the convenience — they arrive each week with uniforms and entrance rugs and are “tacked onto” that invoice. Other facilities — and even state and local municipalities — view launderable shop towels as an alternative to hazardous waste disposal.
Despite their popularity, shop towels aren't the perfect wiping solution. One fault is that they are not task specific. Auto garages using towels to wipe grease off their hands and prep parts for painting are provided with the same style of towel as a machine shop that cleans up metal shavings and cutting fluid from lathes.
An even larger concern is the safety. Shop towels are washed in large washing machines with either a minimal amount of detergent, or with harsh solvents. “Clean” towels still contain a significant amount of grease, oil, chemical residues and heavy metals which could cause dermatitis and other health problems, as well as cross-contamination problems. Large batch cleaning also makes it nearly impossible to assure that a given facility will get the same set of towels back from one week to the next. This problem can range from simple inconvenience to more critical issues such as injuries from metal shavings, damage to delicate parts, or reactions due to chemical incompatibilities.
Launderers are starting to come under closer scrutiny from the EPA because the wastes from their washing processes often goes unchecked to local Publicly Owned Treatment Works (POTW) where it causes treatment problems and is a large source of pass-through that pollutes the nation's waterways.
Shop rags can be anything from used tee- and sweatshirts to denim jeans to sanitized hospital sheets. Quality ranges from scraps of un-sellable clothing and linens from thrift shops to textile factory mill ends and off-spec runs of fabric.
Although there are many more varieties, like shop towels, rags are not truly task specific. They are often chosen when cost is an issue and laundering is not a desirable option.
A chief complaint about rags is inconsistent size. This is especially true with reclaimed rags (which are pieces of fabric that were formerly clothing, sheets or other products that are no longer serviceable in their original form.) Shop rags can range in size from thin, useless strips to pieces larger than three feet square. Workers can spend a lot of time trying to find a usable rag from the “rag bin.”
Another problem is hygiene. Unless the rags are specifically laundered by the broker, there is no guarantee that reclaimed rags are “clean” because it is not uncommon for individuals to donate dirty, unwashed clothing to thrift shops.
Staples, pins and other foreign matter are other common complaints with shop rags. Buttons, snaps, sequins, glitter and grommets also make many rags unusable.
Some rag brokers offer premium rag services such as laundering the rags prior to cutting, sorting rags to help ensure that each will be a usable size, and scanning for metals, buttons, etc. Rags made of mill-ends, also considered a premium, tend to have a slightly more consistent size than reclaimed rags.
Shop rags are often disposed of after use, although some facilities do launder and reuse them. Rags that have been used with solvents or other hazardous chemicals need to be handled properly to ensure regulatory compliance.
Ranging in quality from brown bathroom hand towels to engineered micro-fibers; disposable wipers are specifically designed to meet the needs of virtually any task. Disposable wipers are used throughout the industry for everything from drying hands to cleaning delicate print rollers or preparing parts for painting.
Wipers can cost more than rags, but they are chosen when facilities need a product that has a consistent size and quality — which saves time and money in the long run.
Disposable wipers are available in many forms to meet varying needs. Rolls are often the least expensive option, followed by quarter-folded or bulk packs. Wipers in pop-up boxes are often slightly more expensive initially, but they can help control wastes because the box allows one wiper to be dispensed at a time, instead of someone grabbing a handful from a stack or pulling an arm-length of wipers from a roll when only one or two are actually needed.
The disposal of spent wipers is a factor to consider because, like spent rags, spent wipers need to be handled properly if they are contaminated with hazardous solvents or other liquids.
Shop towel launderers are quick to claim that disposable wipers are a major waste stream in landfills; however, INDA (a trade association representing the nonwoven fabrics industry) found that disposable wipers contribute less than one tenth of one percent of all industrial wastes in landfills.
Disposable wipers are excellent candidates for incineration and fuels blending — two waste management processes which minimize generator liability and significantly limit or eliminate the need for these wastes to be landfilled.
The EPA is currently considering regulations that would exempt certain solvent-laden wipers from hazardous waste regulation when certain conditions are met.
The Best Option
Facilities need to consider many factors when determining which option is best. Considering safety and environmental liability — instead of relying solely on a perceived cost per unit — can help facilities choose the best solution to meet their needs.
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