There is no clear answer regarding the benefit of reusable versus disposable
towels. To the best of my knowledge, there has not been a life cycle analysis
performed on the issue. However, there are three critical concerns regarding
the recommendation of one towel over another and that is cost, performance,
and regulations. Of the three, performance and regulations are the governing
factors. If the printer is using a cleaning solution that contains a RCRA
listed solvent, then the towels will have to be managed and disposed as
hazardous waste. If the solvent exhibits a RCRA characteristic, then the
towels will have to be managed as hazardous if they exhibit the
characteristic. Even if the printer does not use a solvent that would be
classified as hazardous, once it is a waste, or the towels do not exhibit a
characteristic, disposable towels represent an additional Superfund liability.
Typically, reusable towels that are properly managed (e.g., no free liquids,
covered containers, and a contract with a laundry) are not classified as
hazardous even if the solvent used to clean has RCRA listed constituents.
Performance also plays a key role. If the printer needs towels for certain
critical cleaning operations, then reusable may not suffice. Laundered
reusable towels can contain debris or be abrasive enough to scratch delicate
plates, cylinders, and screens. Therefore, there may not be an option on which
towel to use.
The last item is cost. The rental/cleaning costs of the reusables may be less
than the purchase and disposal costs of disposables. Also, the Superfund
liability costs can be enormous. However, costs are regional and nature and
the printer is in a better position to judge this issue.