Photo by Reuters/Chip Somodevilla
On Aug. 4, 2020, Clorox’s chief executive officer, Benno Dorer, told Reuters that there would likely be a shortage of the company’s name brand disinfectant wipes until 2021. Even though the company increased its production by 40%, the Covid-19 pandemic increased demand for the wipes by more than 500%—far more than annual spikes related to flu season.
But even though Clorox wipes may not be on grocery store shelves as much as they used to, there are plenty of alternative disinfectants, including ones you can make yourself. And some of them are better for the planet, too.
The shortage of Clorox wipes stems from crushing demand, but also from its supply chain. While most of its products will bounce back from shortages in the next six months (predicted at the time this article was written in August 2020), Dorer told Reuters, disinfecting wipes “will probably take longer because it’s a very complex supply chain to make them,” including the IP-protected material Clorox uses for the wipe itself.
“What people like about Clorox wipes is that they’re consistent and quality-controlled,” says Rachel Noble, an environmental microbiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In other words, they feel like they can trust the product—which is especially important in such uncertain times.
Fortunately, there are plenty of effective alternatives. The US Environmental Protection Agency has a list of nearly 500 different disinfectant products that work to kill SARS-CoV-2 if you’re looking for something store-bought in lieu of Clorox wipes.
There are ways to make your own wipe substitutes at home, says Noble, but in order to be effective, they have to be made properly.
Noble lays out the following instructions: First, you can start with a solution of isopropyl alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or household bleach (at least 1,000 parts per million of sodium hypochlorite), all of which should be available in grocery or drug stores. As long as the isopropyl alcohol is at a concentration of at least 60% or the hydrogen peroxide is at at least 3%, they should be fine to use on their own. Bleach would be needed to be diluted in a solution of either five tablespoons (75 mL) mixed into a gallon (3.7 L) of water, or four teaspoons (20 mL) of bleach can be mixed into a quart (about a liter), depending on how much solution you need.
You can use paper towels as wipes; the capillaries in them will soak up whichever solution you use like tree roots taking in water. You can even use an old disinfectant wipe container to store your new wipes, which may be especially helpful if you use isopropyl alcohol; when left in the open air, this liquid evaporates quickly. The result should be similar to a traditional Clorox wipe, she says, although she notes that hydrogen peroxide and bleach mixtures have the potential to damage some surfaces if they’re left on too long.
Noble advises against using a reusable washcloth for these solutions. For one thing, there’s the convenience of being able to discard paper towels just like you would Clorox wipes. But there’s also the risk of mixing different kinds of disinfectants on the same cloth. When combined, bleach and ammonia can form a noxious gas. If you are going to use reusable rags, it’s critical that you wash them between uses, and stick to just one type of disinfectant solution.
Clean Up Your Act
An added perk of the paper towel fix? These wipes are biodegradable—which can’t be said for traditional disinfectant wipes, which are the main culprits behind “fatbergs,” the massive, disgusting wads of trash and oil that can clog city sewer pipes.
“Plastic-fiber wipes, masks, and gloves are not only not recyclable because they’re contaminated, but they also don’t break down,” said Ben Locwin, a public health consultant who focuses on plastic pollution. “Even the flushable ones are not really degradable, and even when they mechanically break down, the polymers don’t really degrade. They just create microplastics. So they’re not going anywhere.”
Experts say that if you do need to use disposable wipes, to put them in the trash, not down the sink or toilet. And although the risk of Covid-19 transmission on surfaces is low, potentially contaminated trash should be disposed of in sealed or tied-off garbage bags to reduce exposure for waste collectors, said David Biderman, chief executive officer of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade group.
Overall, plastic waste has likely increased during the pandemic, although specific numbers are hard to come by, Biderman said. In the spring, during the height of the lockdown, the volume of residential waste spiked about 25% nationwide, he said, while dropping by about the same amount from commercial facilities; those figures are now beginning to normalize.
Plastic accounts for about 13% of solid waste in the US, but of that, Biderman said, “the amount of personal protective equipment and cleaners people are using is a very small component of the overall waste stream.”
But if you can kick plastic wipes altogether, that fraction will get even smaller.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified the material in Clorox’s disinfecting wipes as polyester spunlace. It was used in the past, but the wipes now use a material Clorox declined to identify.