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Compostable bed sheets: A godsend for college students who loathe doing laundry?

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 16, 2012 08:00 AM

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College students can find time for all sorts of activities, licit and otherwise. But one chore that always seems to drop off the bottom of their to-do list is washing the sheets.

Two Hingham entrepreneurs have come up with a solution: linens made out of a fiber derived from Eucalyptus trees (it's called Tencel) which you can simply toss into a compost bin or trash can when they're dirty. The sheets from their startup, Beantown Bedding, are both compostable and biodegradable. A set that includes a fitted sheet, flat sheet, and pillowcase costs $25. (So far, they're only selling twin extra-long sheets, which is a bed size common on college campuses. And the sheets are only available in white.)

"We met when our kids started dating," explains Kirsten Lambert (she's on the left in the photo, with co-founder Joan Ripple.) "Then they went off to college, and we found that they basically never washed their sheets."

"We joked about sending them a roll of paper like you see on the exam table of a doctor's office — but comfortable," says Ripple. They started developing the concept of disposable sheets last year, got their first wholesale orders at a trade show in March, and received their first inventory in June. Tencel is used to make some brands of baby wipes and clothing, but Beantown's founders believe they're the first to be using it for linens.

Lambert and Ripple say that many parents already throw away sheets after a summer of camp, or a semester of college, and contend that sheets that can be composted (or at least biodegrade in a landfill) will have a lesser environmental impact. (That may be true, but those who choose to wash their traditional cotton sheets use about 40 gallons of water each time, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, while it requires about 150 gallons of water to make a pound of Tencel fiber. The manufacturing process for cotton sheets can use as little as 10 gallons of water per pound, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.)

I asked Heather Henriksen, director of the office of sustainability at Harvard University, what she thought of the concept of compostable sheets. She said she thought it might have merits in places where there isn't sufficient water to regularly wash linens, like a disaster relief camp. But on a college campus, she suggested that using a washing machine or laundry service is still better. She wrote via e-mail, "I think the most important R in the 3R's (reduce, reuse, recycle) is of course, reduce — do not create the waste in the first place."

The sheets from Beantown are intended to last about a month. "After that, they start to pill and look worn," says Lambert. In addition to summer camps and colleges, Beantown is also marketing its compostable sheets for vacation house rentals. Right now, Beantown's products are being produced in China, but the founders say they're hoping to find a domestic factory.

I've been sleeping on a pillowcase given to me by the founders of Beantown Bedding for the past week. It's soft and comfortable, but it does seem to wrinkle pretty easily, and you can get a bit of a scratchy "Velcro effect" when you rub against it with an unshaven face. And still... since I was once a BU student who washed his sheets at once or twice a semester at most, I can see the allure.

According to my math, it'd cost about $225 to outfit a student's bed for a complete school year. If you instead bought two sets of traditional cotton sheets for the year, that'd cost about $50 — plus the quarters and detergent required to launder them on occasion.

What do you think? Would you buy Beantown Bedding for your college kid?

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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