The use of disposable products and plastic PPE has been dramatically stepped up during the pandemic. But can such methods be sustainable? Or should we be prepared to compromise on sustainability while our health is at risk?
The sustainability movement has gathered momentum over recent years – in the cleaning industry along with everywhere else. Manufacturers of cleaning products now place a high priority on ensuring that their chemicals, machines and packaging are eco-friendly and have a minimal effect on the environment.
But Covid-19 has created a huge demand for disposable products, single-use wipers and plastic PPE – all items previously frowned upon by ethical groups. Staying safe during a global pandemic is of paramount importance, so should we abandon our sustainability ideals for now? Or is it possible to strike a balance between optimum hygiene and environmental concerns during these troubled times?
The answer is yes, according to Ecolab’s western Europe president Sam de Boo. “The pandemic and climate crisis have together highlighted the importance of sustainable hygiene for a cleaner and healthier future,” he said. “And there are highly effective solutions available that prioritise both hygiene and sustainability.”
Companies everywhere are adopting more visible hygiene practices to reassure the public, he says. “This has resulted in some customers using convenient front-of-house solutions such as wipes,” he says. “However, by combining the right chemistry, technology and services, a manufacturer can help to protect vital resources such as food, water and energy. So there are no compromises to be made.”
Ecolab’s hand disinfection solutions have been in particularly high demand during the pandemic, says de Boo. The company offers a Covid-19 product range available in a 20 litre canister. “This helps to reduce plastic waste by 64 per cent compared with single-use 100 ml bottles.”
He believes dosing technologies to be as important as using the proper chemistry. “Our solutions focus on dosing, packaging and applications that reduce waste,” he said.
According to services provider Incentive QAS managing director Jamie Wright there has been a growing preference for chemical solutions among some customers as a result of the pandemic. “This is understandable and of course we can meet that demand,” he said. “But our default is to provide sustainable solutions and as we come out of the pandemic, we hope to see a shift back towards the norm.”
Free of chemical
Touchpoint cleaning can still be carried out using chemical-free products, according to Wright. “However, when it comes to electrostatic spraying or ‘fogging’, the chemicals used are generally not derived from sustainable sources,” he said.
Wright has also noted a shift towards the use of disposable products. “Sanitising wipes have been flying off our suppliers’ shelves and this is concerning, because they end up in the general waste stream,” he said. “Our clients have good reason to bolster their hygiene efforts at this time, but the flip side is a detrimental effect on the environment.”
Sustainability should not be compromised in the long term, according to Wright. “The professional cleaning sector is well aware of the urgent need to protect our environment by using sustainable solutions, and it’s not an issue on which we can compromise for an extended period.”
Greenspeed’s marketing manager Floor Loos has noted an increased demand for disinfection and hand hygiene products during the pandemic. “People disinfect more than they did before, but the use of daily cleaners also remains important,” she said. “Good daily cleaning – particularly with sustainable products - will improve the effectivity of disinfection so there doesn’t need to be a compromise.”
According to Loos, most customers require solutions that combine efficacy with sustainability. “The main rule is to have a proper daily cleaning regime plus a disinfection protocol on critical contact points,” she said.
Disposable products have been in high demand since the start of the pandemic, says Loos. “However for daily cleaning and disinfection it is still best to use microfibre cloths because they have a higher cleaning and absorption capacity which allows you to clean more thoroughly,” she claims.
Besides a range of microfibre products, Greenspeed offers a plant-based ready-to-use disinfectant spray. Lacto Des is said to be effective against 99.99 per cent of bacteria, yeasts and enveloped viruses.
Airdri marketing manager Trudi Osborne believes the use of disposable hand towels has been heavily promoted during the pandemic. “Public health must always come first, but we cannot put sustainability to one side whilst we battle against the coronavirus,” she said. “The two do not have to be mutually exclusive and we can find a balance between hygiene and sustainability. Indeed, there are products on the market that achieve this.”
According to Osborne, sustainability is one of the most pressing issues facing the industry. “The cleaning sector has taken major strides to become more eco-friendly and we shouldn’t reverse our efforts now,” she said. Airdri’s Quantum and Quazar hand dryers have achieved GreenSpec status for using fewer than 1,000 watts.
Covid-19 has increased public awareness of the value of plastics - both for packaging and for PPE according to Cromwell Polythene’s managing director James Lee. “Plastic has played an important role and we’re seeing an increased demand for face masks, aprons and disposable gloves as well as our plastic screens, refuse sacks, recycling bags and bin liners,” he said. “These items are all helping to reduce the infection risk.”
He believes sustainability can go hand in hand with hygiene and infection control. “For example, responsibly-produced plastic can have a recycled content of up to 100 per cent and be reprocessed many times, not only saving virgin material but energy as well.”
According to Lee, the term ‘single-use’ is open to interpretation when applied to plastics. “Water bottles, plastic containers and bags are often labelled ‘single-use’ when they are actually sufficiently robust to be used again and again,” he said. “However for the time being, it would be unwise to promote reuse over recycling or disposal due to health and hygiene concerns.”
Hygiene can be achieved sustainably with the aid of both disposable and reusable products, according to Essity’s communications director Renée Remijnse. “There shouldn’t have to be a trade-off between the two,” she said. “Provided customers keep a check on ecolabels and third-party certificates they will find a range of good disposable options that still support a sustainable hygiene solution.” Essity offers hygiene paper and soap products that are said to reduce waste and that use life cycle assessments to analyse their environmental impact.
According to Remijnse, hygiene and sustainability are inextricably linked. “Hygiene is actually an element of sustainability because wellbeing is part of the overall sustainability agenda,” she said. “We believe Covid-19 will create a more urgent and long-term focus on building a sustainable future, enabling companies and customers to motivate each other to create sustainable hygiene products and assortments.”
Change of focus
The Covid-19 pandemic has prompted a change of focus for the customer according to Metsä’s sales and marketing vice-president UK and Ireland Mark Dewick. “It’s hard to think about all our priorities all at once,” he says. “However, from conversations we are having it appears that no-one is ignoring the sustainability issue and that people are still opting for sustainable options when given a choice.”
In March 2020, Metsä noted an increase in tissue demand across all markets. “This slowed during lockdown except in healthcare, food manufacturing and those schools supporting key workers,” said Dewick. “But as facilities began to reopen there has been an increased demand for disposable tissue, both for traditional uses and in a newer context as a barrier in high throughput areas and at touchpoints.”
Metsä offers Katrin Easy Picks and Katrin Easy1 for this purpose. Katrin Easy Picks are portable hand towels in a sleeve that protect them from dirt and germs, while Katrin Easy1 contains self-presenting towels in a solid dispenser that can be cleaned and sterilised.
“In the Covid environment, customers are using these products in washroom and workplace settings and placing them by lifts, doors, coffee machines and other high-touchpoint areas,” said Dewick.
He argues that single-use paper from sustainable sources can be environmentally-friendly.
“Washable cloths for mopping up spills often have plastic constituents and even if they can be reused multiple times, they still have to be disposed of,” he said. “In a landfill environment they will not break down for hundreds of years whereas tissue will always break down, wherever it ends up.”
Customers are still seeking sustainable solutions – but ones that also guarantee hygiene according to Kärcher’s corporate communications manager Linda Schroedter. “Hygiene and sustainability are not contrasting disciplines, though there has definitely been a heightened awareness of the importance of cleaning, disinfection and hygiene in everyday environments as a result of the pandemic,” she said.
Demand for disinfection solutions has significantly increased, she adds. “New hygiene standards have been established in industries such as hospitality, education and public transport and these can only be achieved by more frequent cleaning and disinfection protocols.”
However she believes disinfection is not always necessary – and is sometimes not even useful. “Good cleaning practices using modern equipment will in themselves reduce the risk of spreading the virus by more than 98 per cent,” she said. “However, customers often ask about aggressive chemicals for disinfection purposes, and they are not always aware about the impact these may have on human health or the environment.”
According to Schroedter, mechanical floor cleaning achieves an effective clean while also saving water and detergent. “Similarly, steam cleaning and hot water high pressure cleaning are both sustainable methods of deactivating viruses since they work without chemical agents,” she said.
Kärcher offers a range of scrubber dryers, steam cleaners, high pressure cleaners and vacuums that are said to offer sustainability benefits.
Like other commentators, Schroedter has noted an increased demand for disposable products. “These are particularly suitable for public-facing situations such as retail and hospitality environments - and when used in the right way and disposed of properly they are a good alternative to reusable textiles,” she said.
According to Schroedter, the sustainability of disposables should be compared with the life cycle of reusable textiles including the chemicals and energy required for washing, collecting and transporting them plus the materials and techniques used to make them.
While demand for hygienic cleaning processes has currently become dominant, she says there are other factors to consider beyond the current pandemic. “Covid-19 is only one kind of virus and there are many others that can cause harm to humans and that need to be deactivated through hygienic cleaning,” she said. “And at the end of the day, it is those people carrying out the work who are all-important in achieving a sustainable and effective clean.
“It is therefore key to employ motivated staff who are thoroughly trained in good practices and who can operate the cleaning tools they are equipped with in a hygienic and sustainable way.”