Effective cleaning of high-touch surfaces and floors in healthcare facilities and other institutional settings requires a dedicated workforce and proper cleaning tools like microfibre mops. While several studies have shown the adoption of those textiles has improved cleaning and disinfection outcomes, questions remain regarding the quality and durability of different products such as microfibre mops, particularly after repeated laundering. This issue has helped foster a heated debate about the switch to single-use, disposable mop pads and wipers from reused, re-laundered cleaning textiles.
PEOPLE EQUAL GERMS
Properly cleaning and disinfecting environmental surfaces in healthcare facilities is paramount to reduce the risk of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). Unlike most other institutions where large numbers of people gather, hospitals and other healthcare facilities treat people whose health is already compromised. Patients are more susceptible to infection than the general public. However, even healthy people carry billions of microbes on their skin and inside their bodies. Through poor manners, inadequate hygiene or even completely normal behaviour, these microbes are shed from people and contaminate the surrounding environment.
Microbes prefer to attach to surfaces and form communities called biofilms to protect themselves from drying out and starvation. This is how these bacteria, viruses and fungi can ‘uber’ from person to person, resulting in the transmission of diseases. The chain of transmission can only be stopped by good hygiene practices (for example, hand-washing/sanitization) and proper cleaning/disinfection of environmental surfaces.
THE FANTASTIC FOUR
There are many ways to describe cleaning but most involve four components: tools, agitation, chemicals, time/labour. When considering cleaning tools, both the hardware (poles and mop frames) and software (mop pads and wipers) should be lightweight and easy to use. The cleaning textile, paired with the environmental services technician’s efforts, provide the critical agitation needed to remove dirt, stains and even biofilm from surfaces. The chemicals used to clean, sanitize and disinfect must be compatible with the mops, wipers and other hardware. All these factors influence how much time and labour is needed for a consistent and effective process.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
Traditionally, cleaning, sanitization and disinfection utilized cotton-based string mops and towels. These products are often laundered under high temperatures and using bleach to effectively decontaminate them before being employed again.
In the early 2000s, several institutions began transitioning from cotton-based products to tools such as microfibre mops. These floor mopping pads and cloths were either laundered or disposable products. The results of several studies have shown the migration to microfibre mops and wipers has improved cleaning and disinfection techniques and effectiveness.
However, the laundries are faced with a challenge every time they wash and dry microfibre mops. If they launder according to typical care-label instructions, the mops and wipes may still have viable microbes, dirt, hair and other debris when returned as ‘clean’ for use. These contaminants can compromise cleaning, increase the risk of microbial cross-contamination and neutralize some disinfectants like quaternary ammonium compounds (quats). If synthetic textiles are laundered according to U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the microfibres themselves can become melted, twisted and deformed. There are several industry associations, such as the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council and Textile Rental Services Association, dedicated to improving the laundry process. Achieving consistent compliance to a relatively complicated process, however, will remain difficult.
Single-use, disposable textiles are a significantly different option for cleaning surfaces and applying disinfectants. They are lighter in weight, more effective at releasing cleaners or disinfectants onto surfaces and avoid the re-laundering challenges. Although the quality can vary among manufacturers, reputable single-use products can clean as well as brand new laundered mop pads and towels. Since they are only used once, there is no risk of cross-contamination from prior use or laundering and the fibres are in pristine condition for each application.
One of the first considerations is whether one single-use cleaning product equates to one use and processing of a laundered cleaning product. Because of its lighter weight, single-use products might treat less area with a disinfectant than re-laundered textiles. However, the area that can be cleaned is not affected and mop pad coverage can be extended by applying more disinfectant directly to the floor instead of using more mop pads.
While the economics for single-use textiles are straightforward, the total costs associated with laundered products can be complicated and variable. It often depends on how many cycles of clean-disinfect-launder-repeat a textile can go through before it is not capable of cleaning anymore. Re-laundered mop pads and towels tend to ‘disappear’ over time as they are discarded due to wear or extreme contamination. Some savvier housekeepers and environmental services technicians have been known to hoard cleaning tools in the best condition, leaving the less effective textiles for others to use.
Manufacturers of single-use, disposable cleaning textiles strive to create effective products at cost-effective price points by developing more efficient products. The relatively expensive microfibre mops are deliberately distributed into the areas of the pads or wipers that make direct contact with the surfaces being cleaned. This can offer excellent cleaning results while providing great value.
The issues of environmental impact and sustainability now compete with quality and cost as factors that influence buying decisions for single-use versus re-laundered products. Both types of textiles available in the market today are composed primarily of non-recycled synthetic polymers. Generally, they are disposed in landfills or by incineration at the end of their useful life. However, the overall impact on the environment can be complicated when considering life cycle categories, ranging from eutrophication of waters (phosphate equivalents) to climate change (carbon dioxide equivalents).
Single-use textiles are disposed after every use but weigh much less than textiles that are re-laundered, especially when considering the cleaners or disinfectants left in the textiles after use. Even if mop pads and towels can be reused effectively through dozens or hundreds of cycles, the environmental impacts of energy, water and wastewater from the laundering process are considerable. Also, the uncontrolled release of microfibres into waterways has been recognized as a substantial environmental and toxicological hazard associated with laundering of synthetic textiles. Manufacturers of both types of products are developing more sustainable options for raw materials and disposal, including biodegradable or compostable textiles, but must balance these features with potential negative impacts on quality and cost.
WEIGHING THE OPTIONS
Industry professionals understand that cleaning outcomes are often more than just aesthetics – the results can also impact human health. While it is possible for laundries to strike the balance needed to effectively process synthetic mop pads and wipes according to industry standards, it is an ongoing challenge that requires keen oversight to ensure consistent compliance. If there’s a lack of trust in the laundry process, single-use, disposable cleaning textiles should be considered as a viable alternative for any facility.
Mark Wiencek, PhD, is the lead microbiologist at Contec Inc. Ron Sample is Contec Professional’s senior technical support specialist. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.