With the evolution of reusable technical fabrics and high standards of sterilization now possible in our commercial laundry environment, limiting the number of disposable materials used (i.e., gowns, towels, gowns, or uniforms) has become possible. Innovations in the field of linen tracking and management technology have allowed for reusable textiles to not only be the environmentally friendly choice, but also the more cost-effective choice. Minimizing the use of disposable medical items in circulation reduces waste released into the environment. The shift away from disposable material also reduces disposable costs, which refers to the area of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Nonetheless, disposables will always have a place in our industry and in this article, we will explain where and why.

One of our most important customers in Italy is Servizi Italia. This organization has been operating for more than 30 years in the sterilization of textile medical devices. They have provided us with this interesting in-depth study regarding medical textile devices.

Textile Medical Devices: History and Features

The history of the use of textile devices in the medical and operating fields dates back to the early 20th century. It was during this era that the use of a specific multilayer cotton fabric uniform was first sterilized with steam.

This type of material was in use in gowns in operating theatres up to and through the 1960s to contain the spread of infections. Cotton-made materials, in this case, for medical gowns, could be sterilized and reused safely. Although cotton was absorbent, and somewhat water repellent when multiple layers were used, it did not sufficiently protect the most vulnerable in the healthcare industry – the patient, the doctor, and general staff that were in contact with contagions. It was also heavy and expensive to launder/process. The industry was in need of a reusable material that would prevent the spread of fluids, and unlike cotton, not release particles such as lint. Such a material would prevent the spread of bacteria, viruses, and related contagions, improving hospital hygiene.

The need for an alternative solution that provided all the aspects of protection required was developed. It was a disposable product with a highly absorbent non-woven material with a barrier component. This development dramatically changed the healthcare environment.

The Disposable Non-Woven Fabric

Disposable Non-Woven Fabric is the generic term for an industrial product similar to a fabric, but developed differently than the traditional way of weaving. Unlike common fabrics, in which the fibers are woven or knitted, disposable non-woven fabric has its fibers joined mechanically, with adhesives or other thermal processes.

The invention of disposable non-woven fabric dates back to the 1930’s. It only became known to the general public in the 1980s with the discoveries of the new generation polymers and their respective properties. Highly automated production techniques reduced costs without reducing their quality and their technical characteristics.

The development and use of disposable non-woven fabric as a low-cost alternative to traditional fabric had gradually gained a large share of the market where the use of classic fabric was not competitive in cost or performance.

The main advantages of the disposable non-woven fabrics were:
• High level of absorbency;
• Lightweight
• Non-linting;
• Water repellent;
• Compact design
• Automated and cost effective manufacturing techniques.

 

There are two glaring disadvantages in using disposable products.

First and foremost, they are highly pollutant. It is estimated that it takes over 400 years for disposable non-woven fabric cloth to decompose. This is a growing concern today as global warming and other related phenomena continue to damage our planet.

The second disadvantage is that disposables are generally uncomfortable and thus are not appropriate for garments that are typically worn for extended time periods.

The Reusable Technical Fabric

The popularity of disposables forced the reusable textile industry to reinvent itself.
The new age Reusable Technical Fabric is an innovative, safe, and comfortable textile material that is widely used in the healthcare industry. Their enhanced breathability makes them the gown of choice through long procedures, whereby the build of heat with disposable non-breathable gowns becomes intolerable.

Reusable PPE is generally made up of two types of fabrics:

• Polyester microfibers: drapery, light, antistatic, water-repellent and nearly lint-free (without any lint residue on the surface); some include an antimicrobial filament such as carbon or silver.
• Trilaminate fabric: consists of two external polyester layers, hydrophilic rendered, and polyurethane (PU) and/or polytetrafluorethylene (PTFE) foil: waterproof, breathable and resistant to odors, with low particle release.

Tessuto tecnico riutilizzabile, una scelta per l'ambiente

Operating room reusable technical fabric products (gowns, surgical towels, scrubs and Clean Air uniforms) maintain the condition of asepsis, that is, the prevention of the spread of infectious germs, especially during a surgical procedure, which reduces the risk of infection. This protection ensures the safety of the healthcare professionals.

As required by UNI EN 13795, all materials used for the production of gowns and surgical towels are subject to chemical, physical and biological analysis to confirm that these textiles remain intact throughout their usage.

The new age Reusable Technical Fabric guarantees:
• the prevention of the spread of pathogenic microorganisms and viruses;
• the resistance against the spread of different fluids (blood, secretions, and other fluids);
• antistatic;
• comfort and breathability;
• prevention against the release of particles (i.e., lint-free);
• resistance to abrasion; and
• water resistance

The PTFE or PU membrane that is present in the trilaminate fabric is highly breathable. This makes the fabric more comfortable for healthcare workers, which the breathability prevents them from sweating and overheating when working in the operating room. The trilaminate fabric provides the medical staff extra comfort during their stressful day. The breathable and water-resistant qualities of reusable technical fabrics are long-lasting even after numerous cycles of washing and sterilization.

Today, understanding the invaluable use of Technical Fabric comes at a critical juncture in the medical industry, as COVID-19 has shown the disproportionate demand for the purchase and use of disposable devices in both the private and medical sectors. Why? It is a result of the inability of many laundries and hospitals to manage their reusable garments. Garments get lost, disappear from the system, end up in people’s homes and as such, out of necessity, hospitals turn to disposable alternatives.

The amount of non-recyclable waste that has accumulated as a result, has not only caused hospitals to spend more on linen replacement, but has also impacted our environment in a negative way. This growing concern and a need for wide adoption of a more sustainable alternative was echoed in an article recently published in the main Financial Newspaper entitled, “Il Sole 24 Ore”. Jacopo Giliberto remarked: “by way of comparison, personal protective equipment against the virus can generate in one year up to 300-400 thousand tons of waste, when the two largest Italian waste-to-energy plants…destroy about 600-700 thousand tons per year.”

(source: A2A, we need a network of incinerators to dispose of the tide of masks, Jacopo Giliberto, “Il Sole 24 Ore” of 16/09/2020).

Minimizing the Cost of Reusable PPE with Automated Distribution Systems

Although it is a well-known fact that reusable PPE is the more eco-friendly and comfortable choice, in the business world, profits are often the forefront priority. As such, if the cost of a reusable PPE program is more than that of a disposable program, most businesses will use disposables. While disposable PPE may have been the more cost-effective option for hospitals in the days when reusable items could not be tracked and controlled, modern day innovations in the field of textile tracking and management have changed the narrative. Automated textile management systems that track garment usage with RFID technology is one such innovation. ABG Systems is a leading provider of these solutions. ABG’s solutions allow hospitals to efficiently manage their reusable textile inventory by limiting access to authorized users, while tracking garment retrievals and returns. Such solutions have proven to help hospitals operate in an extremely lean fashion, by allowing them to minimize inventory levels, usage, and losses. From a cost perspective, the end result is a reduction in the two main linen management cost drivers: replacement and laundry service costs. In most cases, hospitals that leverage these uniform distribution systems are able to operate more cost-effectively than those using disposable PPE.

Making a Positive Impact on our Environment Through Automated Distribution

It is important to stay mindful of the fact that the use of reusable textiles still impacts our environment in two main ways. Firstly, each time a reusable garment is worn, it must subsequently be washed. Industrial laundry operations require lots of water and energy to service these hospitals. As such, the more we can limit the number of textiles hospitals use, the more we can limit the impact of these laundry operations on the environment. Second, producing reusable technical fabric depletes our global natural resources. Thus, finding ways to limit textile production will also help make a positive impact on our environment.

Why does excessive usage occur? Without automated textile management systems, garment distribution is pretty much a “free for all”. There are no restrictions on who can retrieve garments, and there are no restrictions on the number of garments employees can take. This tends to increase usage levels and the number of garments that end up in the dirty laundry hamper.

Why do losses occur? Again, it comes down to a lack of control. When there is no way to control who can take garments, how many they take, whether or not they are returned, where they are returned, etc., many garments end up getting lost. When garments are lost, they need to be reproduced and replaced more frequently, which affects our environment.

Since automated textile distribution systems help limit both usage and losses, widespread adoption of these systems would be an extremely effective means of reducing both of these environmental impacts.

How Reusable PPE and Dispensing Systems can Help Hospitals in the Fight Against COVID-19

In a recent study conducted by ECRI, an organization focused on the use of safe medical products, it was found that “52 percent of gowns with unstated levels of protection failed to meet even the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation’s (AAMI®) lowest level for protection”. The article states that “ECRI issued a high-priority hazard alert to warn U.S. healthcare organizations about its safety concerns after evaluating 34 distinct models of disposable gowns”. With the increase in demand for PPE throughout this pandemic inflating prices, many hospitals have turned to the low-cost disposable alternatives. Given how easily COVID-19 can be transmitted, providing high quality PPE with effective protective barriers is critical for the safety of frontline workers. This level of protection is usually best achieved with the more costly reusable PPE.
Using efficient automated distribution systems can help hospitals protect their investments in high quality PPE. Another important consideration is that garment dispensing systems can also help improve garment hygiene and workplace safety. Since garments are dispensed through individual secured holding slots, hospitals can use dispensers to ensure garments remain sterile until dispensed to the frontline workers.


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