The sustainable washroom

17th of December 2019
The sustainable washroom
The sustainable washroom

Washrooms are a vital part of our lives. But could they become more sustainable? Washroom hygiene companies give their views - and ECJ looks at the bigger picture.

Washrooms are a basic necessity of life. But from a sustainability point of view they can be extremely wasteful.

Around 30 per cent of the water we employ at home is used for flushing the toilet, which means the quantity of water used in public washrooms worldwide – where automatic flush systems are in place and where taps are often left to run unchecked – is incalculably huge.

Public toilets also require energy for heating, lighting and operating hand dryers. And washroom visitors are major consumers of paper in the form of toilet tissue and paper towels.

So, what are the sustainability issues that need to be addressed in the public washroom? The response from manufacturers tends to reflect their own product portfolios with air dryer companies pointing out the wastefulness of paper; tissue companies referring to the energy burden of air dryers, and pioneers of waterless systems claiming that excess water consumption is the key issue.

But in a way, all of them are right and the use of water, energy and paper all needs to be reduced to achieve a more sustainable washroom. This is certainly the view of senior hand hygiene product manager at CWS Fatima Rose.

Running water

“If sensors are not employed as a restrictive measure, many visitors will leave the water running for too long; they will cover the seat with toilet tissue and they will use more paper towels than is actually necessary,” she said. “The lights are also often left on after people have left.

“Sensors integrated in doors, dispensers and toilets will help to ensure the correct amount of water or product is dispensed. Letting the water run for minutes at a time is no longer necessary:  in high-
traffic washrooms the right tap systems and dispensers will result in enormous savings while maintaining a high degree of hygiene.”

She says smart solutions can help to train the behaviour of washroom visitors, making it easy for them to use only as much as is necessary. The sensor-operated CWS SmartWash system is said to reduce the quantity of water required for each hand wash by up to 90 per cent while cutting soap consumption by up to 60 per cent. CWS also offers cotton towels which is claimed to result in 95 per cent less waste than paper towels.

Managing director of Metsä Mark Dewick agrees that consumption control is a key issue in terms of improving washroom sustainability. “If you ensure the correct amount of tissue is used and wastage is eliminated, this will reduce the amount of product required which will in turn reduce the transport footprint,” he said. ”So it’s a win:win.”

Dispensing systems can be instrumental in helping to reduce paper consumption, according to Dewick. “The aim is not to limit its use, but to make it harder for visitors to waste the product,” he said. “Paper-breaks in the system will stop rolls from freewheeling while dispensers that give out only one sheet of paper at a time will result in users taking out only what they need. And high volume dispensers will prevent the issue of spare rolls being stolen.

“These things will all help to improve usage patterns while lowering the product‘s footprint.”
He says Katrin washroom systems offer paper in self-presenting sheets to avoid the user having to reach into the dispenser and then grab too much product. “There is also a wheel brake on our toilet roll systems to avoid freewheeling, which again reduces waste,” he said.

Like Metsä, Essity’s policy is to develop solutions that help to reduce consumption according to communications director Reneé Remijnse.

“Our hand towel systems offer one-at-a-time dispensing and our refills are compressed to reduce the CO2 transportation impact,” she said. “For example, our Tork PeakServe bundles are compressed by 50 per cent.”

Essity has also launched the Tork PaperCircle scheme whereby customers’ used paper hand towels are collected and taken to local mills for recycling into new tissue products. According to Remijnse this can help businesses go circular, reducing their carbon emissions from paper towels by 40 per cent and cutting the waste produced from towels by 20 per cent.

Educating washroom users

“This is a one-of-a-kind recycling service and after successful pilots with partners in Germany and the Netherlands, we are now offering Tork PaperCircle in more European markets,” she said.

Another way in which sustainability can be improved is by educating washroom visitors, she says. “Providing good communication on how they can contribute to the environment by taking fewer towels, turning off taps, etc will help to improve sustainability,” she said. “And of course automatic light switches, water saving systems and sensor taps will contribute.”

Washrooms face multiple eco challenges according to Airdri marketing manager Trudi Osborne. “These include the over-use of water, paper towel wastage and the energy consumption of hand dryers,” she said. “This is why sustainability should be at the heart of any procurement decision.”

When it comes to hand dryers there are two sustainability factors to consider, she says: energy efficiency and lifespan. “Investing in a hand dryer that will go the distance while keeping running costs to a minimum is key,” she said. “Hand dryers need energy to power them but there are many on the market that consume fewer than 1,000 watts.” She says the Airdri Quazar and the Airdri Quantum both require particularly low levels of energy.

Excessive water consumption is today’s most urgent sustainability issue according to WhiffAway Group’s finance and marketing manager Georgina McLean.

“In developed countries, urinal flushing accounts for up to 18 per cent of total water consumption and each standard urinal flush wastes an average of 157,000 litres of water a year,” she said.
McLean claims the company’s Water Warrior technology takes flushing levels down to zero.

“Environmental savings are therefore achieved from day one and our waterless urinals can be retro-fitted to existing facilities,” she said. The system is also said to save energy since no water-pumping is required.

Water, energy and consumables can all be used far too liberally in the washroom says Nikki Phillips, divisional manager washrooms and waste management of the AM Services Group. “The washroom is an area where commercial organisations can really support sustainability, adding value to the business while also making savings,” she said. “However, it is often the area most overlooked by the people managing the facilities.”

Supporting customers

She says the water used in toilets, urinals and basins can account for up to 90 per cent of a company’s water consumption whereas only one per cent is used for cleaning. “This is clearly an area where service providers should be supporting customers with advice on water and urinal flush management systems along with other water-reducing products,” she said.

AM Services’ Sensaflush urinal flush management system is said to control water usage by intuitively regulating the frequency of flushing, while its ES50 Water Management System uses pre-set functions to allow companies to control the number of times a day urinals are flushed.

Intuitive hand towel dispensers and sheet-by-sheet toilet roll dispensers will both help to reduce consumption, she says. “Jumbo toilet rolls and larger soap dispenser refills will also last longer and reduce the amount of transport and packaging required,” said Phillips.

“It is important that clients, suppliers and service providers all recognise they need to work together to educate each other and end-users, pooling ideas and innovations and establishing the washroom as a central focus for making positive changes to reduce environmental impact.”

Managing director of Cromwell Polythene James Lee claims there should be no trade-off between effective products and sustainability in the washroom. “Sustainability is a central part of most facilities’ management strategies, encompassing reduced energy and water use along with increased recycling rates,” he said. “So it is important to choose responsibly sourced materials with the lowest
carbon footprint.”

The company’s LowCO2t refuse sacks and washroom bin liners have been designed to use minimal resources and incorporate a lower volume of plastic.

Small changes can make all the difference to a washroom’s sustainability, according to Sofidel’s AFH business director Alessandro Antonelli. “In our view, the key sustainability issues that need to be addressed in public toilets include the optimisation of dispensing systems to reduce waste and the reduction in the frequency of replacing rolls;” he said. Sofidel’s Full Tech dispensing system is said to provide a long-lasting supply of paper since each refill contains the equivalent of up to 14 conventional rolls.

So commentators agree that a reduction in paper consumption; an efficient use of energy and innovative water-saving systems will all help to reduce the environmental footprint of our washrooms. But these moves are arguably the tip of the iceberg when looking at the bigger picture.

Over the past eight years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $200 million in reinventing the humble loo to improve sustainability worldwide while providing much-needed sanitation in areas of developing countries.

Reducing impact

The foundation’s latest toilet innovations are capable of purifying water waste and turning solids into fertilisers. They will operate off the grid without the need for any piped-in water, a sewer connection or outside electricity source and they cost less than $0.5 per day to operate. And some of the current prototypes are either solar-powered or generate their own energy mechanically.

The Gates Foundation has also invested heavily in grants for a company called Tiger Toilets which has come up with a loo that requires no traditional flushing or sewer hook-up. Instead, it uses faeces-eating worms that consume human waste and leave behind a mix of water, carbon dioxide and a small amount of nutrient-rich compost.

These are exciting new moves that are all designed to reduce the environmental impact of the washroom on a global scale while increasing the percentage of the population with access to toilets. But while looking to the future is crucial, it is also vitally important that manufacturers and businesses continue to do whatever they can to save precious resources in the washrooms of the present.


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