A greener future in laundry

Jan Raycroft reports on how some of industry’s leading businesses are adapting and innovating to achieve their sustainability goals

When operations director Steve Pearce and finance chief Ed Eckhard returned to Jackson Workwear Rental in Lincoln from the TSA Spring Conference their feedback to managing director Michael Wilson included a key message.

It was that regardless of the topic, from HR and recruitment issues through to ‘round table’ discussions, one agenda item, sustainability, spanned all talk of the future.

COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow last autumn, highlighted worldwide challenges against a backdrop of Covid and has since had to share the news agenda with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis. But there’s no getting away from UK government and international targets.

The message from speakers at the conference, particularly Alexandra Brennan, head of sustainability at Johnson Service Group, and Christoph Gebbert of Grain Sustainability, a consultancy which helps businesses become champions for the planet, is that this one is going to run and run, driven by outside forces, right from potential investors and existing shareholders.

And the fine detail will involve not just keeping an eye out for the dates of government edicts but focussing on what we as individuals do right now on a daily basis – as Brennan says: “The more we get ourselves into the right position it will help when it becomes mandatory within our own jobs.” Gebbert urged a co-operative approach and that our sector should ensure that businesses work together on sustainability – it didn’t need to be the same issues or products involved, the desired end result was the same.

It was clear from their presentation that the ‘big bosses’ sitting around a table would never be enough. As Brennan stressed: “We must ask ‘How do we bring along our staff on this journey?’” and when Laundry & Cleaning Today spoke to business owners it quickly became clear they understood that without ‘buy in’ from motivated employees, management setting targets and perusing data would never be enough.

At the TSA conference, Ian Stubbs, general manager at Jensen UK, warned that benchmarking ourselves against other industries was going to be difficult and as the sector adopted technologies which are new to it, more support from government was essential. There will be big projects involving new ways of producing energy, and how we use it, and headline-creating decarbonisation breakthroughs, but it seems that the ‘sum of the whole’ will come from hundreds of thousands of smaller initiatives. Jackson Workwear Rental’s Pearce is undoubtedly a champion of this approach. On the day we caught up with the business he was overseeing installation of roller towels in the laundry. Far less waste than paper, a longer lifespan. Similarly, at last ‘Bad Plastic’ – a clumsy and all-encompassing myth – is losing its power as the focus narrows to the wastage created by single-use plastic while the sustainable attributes of long-lasting and recyclable plastic parts and items like crates are receiving proper attention alongside the obvious concerns about microplastics entering the water cycle and food chain.

Jackson Workwear Rental rebranded their business last year, and celebrating the bright new image are Rebecca Wilson (customer service and sales manager), MD Michael Wilson, Company chair Alistair Mackinder and apprentice William Mackinder

Adi Knight loading linen from a food-trade customer into a high-care washing machine at Jackson Workwear Rental

Ina Marinova and Jilly Smith from Jackson Workwear Rental’s production department hanging garments onto the tunnel system

At businesses like Jackson Workwear Rental this includes the polyester element of their garments, a commodity not considered environmentally friendly. However, that must be balanced against the fact that polyester is often mixed with cotton, the latter wearing out long before the durable polymer element. Wilson’s focus is on how polyester can be recycled and he flies an eco-friendly flag for Alsico UK, a Preston-based workwear producer operating under the mantra that none of their products will end up in landfill. This means garments are collected when no longer suitable for use or resale. Hand separated into fibre types such as cotton, blends with polyester or 100 per cent polyester, they are shredded and sent to specialist partner companies to be recycled into everything from hanging basket linings to mattress insulation pads or even drain protection padding. Some of our industry voices have long been challenging cheerleaders for a greener business world, well before that future became a carbon neutral ‘must do’. One such ‘guru’ is Graham Oakley, managing director of Clear Three, where the team have been helping laundry businesses to find efficient routes to balancing vital profits with environmental responsibilities for over 40 years. There’s a strong practice what you preach element here. Clear Three, the new identity of highly successful Laundry Efficiency, operates from little Euro 6 compliant vans and offsets their own carbon footprint with big involvement in Staffordshire reforestation projects. “We’re adding more trees all the time. Creating our own little eco-system not in a foreign country but right here in the UK – just as we use equipment made in the UK – because that’s the most sustainable choice,” says Oakley. They have no time for ‘greenwashing’ – making a product or service sound more eco-friendly than it is – either through ignorance or as a deliberate tactic which when uncovered diminishes consumer trust. Laundry Efficiency received the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Sustainable Development last year, a fitting reward for innovative work assisting laundries in saving energy and resources while reducing costs. These include Telford Laundry where a previous 75 tonnes of carbon usage has been reduced to 15 tonnes with projects including ozone generation to reduce washing temperatures and chemical usage alongside cooler, higher quality drainage water. It’s a similar story at Ideal Laundry in Exmouth, a five-generation family business which wanted to find a more ethical path without compromising on quality and last year issued a Green Pledge to be Devon’s foremost environmental drycleaners and laundry. Oakley is keen that Clear Three is not simply thought of as ‘The Ozone Guys’ – he happily warns that an environmental future involves dramatically reducing water, energy, and chemical usage and that without involvement of all those working in the laundry any project could fracture. “It starts with the sorting guy, goes right through the laundry and to the drivers. Even a toilet light unnecessarily left on goes into the minus side and you need the whole team to feel positive about the projects.” Alongside training, he hopes to see more staff bonus and incentive schemes built around business sustainability targets: “Even small rewards can boost the feelgood factor and make people happier in their work.” And with laundries having to be exceptionally careful when it comes to decisions on replacing machinery, timing is everything and there’s little he enjoys more than helping businesses decide the ‘running order’ of what will be replaced over a set time span, producing the best cost, time and energy savings.

Another operation determined to stay ahead of this serious game which could well decide which businesses survive is Super Laundry in London, steered by founder and MD William Ray, although he’d insist that their remarkable expansion through difficult times alongside the route to sustainability (they’ve been using ozone technology for several years) is an achievement shared by the 75 plus staff on the laundry floor. He recalls how Oakley did ‘the nicest possible hounding’ for perhaps 18 months before Super Laundry decided to invest in what sounded too good to be true but turned out to produce huge savings in drying times and water usage alongside switches like the removal of all plastic packaging. Positivity was also the key to a decision the Super Laundry team took even after being forced to close for eight months during the pandemic. The business had three units in Kings Cross and then premises adjoining one of them became available. “Expanding may sound a bit stupid with everything we’ve been through, but this project ticked all the boxes, so we went ahead.” At the time of writing the latest Super Laundry unit has only been open a few weeks but is already taking on new contracts. Ray is particularly grateful for the support they’ve received from independent equipment supplier WASHCO.

Before and after: Super Laundry love a challenge and they’ve brought back to life an unused unit by expanding their laundries

Dan Shepherd leads the CanDo team who like to challenge themselves as well as customers to operate more sustainably

At Port Talbot in Wales, Dan Shepherd, who founded the CanDo laundry, linen and workwear hire business a decade ago, remains a trailblazer in his steam-free laundry. He says COP26 was not a wake-up moment for those already at the forefront of sustainable initiatives, but a ‘kick up the arse’ to get past Covid issues and back on track pursuing significant environmentally-friendly practices and equipment. They too bought into ozone technology with Graham Oakley and have seen significant savings on energy usage and their carbon footprint. Shepherd is another astute enough to recognise that plastic does have a place in a sustainable future – they’ve just invested in durable and long-lasting plastic cages rather than using up metals resources. “There’s definitely a space for plastic when it’s used the right way,” he says. The challenge, which he’s happy to take on, is to convince customers they themselves are part of the sustainability success story and that’s more important than issues such as how much easier it is to transport single use plastic bags up stairs. Shepherd’s also an advocate of having every employee trained and fully engaged in sustainability projects and that small, incremental controls add up to the big difference. An example is that CanDo drivers are using technology to monitor the carbon footprint created by idling times in their vehicles, both on the road and at client premises.

But it’s not just the high-tech ‘young guns’ of our industry who are looking to a greener future. Stalwarts like Ron Davidson says: “There’s still too much being thrown away and while you’ve got to recycle every possible piece of linen or equipment, the focus must be on reuse so that the lifecycle of everything is as long as possible before heading for recycling. “In our industry I think many of us are still scratching the surface on this – but we’re not the only ones. And it’s society that’s got to change, not just businesses.”

Diversey has been reducing wash costs and improving sustainability performance savings on water, power, thermal energy, and emissions, but importantly extending linen life

Technological advances will undoubtedly play a major part in the sustainability drive, beyond the ability to wash cooler and faster while maintaining or improving wash performance. One of the exciting opportunities is digital technology, including new platforms such as Diversey’s IntelliLinen system. This gives customers information and insights as to what is happening in their operation. Linking water, energy, chemistry, and production on a single dashboard helps them to stay in control of total operational costs and consumptions. The aim is to reduce costs, minimise rewashes and enhance results by providing an advanced set of remote management and diagnostic tools. Operators have a real-time view of energy and water consumption, chemical dosing accuracy, machine downtime and day-to-day operational costs to prevent expensive disruptions and errors. With its Clax Advanced programme, Diversey has been reducing wash costs and improving sustainability performance with documented savings on water, power, thermal energy, and emissions, but importantly extending linen life by up to 30 per cent. The production of cotton uses most of its total water life cycle, with the remaining 15 per cent in the laundry process. Saving on linen replacement has a huge impact on the sustainability footprint. Innovative tech and chemical solutions alongside advances in machinery and linen durability will all have a part to play. But at the end of the day, it’s people power which will drive us to a greener future.

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