The customer’s damaging misuse of linen is the main stumbling block in the rental sector’s attempts to extend linen life and meet its environmental obligations.
Modern wash chemistry causes far less damage than the processes used fifty years ago. When linen is used only for its intended purpose, launderers can confidently expect it to last for 200 wash and use cycles.
Inevitably some linen gets stolen, especially napkins and hand towels, but this is a relatively small problem compared with that of towels used to clean bathrooms, napkins being used to clean cutlery or soiled bedlinen being stuffed into duvet covers that are then dragged along corridors and over yards.
The laundry needs to identify such damage and have strategies in place to deter it in future.

Aluminium marking
Work surfaces and kitchen equipment are often made of aluminium. It is tempting for cleaners to use a pillowcase, towel or napkin to wipe these surfaces down at the end of their rounds but this will leave intense black marks that cannot be removed in laundering, even by using a rust-removal process.
However if the marking is exposed to caustic soda, which is a strong alkali, it will dissolve to form aluminium hydroxide, which is partially soluble. Unfortunately the strength needed to get this reaction will rot the cotton so the method cannot be used to rectify the fault but as aluminium is the only black mark to dissolve in caustic soda this test can only be used to prove abuse. Aluminium is not used in laundering so the laundry is not responsible for the marks.

Cleaning the bath with hand towels
Bathroom ceramics need a strong acidic cleaning agent and many of these products have an acidity of pH1 – the same strength as car battery fluid.
Just one dab of such cleaners on a hand towel will leave a patch of rotting cotton, which will get gradually worse as the towel waits to be laundered.
The damage can be recognised and proved in two ways. First, the towel will have bald patches. Even in the least affected areas, one side will be bald while the pile on the reverse will be unaffected.
Second, applying just one drop of universal indicator test solution to an unwashed towel will turn it from green, showing it is OK, to bright red indicating the area is strongly acidic.
In just one inspection of one complete cage of hand towels, LTC found 40% with areas that turned bright red so that the towels would be ruined within two washes.
This inspection emphasises the importance of checking for signs of abuse on cages of used and soiled items from a suspect customer. This is the only point at which it is possible to definitely link the abuse to one particular customer.
If the customer suggests that it is the laundry that left acid on the towel, a quick word from the detergent supplier will confirm that laundries do not use products with an acridity level of pH1.
 It is not necessary to check all work being sent in or even every cage from one customer. A laundry only needs to carry out enough checks to alert customers to its suspicions and show them that it is prepared to take action.
The frequency of checks on a particular customer will depend on the results of the last check.
If customer services are resistant to upsetting customers in this way, they should be asked why they introduced these loss-making customers in the first place?

Rusty marks from kitchen chillers
If customers leave cages to be collected, outside their buildings, the work may be marked by drips from the metalwork, including any from the chiller unit condensers. These drips usually contain metal oxides and in particular iron oxide (rust). A recovery wash with oxalic acid is the only way to remove rust but this special treatment will also shorten the life both of the textiles and of the washer used for the process.
The rust removers used by drycleaners can be used to prove suspicions that marking is rust. These reagents are based either on hydrofluoric acid or ammonium bi-fluoride and special safety precautions are essential in both cases. Just one drop will remove rust marks instantly.
Customers will sometimes argue that the laundry is responsible for the mark but if so, why was the item used when it was marked and why is the marking only on items at the top of the cage.

Duvet covers used as drag bags
Localised clusters of holes, with surface abrasion and dirty marks are a strong indication that a duvet cover has been used to drag linen to along hotel corridors.
Examining the holes and their frayed edges under magnification (about x 15) can prove the case. Usually there will be carpet fibres and other dirt particles embedded in the frayed fluff around the hole.
A carpet fibre will have a much larger diameter than the cotton fibres used for rental textiles. If the rogue fibre is coloured it can be compared with the colours of the hotel carpets. Most customers will stop arguing before you reach this point.

Damage from alkaline oven cleaners
Oven cleaners come in many forms but those that rely on alkali to soften
baked-on grease and fats will also rot cotton quite effectively. Strong alkalis are used to strip paint from pine doors so they can be very aggressive. One drop of the universal Indicator will turn the affected area deep blue.
The drop should be applied to an area of the dirty brown fat staining on the misused linen. Even a strong laundry detergent would not give such a deep blue in this test.

Cleaning cutlery
Napkins and pillowcases make handy cleaning cloths for cutlery. As a result they will have ugly black marking that contains lines and some surface cuts from cleaning knives.
These marks will contain the cleaning fluid and nickel, chromium and occasionally silver or iron. They cannot be treated with a rust remover or washed out, even with an oxalic acid recovery process. The linen must be condemned.
Often work will suddenly start to come in with cutlery cleaning marks and immediately the amount of condemned linen will increase.
It is therefore important to find out which customer is sending in this damaged work. This means identifying likely culprits and checking the cages that contain napkins or pillowcases.
It may well be found that the problem is down to a new member of staff who has recently joined the customer in question.

Fading in gym, spa and pool towels
The wet areas in these businesses must be cleaned with chemicals that have good disinfecting properties.
Many establishments use disinfectants based on chlorinated compounds. It would be unusual for these to include chlorine bleach, which would have an immediate effect with characteristic odour.
Unfortunately, there are chlorinated alternatives that act far more slowly and have little or no odour. These will gradually damage dyes leading to faded patches in the towels.
The only solution here is for customer services to think of an excuse to visit the business and find out what cleaning products are being used and where. Once the products’ trade name is being used, the laundry can obtain the ingredients and reproduce the damage to prove the cause to the customer.

A long-term strategy
The secret of controlling the amount of damage caused by customers is to persuade them to work with you to reduce the problem.
The best customers will recognise that to do so is in their long-term interests.
Laundries that can reach such an agreement will see increase in linen life and a proportionate reduction in the annual bill for new textiles.
Some have already embarked on systematic elimination of user abuse have been surprised at how much can be achieved.
In one typical healthcare laundry with a sheet life of 120 wash-and-use cycles, it was possible to raise this to 175 cycles over a two-year period.
There are big savings to be made by persuading the customers to treat rental linen well.

MARBLING EFFECT: Cleaning agents used for spas, pools and wet areas often contain mild, chlorine-based disinfectants. These slowly bleach and fade many dyes leading to the marbling seen here