Not Your Typical Greenwashing: Wash Cycle Laundry's Bike-Centric Business Model
Wash Cycle Laundry picks up a load in the streets of Philadelphia. Photo by Gabe Mandujano.

Wash Cycle Laundry picks up a load in the streets of Philadelphia. Photo by Gabe Mandujano.

A new wash-and-fold laundry service, Wash Cycle Laundry, avoids the three big (and not-so-sustainable) components of the delivery and manufacturing industry: trucks, parking lots and loading docks. As a result, the bike-centric delivery model is far less harmful to the environment than its conventional counterparts.

The small Philadelphia-based start-up uses what a huge logistics company like FedEx would call “the right vehicle for the right route,” says Gabe Mandujano, founder of the company and former manager of strategic alliances at the Center for Sustainable Transport in Mexico (CTS-México), a member of the EMBARQ Network, the producer of this blog. By orienting his “social enterprise” around his view of Philadelphia’s downtown urban landscape, Mandujano has created a business model perfectly suited to the bike.

We profiled Wash Cycle Laundry a few months ago when the business was still in its nascent stages. For the past eight weeks, the company’s two part-time bicyclists have been picking up items in need of washing from a handful of businesses in West Philadelphia and Center City. Beyond using bikes, the company also reduces its carbon footprint by depositing laundry, such as dirty gym towels and table cloths, at downtown laundromats, as opposed to driving out to suburban facilities. “This changes the entire configuration of laundry set-up by providing better service and reducing distances traveled,” Mandujano says.

The service is capitalizing off a vibrant downtown, home to urban professionals who are increasingly demanding local and high-quality goods and services. Mandujano says the renaissance has been fueled in part by the city’s “booming food scene.” Run by only three full-time employees, Wash Cycle Laundry serves small businesses like cafés, a small gym and a massage studio. The company is better able to cater to their needs because its deliveries are within a small geographic radius, meaning they can pick up loads at unscheduled and varied times.

Wash Cycle Laundry is benefitting from the growth of local businesses in Philadelphia like Chhaya Café. Photo by Chhaya Cafe.

Wash Cycle Laundry is benefiting from the growth of local businesses in Philadelphia, like Chhaya Café. Photo via Chhaya Cafe.

Commercial laundry is all around us, from table cloths at restaurants, to rags at neighborhood bars, to bed sheets at hotels. All this stuff has to be laundered. According to Mandujano, commercial laundry industry in the United States is a $20 billion industry, employing 300,000 people. And the industry is not alone in outsourcing its services to the suburbs or rural areas via diesel trucks. Food and other manufacturing or processing industries also use industrial plants that are located far away from cities. Mandujano estimates that the fuel efficiency of diesel trucks is probably as low as six miles per gallon.

Like in the food industry, transportation involved in laundry services is a major emitter of carbon dioxide and contributes to more cars on the road. “In the U.S., about 80 precent of energy used in the food supply system goes for food processing, packaging, storage and distribution to retail stores,” according to JustFood, a New York-based organization that advocates for accessible local food production. “Much of that energy goes for transport from farm to processors to wholesalers to retailers.”

Though environmental impact assessments are less developed for laundry services than for the food supply chain, the environmental consequences of transporting bulky loads and using harsh chemicals are not difficult to imagine. Wash Cycle Laundry is premised on the idea that a suburban-based model is far less sustainable than a downtown model. So far, the company has two clients on the same block and works with six other businesses that are located about 2.5 miles apart. The start-up also uses existing washing machines in the city, rather than building its own separate facility, thereby keeping jobs downtown.

When you optimize one part of a business, the rest can become less efficient, Mandujano points out. For example, the relatively smaller laundry machines used by Wash Cycle Laundry are likely less efficient than the 400-pound industrial-sized washers that other companies use. But overall, Mandujano says his non-traditional business model is more efficient than a laundry business that sprawls its distribution from the suburbs to the city core. He serves the variable needs of smaller companies and has a lesser environmental impact by avoiding the use of trucks during day-time driving hours.

Wash Cycle Laundry has even managed to endure some brutal East Coast snowstorms. “Despite a horribly wet winter, we have yet to miss a delivery,” Mandujano says. He gauges that his bikers are spending less time on the road than typical truck drivers, when taking into account that traditional laundry washing companies have to travel from outside the city, sit in traffic, circle to find a parking spot and navigate Philly’s narrow streets.

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