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No Need To Launder These Disposable Sheets, When You Can Greenwash Them Instead

New laundry-free linens may be convenient for college students, Airbnb hosts, and disaster relief. But saying they are eco-friendly is a stretch.

Too lazy to do laundry? Here’s one solution: Throw your sheets out.

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That’s the concept behind Beantown Bedding’s Laundry-Free Linens, designed for college students, Airbnb hosts, or anyone who doesn’t want to deal with actually washing their bedding. The compostable sheets are marketed as “environmentally responsible”–in part, the founders reason, because you’re saving all the water you would have used in a washing machine.

The problem with that argument: It takes quite a bit more water just to make the sheets. The linens are made with Tencel, a fiber that comes from eucalyptus trees. Turning trees into a pound of fiber takes around 155 gallons of water. A set of full-sized sheets, at 4.14 pounds, takes over 600 gallons.

A load of laundry in an ultra-efficient washer? 14 gallons. Even a clunky older machine might only use 40 gallons a load. Every time you toss out sheets instead of washing, you’re using hundreds of extra gallons of water somewhere else in the world, along with energy, transportation, and other resources.

The founders who designed the sheets initially just wanted to help their college-age children sleep on clean bedding. “My co-founder, Joan Ripple, and I each sent our kids to college and learned they never took time to wash their dirty sheets,” says Beantown Bedding’s Kirsten Lambert. “We went in search of an easier way for them to have clean sheets and stay healthy, even joking about sending them rolls of paper sheets, like the ones in a doctor’s office.”

They didn’t see disposable sheets on the market, so they decided to create them, aiming to “deliver an easy and eco-friendly alternative to laundering,” she says. The idea seems to have resonated: Over the last three years, the startup has grown around 400% per year, selling to hotels, vacation property and Airbnb owners, and health care and disaster relief organizations. But is it really eco-friendly?

The company hasn’t yet done a full cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment–the gold standard to determine whether something is actually better for the environment than any given alternative.

“The claim that these sheets are eco-friendly sounds outrageous,” says Jeremy Faludi, a sustainable design strategist and educator. “I won’t call them liars without seeing a full life-cycle assessment of their product versus typical sheets, but it’s very suspicious. Their environmental impact calculator showing water savings during the use phase is either idiotic or intentionally fraudulent, because it ignores the environmental impacts of making the sheets in the first place.”

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It’s true that Tencel, the fabric fiber they use, stacks up better than most cotton. It’s grown without pesticides, easy to grow in places that aren’t suitable for food, and doesn’t have to be irrigated; the total water use is about 20 times less than cotton. Lenzing, the Austrian company that makes the fiber fabric, also uses biofuels to keep its carbon footprint low. But that isn’t exactly an argument to throw out the resulting product.

“When some of my students looked at disposable bed sheets, we found that the majority of water consumption happened during the manufacturing phase,” says Michael Lepech, who teaches a class in life-cycle analysis at Stanford University. “Having to buy new manufactured bed sheets regularly resulted in much higher water use over a two-year life cycle when compared to cotton sheets.”

For other environmental impacts, like energy use and carbon footprint, it’s also hard to say that single-use sheets are really better without a full analysis. The company is taking extra steps, like shipping the sheets “UPS Carbon Neutral,” to reduce impact. But why not make compostable sheets that are designed to be washed until they fall apart?

In rare situations where sheets already have to thrown out–say, in an Ebola ward–it’s true this might be useful (though then, presumably, the sheets would be incinerated rather than composted). And it’s arguable that in an extreme drought, maybe it could actually make sense to find an alternative to laundry.

“If the manufacturing of these sheets–which is what consumes most of the water in the life cycle–takes place in an area of the world not experiencing drought, then there is a basis for wanting to shift the water-consuming parts of the life cycle to areas of the world where we have lots of water,” says Lepech.

Or Californians could just choose to wash their current sheets a little less often.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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