Of all the new things the past school year brought with it, one specific cleaning item seems likely to stay—disinfecting wipes that often carry harsh chemicals and overload our waste streams.
Whether staff and students are bringing their own store-bought wipes from home, or a well-meaning administration includes them in the cleaning protocol, disinfecting wipes have become ubiquitous. Schools looking to meet demand while limiting their environmental footprint can learn from the University of Georgia’s innovative solution.
UGA had been working for years to eliminate disposable wipes on campus in an effort to reduce waste. Then along came the COVID-19 pandemic. The university community, like the public everywhere, needed quick, accessible ways to disinfect shared high-touch surfaces.
“We were not going to use a lot of wipes with harsh chemicals throughout the campus,” said Kimberly Thomas, senior director of facilities management services at UGA. “But we also wanted to give our community peace of mind. Our plan was to stick with the effective, safe botanical disinfectant we were already using and limit the waste we were diverting to the landfill.”
Thomas and her team developed a plan: Disinfecting wipes generated on site, using the university’s own disinfectant and stored in reusable buckets, would be placed strategically around campus along with hand sanitizer and other safety items, free for anyone to use. Stations were set up in convenient locations, including near bathrooms and in common lobbies, lounges, entrances, and athletic and recreational areas.
“We wanted our community to know we are here to support their safety, but we want them to utilize what the school is paying for vs. what they were bringing from home,” said Thomas. “If we communicate that same message, and people see they don’t have to spend their personal money on wipes, they feel safe.”
The facilities department at UGA procures dry chem wipes made from recycled content and uses its own botanical-based disinfectant that meets UGA’s strict environmental and safety guidelines. The team conducted tests to ensure the wipes’ efficacy and to support their use.
Figuring out the containers posed other challenges. The buckets used to store the disinfecting wipes started developing mold after a few weeks. The facilities department brought in the university’s public health research department to help determine the cause. Thomas also contacted her distributor and the product manufacturers to help troubleshoot the problem.
In the end, they learned that the recycled content in the dry wipes was the cause, so they adjusted the amount of recycled content to achieve a level that would not cause mold. In addition, the department began switching out the buckets once a week instead of every few weeks, which meant storing fewer wipes in the bucket at a time.
“This is really important for us to share because it shows that even when you’re trying to do the right thing, you’re still also figuring it out,” said Thomas. “If you are committed to being sustainable, you have to figure out what works. And you are going to get the best results when you work with your manufacturers, distributors and stakeholders.”
Top photo: Andrew Davis Tucker / UGA