Wear and Wash-away Garments Debut at CleanRooms `96
BY John Haystead
Boston, MA–A line of new technology, biodegradable, disposable cleanroom garments will be exhibited at the CleanRooms `96 East show in Boston this April. Made from the plastic polymer, polyvinyl alcohol (PVA), “OREX” disposable garments dissolve in water, but only when heated to temperatures above 190°F. Although water-soluble PVA products have been around for some time, Isolyser-White Knight Industrial (Norcross, GA) has developed a new process and manufacturing technique that compresses the polymer`s molecules to the point where the materials remain water-stable to a very high temperature. As described by Isolyser Scientist, Dr. Baosheng Lee, because the material can be dissolved very quickly in hot water while remaining stable in cold water, OREX offers the cleanroom marketplace a new level of flexibility. Isolyser, which acquired White Knight Healthcare, Inc. (Asheville, NC) in September 1995, is keen to pursue this rapidly growing segment.
OREX can be rendered as a film, as molded or extruded rigid plastic, or as a woven or nonwoven fabric. As a fabric, it is potentially suitable for all manner of cleanroom garments, including headwear, footwear, coveralls, labcoats, etc. The patented process, developed by polymer chemist Travis Honeycutt, potentially opens the door to a great many new applications for PVA-based products and to end-users eager to take advantage of its environmentally friendly qualities. PVA can be safely discharged into conventional sewer systems for municipal or industrial wastewater treatment. Although a slurry may develop as a result of reduced water conditions, PVA will not resolidify and block distribution pipes. Ultimately, it can be degraded by thermal, mechanical, photochemical, ultraviolet, biological and chemical processes.
According to Isolyser`s Vice President and General Manager William Papciak, the CleanRooms show will host the company`s first formal offering of the OREX disposable garment line to the cleanrooms marketplace, though several healthcare systems, as well as the nuclear industry, have already begun evaluating products. Applications could include any number of other disposable products, from consumer goods such as diapers and fast-food containers, to bedpans, mopheads, wipes, and packaging materials, etc.
Papciak says the impact on the contamination control market could be dramatic, since “OREX has the potential to ultimately replace just about every conventional poly-related disposable product–minimizing the waste stream, which is both an environmental impact concern as well as a major cost item for the end-user.” In terms of unit cost, OREX products will probably be priced somewhat higher than conventional disposables, but according to Papciak, the premium will be justified by the cost savings in waste disposal. He acknowledges, however, that the extent of the advantage depends on the individual end-user, some of whom may not have a significant waste disposal problem. Isolyser is not yet announcing the price points for its cleanroom products, which it plans to officially commercialize in mid-year.
While the potential for cleanroom applications may be large, a number of hurdles may also face the company before the market verdict comes in on the new garments. Says Chuck Berndt of C.W. Berndt Associates (Highland Park, IL): “Conceptually speaking, it`s a great idea, but there are also a lot of concerns and questions that will need to be answered upfront. World-class cleanroom facilities and laundry operations aren`t going to introduce unproven products into their operations.”
For example, Berndt describes one likely concern of cleanroom laundries, should they be asked to provide OREX garment disposal services. “Laundries must concern themselves with possible cross- contamination of their re-useable garment lines; and even though PVA theoretically completely dissolves, if you`re repeatedly putting these substances into your laundry systems, the fact is, there will be some level of residue.” He points out that when you`re dealing with microcontamination levels, “even a tiny amount of residual PVA can become an expensive preventative maintenance issue for laundries.”
Another possible issue for cleanroom laundries is that their systems don`t currently operate at the temperatures required to dissolve OREX garments. Although industrial laundries run at around 180 degrees and up, cleanroom systems generally run at no more than 140 degrees, due to concerns about alkaline hydrolysis. Therefore, to handle OREX garment disposal, multiple process configurations would need to be set up.
Acknowledging these concerns, Papciak says Isolyser anticipates working closely with the laundries and their existing systems, but also notes that the company has not yet finalized a distribution and degradable-processing methodology. “Certainly some users may want the process to be handled by their industrial laundries, but we will also be offering them the option of handling the process themselves on site.” Isolyser offers its own line of OREX processors that are currently being utilized in the medical healthcare industry and evaluated in other industry facilities.
“Ultimately, it depends on the cost of their current waste-disposal stream,” says Papciak. “But, in almost all cases, we`ve been able to position the cost of the processors and goods to tremendous overall cost benefit.” He says that, compared to what companies currently pay for disposal of low-hazard waste (anywhere from 0.25 to 0.50/lb.), the cost of dissolving conventional (non-woven) OREX products–including water, electricity, the unit, etc.–is in the 3-5 cents/lb. range.
Many end-users, however, may be more concerned about particulates and outgassing of the OREX garments in their cleanrooms than about how their laundries will dispose of them. According to Papciak, OREX garments are currently undergoing product evaluation testing in a number of industrial applications including cleanrooms. The company plans to be able to point to a number of these cleanroom validation case studies by the time CleanRooms East opens.
Conventional PVA is already regulated by the FDA as a component in adhesives, coatings, indirect food additive applications, medical devices, and as a sizing agent for textiles. The new OREX-PVA products have also been under evaluation by the medical device/healthcare industry for about 1.5 years with between 30-35 510k approvals and other applications in progress. Isolyser`s own testing has shown OREX material toxicity to be comparable to synthetic and cotton products and materials.
One characteristic–of great importance to cleanroom customers–is ESD. According to Papciak, attendees can expect to see “static-free” OREX cleanroom products featured at the Isolyser CleanRooms exhibit. n