If someone were to load all of the disposable wipes bought by consumers in North America last year onto 18-wheel semis, the caravan would number 9,000 trucks and stretch for 68 miles. And it would be carrying 83,000 tons of these seemingly ephemeral cloths, which are anything but fleeting.
Largely, they're synthetic in nature (non-woven polymers, sometimes mixed with wood pulp). And they're not readily biodegradable.
About 30 percent of those wipes, $800 million worth, would be meant for home cleaning, said the Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry. (The others: baby and personal-care wipes.)
This would include all the Swiffer dry cloths and wet pads, the Pledge Grab-it cloths, the Mr. Clean MagicReach scrubbing tub/shower pads, the Clorox disinfecting wipes, Lysol wipes, Pledge wipes, Windex wipes, Fantastik wipes, Weiman leather wipes, Scotch-Brite Scrubby wipes, Easy-Off wipes for cleaning the microwave, wipes meant for cleaning stainless steel, wipes for cleaning granite countertops, and on and on and on to the landfill they go.
Wipes are the largest component of a "use-and-toss" trend that is sweeping the home-cleaning industry and introducing Americans to all sorts of single-use cleaning products. The growing list includes such curiosities as toilet brushes with disposable heads meant for just one cleaning of the bowl.
All total, disposability in home cleaning is now a multibillion-dollar industry and trend whose allure is convenience.
And it's one that's raising the eyebrows of environmentalists, earth-minded consumers and at least one chemist whose concerns include the quantity of garbage that all these products are generating and what all this carefree throwing away says about American life.
"For the sake of convenience, we have turned into a throwaway society," said Lisa Mastny, of Worldwatch Institute, which is based in the District. "We don't buy things to last, and manufacturers don't make things designed to last."
"It's just one more gargantuan waste stream," said Betsy Taylor, president of the Center for a New American Dream, a Takoma Park organization that provides information to help consumers live the good life but in a way that is gentler on the planet. "Every time a new product is developed like this, which is made to accommodate our very rushed, busy lives, we are not considering the long-term effect on our environment."
Because the products are relatively new (Procter & Gamble Co.'s Swiffer mop ignited the trend in 1999), there is little data on what their long-term effect may be.
In fact, one government agency after another, including the Municipal Waste Management Association and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation, said the equivalent of: We haven't thought about it yet. Quickly adding that 83,000 tons of wipes is a lot of waste.
"Obviously, recycling and reuse are two things we would like to see, and something of a one-use nature runs counter to that," said Matt Smith, chief spokesman for Streets and Sanitation in Chicago. "These [cleaning] products may be effective, but if there are other things that people could use that could be kept out of the waste stream for a longer period of time or permanently, we would encourage their use."
P. Aarne Vesilind, a professor of civil engineering at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and a specialist in solid-waste management, gets to the heart of the "throwaway" issue, perhaps best.
It's not that the United States is running out of landfill space, Vesilind said. The concern is more for the waste that results from hauling and managing all of our waste.
In most parts of the country, solid waste is transported long distances to disposal, Vesilind said. "The amount of fossil fuel [used] in running those trucks is absolutely phenomenal, and the pollution from it -- the waste," said Vesilind, who noted the resources that go into managing landfills to make sure their leachate is not leaking into the groundwater, their covers are not eroding, their slopes are not sliding.
Federal law said landfills must be monitored for 30 years, said Vesilind, but in reality, it could be a lot longer.
For their part, manufacturers behind disposable cleaning products say they are simply responding to consumer demand for greater convenience.
Consumers want cleaning routines that fit into their schedules, said Joe Miramonti, research and development manager for Procter & Gamble's Swiffer brand. "Traditional 'cleaning day' is not a realistic concept anymore," he said.
At 3M Co., maker of Scotch-Brite disposable wipes and toilet scrubbers, "we talk about a 'quick-cleaning behavior' of consumers," said Mark Sorlien, technical director for the home-care division laboratory. It's a trend that has emerged in the past decade, Sorlien said, and indicates the time constraints facing families.
And at SC Johnson, the buzzwords are "deep-cleaning occasions."
People "are busier than ever. It has become so much harder for people to make time for the deep-cleaning occasions," said Steve Peckham, senior public affairs manager of SC Johnson, which makes Pledge, Windex and Fantastik wipes and the Grab-it mop with disposable cloth heads.
SC Johnson is trying to offer cleaning products "that people can use quickly and conveniently and literally on the fly" to stretch out the time between those deep cleans, Peckham said.
Procter & Gamble, SC Johnson and 3M say environmental sensitivity and lifecycles figure strongly into their product development. But that sensitivity must be balanced with the "need of the consumers," as 3M's Sorlien said.
"We have to make some judgments based on that," Sorlien said. "What the consumer wants is what they're going to buy. We don't go out and make them buy things they don't want. They tell us the things they are looking for. It's always a balancing act."
There are options, said Peckham at SC Johnson. People can buy the Pledge Multi-Surface cleaner, for instance, in bottle form and use it with their own washable rag, or they can buy it as a disposable wipe.
There are also critics within the industry itself.
Roger McFadden, vice president of product research at Coastwide Laboratories, said: The cleaning industry is "trying better than it ever has before" to "clean up its act" and deliver products that are less chemically harsh. "And then they turn around and bring products like this to market and they haven't thought through the impact."
Coastwide Laboratories is an Oregon maker of institutional and industrial cleaning products. It specializes in green chemistries and green practices. It does not make wipes.
Is there a way to reconcile consumers' craving for quick-cleaning products with environmentalism?
William McDonough thinks so.
One of the foremost green architects and product designers in the country, McDonough thinks a widely available, biodegradable wipe is possible.
And why not make it one that, after use, "could be quietly stuffed into a houseplant" as food for the plant, said McDonough of Virginia, who is known for his "cradle-to-cradle" concept of good design. Products, he thinks, should be designed as nutrients for something else (other products, the environment) once their useful life is over.
It's all about designing "ecologically intelligent" products with an end life already in mind, McDonough said.
(At least one such wipe already exists. Method, a small, San Francisco maker of green cleaning products, offers biodegradable wet wipes that people can toss into their compost pile after using. Method does not call them disinfecting wipes; they contain no antimicrobial agents. Instead, they're billed as surface cleaners. Consumers can find them at Linens 'n Things stores or online at www.lnt.com.)
In 2002,McDonough created GreenBlue, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to assist industries in developing green products and systems. A cleaning-products initiative is in the works, although it's focusing on the institutional and industrial cleaning sectors and not the home front.
For now, though, consumers at home looking for convenient alternatives to throwaway cleaning products will find a growing selection of items on store shelves, as manufacturers of durable cleaning products respond to the disposables trend.
Microfiber dusting cloths and mops are the big news. Microfiber is a material that naturally attracts dust and dirt. And those dusting cloths and mop heads can be washed and reused.
And they will find better sponge technology. Today's sponge mop is not the hard, crusty thing that people remember from their mother's day.
"Just getting people to think about what they're buying is a huge step," said Mastny at Worldwatch, who thinks if consumers were to figure out how much disposables cost them over the long run, they would be more apt to choose a durable option.
"Getting them to think: 'Do I need this and what is the long-term impact?'" Mastny continued, "if we could do that, we are halfway there."