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New green detergent keeps TDCJ prison whites white

Laundry captain and manager standing in front of front-loading washing machine
Wynne Unit Laundry Capt. Steve Hopkins, right, discusses the performance of Cool Breeze with Food, Laundry and Supply manager Rickey Davis.

Photos by David Nunnelee

The job of getting dirty prison whites to come clean has gone green with the formulation of a new plant-based biodegradable detergent that not only contains fewer potentially harmful chemicals, but may also trim energy usage.

It’s called Cool Breeze, a liquid laundry detergent two years in development, which allows unit laundry workers to wash heavily-soiled clothing in cold or lukewarm water with the same stain-fighting, germ-reducing effectiveness that comes with a hot water wash. The cold water cleaner also eliminates the need for a toxic neutralizing agent in the wash and is more fabric-friendly than the petroleum-based chemicals long used by the agency. It even leaves clothes smelling fresh.

“After seeing the results from the field tests, I’m very optimistic about it,” said Rickey Davis, who oversees unit laundries for TDCJ’s Food, Laundry and Supply Department. “The clothes are clean, they feel softer and they smell better.”

The new detergent was field tested at two TDCJ facilities from late April through July. The Wynne Unit in Huntsville was selected as one testing site because of its soft water and because jobs associated with its agricultural and mechanical operations often leave offender clothing covered in dirt or grease by the end of the work day. The detergent was also tested at the Formby/Wheeler state jail complex in Plainview to see how it performed in the hard water of West Texas. What came out in the wash at both sites proved promising.

“We had to tweak our wash formulas a little at Formby/Wheeler because of the hard water, but we got the same general results at both sites,” Davis said. “We’re pleased with it.”

Texas Correctional Industries worked with a New York-based company to formulate the new plant-based detergent, which will be produced within TCI’s soap and detergent factory at the Central Unit near Sugar Land. Davis said Cool Breeze is to be distributed to laundries systemwide and used exclusively once units deplete inventories of the former detergent.

photo of bottle of Cool Breeze laundry detergent
The plant-based laundry detergent Cool Breeze was two years in development.
Food, Laundry and Supply Department Director Tony D’Cunha said the idea for a greener prison laundry detergent came to him a couple of years ago when he spotted a box of a cold water detergent on a shelf at a Huntsville grocery.

“I took it to the house and tried it, and it worked just fine,” he said. “Then I started to wonder why we couldn’t wash our prison clothing in either cold or lukewarm water.”

D’Cunha said he wanted a detergent that was not only capable of cleaning in cooler water temperatures, but would also be eco-friendly. He said that unit laundries have historically washed clothing in water heated in large boilers to between 140 and 160 degrees in the belief that along with dry laundry bleach, the superheated water was necessary to remove stubborn stains and kill harmful germs and bacteria. But in the end, that assumption just didn’t wash.

“In the past, we operated under the assumption, which was a wrong assumption, that hot water kills the germs,” he said. “It’s the bleach that actually kills the germs. So we’ll continue to use bleach as a sanitizing agent.”

D’Cunha said that because the new detergent cleans effectively in water heated to less than 100 degrees, unit boilers will use less energy in bringing water up to temperature. The agency washes approximately 150 million pounds of laundry a year.

“The big energy consumers are the boilers,” he said. “What costs money is getting that water up to temperature. With this, we’re not taxing the boilers, which saves energy. Before, we basically worked the boilers overtime.”

Davis added that since the new detergent does not require a neutralizing additive to work effectively, laundries will also be able to eliminate a rinse cycle and further reduce costs by running their washers for shorter periods. He said the new detergent has also allowed for the dry bleach additive to be reformulated at a lower cost to the agency.

“We’re seeing nothing but win-win with this,” Davis said.

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