Earth Day was established to demonstrate support for environmental protection, and every year more than 1 billion people plant trees, clean up their communities, contact their elected officials and more. Sustainability is an important and vital part of our evolving planet, and is necessary if we hope to reduce human impact.
What does this mean to the world of personal protective equipment (PPE), and specifically, how are glove manufacturers redefining the way they make their products to be more “sustainable?” This can be deceptively complex, depending on your perspective. But at its heart, PPE really is about human sustainability – nothing more.
Living and producing sustainably is about living within the means of our natural systems. It’s an idea that requires quite an investment from a manufacturer’s perspective. The easiest and cheapest way to market is rarely, if ever, the most sustainable way.
Each year, industrial operations expend a massive amount of disposable waste, filling landfills with waste materials that are difficult-to-impossible to break down. According to EPA, the U.S. solid waste industry managed approximately 251 million tons of trash in 2012. Of the total, about 135 million tons, or 54 percent, ended up in a landfill and 87 million tons was recycled or composted.
PPE manufacturing reportedly consumes about 10 percent of all clothing and technical textiles worldwide. In a recent trend report, 3M notes that PPE manufacturers “are taking a more holistic approach to sustainability, addressing how to improve every aspect of the process, from raw materials and production to transportation and logistics, customer use and disposal.”
"PPE maintenance also deepens its carbon footprint," the 3M report points out. "Safety and health professionals can help extend the lifetime of PPE by improving tracking and tracing of equipment. Adding end-of-service indicators can help automate the process of tracking and maintaining PPE."
Creating a More Sustainable Model
Retooling production processes and practices to reduce waste or limit energy output to eliminate greenhouse gases is one way to contribute to a cleaner output, as is recycling materials for another purpose or, in some cases, eliminating waste materials entirely. Sustainability is an important and growing trend in PPE.
Fortune 500 companies increasingly are trying to become more sustainable in the way they operate, and companies manufacturing and providing PPE are no exception. Effective conservation practices reduce business risks and operational costs as well.
Currently, PPE manufacturers use materials derived from fossils resources – such as polyester, polyamide, polyethylene and other polymers. In the future, PPE manufacturers may look at using more biopolymers for disposable PPE, and other natural fibers, such as hemp, linen and even bamboo.
Turning bamboo into fiber, for example, offers sustainable value, since these gloves are made of environmentally friendly materials. Unlike synthetic fibers, bamboo is not petroleum-based, which is becoming more important in a world of high oil prices and dwindling reserves. Currently, it’s rare to see examples of such products that by their very nature are sustainable, but they do exist.
Another option, post-consumer recyclate (PCR), is derived from recycled soda and water bottles and is gaining popularity as a valuable raw material. Reusing plastic takes less energy, uses fewer natural resources and helps reduce landfills. Demand also is increasing for fibers such as biopolymers based on starch, cellulose and polylactic acid (PLA), which are used in disposable products.
Aside from the gloves themselves, a fundamental first step in the supply chain could potentially be the materials used in the packaging of PPE products. The usage of 100 percent post-consumer waste and 100 percent recycled material within glove packaging, for example, is a key sustainable process along the distribution path. This technique is one that should be utilized as a best practice industrywide.
There are other unique circumstances to enable sustainable change. Other manufacturers have partnered with research science companies to unearth opportunities for additional sustainability initiatives. One such example is a partnership of Kimberly-Clark, which implemented a glove “take-back” program. Gloves were segregated at the point of use, and the manufacturer sent them to a recycling partner that then converted the gloves into purple park benches. This has helped the company achieve a zero-waste goal, and also has helped the glove manufacturer by increasing revenue globally.
There also are reclaim/reuse programs in place that aim to allow workers to exchange soiled items for recycled or new merchandise, thus eliminating waste and reducing overhead costs.
When it comes to hand protection, sustainable development largely is dependent on new material innovations and applications that help reduce the environmental impact from beginning to end along the entire lifecycle of the product. This begins in production.
Products with better material ingredients will last longer, which means gloves need to be produced and purchased less often, reducing the carbon emissions from manufacturing and delivery.
Simply put, workers should use gloves for as long as they are effective, which in most cases is quite a bit longer than users anticipate. Being aware of what can and cannot be laundered and enabling this practice within a company’s PPE plan is one step to minimize the quantity of gloves that end up in landfills prematurely. For the many glove styles that can be laundered, mechanical or chemical-resistant properties typically remain after three washes. (This depends on the degree of wear to the glove, which must be checked.) Manufacturers typically include specific laundering instructions with the gloves and this should be followed closely to ensure the gloves retain their intended protective qualities.
Biodegradation is the chemical dissolution of materials by bacteria or other biological means. The key is to produce biodegradable gloves without a loss in protection and performance. When it comes to disposables, one leading trend is biodegradation. Previously, typical materials such as disposable nitrile could not attract enough (if any) microbial activity to begin breaking down the polymer’s molecular structure, thus leaving the process of reclamation to light, heat, mechanical stress and moisture alone. This process takes quite a long time from initial production to breakdown.
However, there are biodegradable disposable nitrile gloves, composed of organic materials designed to make the gloves more attractive to microbial activity. As microorganisms consume the material, they excrete enzymes that de-polymerize the nitrile, leaving biogases and inert humus in their wake.
In terms of testing methods, the ASTM D5511 (equivalent to ISO 15985) for biodegradation is a valuable asset to evaluating the rate and tempo of biodegradation within these treated materials, and is a crucial driver for the development of new biodegradable glove materials. This method describes the reaction of an active anaerobic environment that can produce fast and measurable results. In this test, microbes digest the plastic samples and produce metabolic waste gasses (CO2) that carefully are recorded and used to calculate how quickly the plastic is degrading.
Setting Long-Term Goals
It is essential that companies strive to be more socially and environmentally responsible, and it often starts with long-term sustainability planning, building a conservation culture and tracking these long-term goals.
Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart, in their book “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance,” assert: “Corporate sustainable development is not environmental or ethical but economic; if it fails economically as a business concept, as an engine of innovation, then it fails. It succeeds when it celebrates economic growth, which in turn grows ecological and social revenue. It succeeds when it up-scales the economy and ecological and ethical benefits accrue.”
Manufacturers are concerned with more than just their bottom line. In fact, the concept of a “triple bottom line” is gaining traction. First coined in 1994 by John Elkington of British consultancy SustainAbility, his argument was that companies should be preparing three different (and quite unique) bottom lines. The first is the traditional measure of corporate profit and loss. The second is the bottom line of a company’s “people account,” or how socially responsible an organization has been throughout its operations. The third is the bottom line of the company’s “planet” account, a measure of how environmentally responsible it has been.
The triple bottom line thus consists of three Ps: profit, people and planet. It aims to measure the financial, social and environmental performance of the corporation over a period of time. Only companies that produces a triple-bottom line are taking into account the total cost involved in doing business.
There is a need to focus on pollution prevention, energy efficiency, waste reduction/recycling and designing materials/products and packaging to be environmentally friendly across the gamut of products within the PPE industry. It’s counter-effective to make sweeping changes companywide overnight, but gradual, minor changes across the supply chain can make great strides in achieving long-term sustainability goals for many companies. These can be positive steps in the right direction for a more sustainable future within our industry.
Gil LeVerne Jr. is director of marketing for Showa Best Glove and has been in the hand protection industry for more than 18 years. Showa Best Glove recently introduced Green-Dex, a biodegradable disposable nitrile glove.
Showa Best Glove Sustainability
1. The Showa Himeji factory obtained the ISO14001 certification for compliance with environmental standards in 2007.
2. All Showa Best glove liners and coatings are made from virgin raw materials, which not only provide consistently
high performance, but also remove the need for additional chemicals.
3. Showa Best Glove doesn’t use any animal-based products such as leather.
4. All Showa Best gloves are produced in Showa Best Glove-owned factories, using a patented manufacturing procedure that enables waste to be minimized and helps reduce carbon emissions to less than 3 percent worldwide.