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Recycling Program Gives Single-Use Gloves and Apparel a Second Life

To get to a higher level of sustainability, companies are looking at recycling nontraditional or secondary commodities.

Industrial manufacturing operations have long recognized the benefits of recycling as a way to reduce their solid waste streams. And many have gotten quite good at recycling primary commodities such as cardboard, paper, plastic and aluminum.

To get to a higher level of waste diversion and potentially reach zero waste, businesses are looking more and more at recycling nontraditional or secondary commodities.

One relatively new form of recycling in this category is glove and apparel recycling. Several years ago, Kimberly-Clark Professional recognized the need for a way to divert these single-use products from the landfill. In 2011, we launched The RightCycle Program, a large-scale recycling effort for non-hazardous lab and cleanroom waste. Beginning with a handful of companies, the program collected just under two tons of materials that first year.

Five years later, it was expanded to include companies with industrial manufacturing operations. Today, it has more than 300 participants and has diverted more than 600 tons of waste that would otherwise have been landfilled or incinerated. Its future goal is to double the number of participants and quadruple the amount of waste diverted each year.

The RightCycle Program enables companies to recycle thin mil nitrile gloves, apparel (including accessories such as hoods, masks, shoe covers and other items), safety eyewear, and 100% polypropylene wipers. To qualify for the program, the items must be free of hazardous materials, biohazards and wet food.

As a rule of thumb, if these types of personal protective equipment (PPE) are being disposed of as regular trash, they should be acceptable for the program. The items are then sent to recyclers in the United States and turned into plastic pellets that are used to create durable consumer goods such as flowerpots and lawn furniture.

“By recycling rather than discarding nitrile gloves, safety eyewear and single-use apparel, companies can divert these hard-to-recycle waste streams from the landfill and get one step closer to achieving their zero waste goals,” explains Jennifer Shaffer, scientific manager, The RightCycle Program, Kimberly-Clark Professional.

How It Started

Kimberly-Clark Professional provides a range of single-use products to pharmaceutical and research laboratories, offering protection from hazards within the lab as well as help to achieve or exceed their sustainability goals. A large portion of the pharmaceutical and research labs’ waste stream—up to 30%—consisted of single-use gloves and apparel.

“These difficult-to-recycle waste streams were priorities for them, but they weren’t quite sure how to manage it themselves and were seeking our help,” Shaffer says. “So, we asked ourselves, ‘How do we keep these items out of landfills and prevent them from being waste in the first place? Can we repurpose this material so we can extend its life after it is used by the lab?’”

The answer was yes. We began with the scientific labs, a small, niche business, and listened to their concerns about their existing waste streams, as well as how to ensure that their research would not be affected and their teams could get behind the recycling effort. Nitrile gloves, in particular, are a challenging waste stream to recycle.

In creating The RightCycle Program, we leveraged the expertise and knowledge of our global sustainability team in recycling materials from manufacturing facilities around the world. Their global perspective helped ensure that the recycling program would address companies’ business needs as well as their sustainability goals. To develop the program, we partnered with recycling companies that were already helping us with our own manufacturing waste, capitalizing on those partnerships to accelerate speed-to-market.

Helping Businesses Divert Waste

Lundberg Family Farms, an organic food producer in Richvale, Calif., credits the recycling program with helping it achieve a Platinum Zero Waste Facility Certification from the U.S. Zero Waste Business Council. Gloves had previously represented about 15% of the company’s landfill waste. In just a few months, Lundberg Family Farms recycled close to one ton of nitrile gloves. Now, the company diverts four tons of glove waste annually.

Lundberg Family Farms diverts four tons of glove waste annually.

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is committed to sustainability and has won numerous local, state and national awards for its efforts. Its Chico, Calif., headquarters has onsite wastewater treatment and composting facilities as well as the largest solar installation of any craft brewer. Now, it also diverts two tons of gloves a year through The RightCycle Program.

“Nitrile gloves are not easily recycled,” explains Mandi McKay, sustainability coordinator for Sierra Nevada’s Chico brewery. “They can’t be comingled with other items. It has to be its own process.” While change is never easy, the recycling program has become second nature. Employees like that they have an outlet for the gloves, McKay notes. “It’s part of our culture, part of their daily job. It aligns with our company values. It makes sense for us, by contributing to a more positive environmental impact overall.”

Sierra Nevada Brewing Company diverts two tons of gloves a year through the recycling program.

A Larger Vision

In addition to helping its customers achieve their waste diversion goals, The RightCycle Program supports Kimberly-Clark Corporation’s overall sustainability efforts. The company is well on its way to achieving zero waste, having diverted 95% of its manufacturing waste from landfill and more than

15,543 metric tons of post-consumer waste in 2017. Its 2022 goal is to extend its zero-waste mindset to look for new and creative ways to keep product and packaging materials out of landfill.

As John Opsteen, secondary materials program leader for Kimberly-Clark Corp., explains, initiatives like the recycling program “create value for the entire supply chain by giving these materials a second life. It’s an evolution from the linear mindset where you take, make and then dispose of things, to a circular mindset where you find secondary, beneficial uses of these materials from source to shelf and beyond.”

Bringing It Home

Given this approach, incorporating the recycling program into its own operations—including laboratories, cafeterias, offices, manufacturing and distribution facilities—was a logical move for Kimberly-Clark, especially given its widespread use of single-use gloves and apparel.

Michael G. Baldwin, environmental, health, safety and sustainability leader for Kimberly-Clark’s Berkeley Mills facility in Hendersonville, N.C., implemented the program at his facility. “We’re always looking for better sustainability efforts from a recycling standpoint,” he says. “In the past, we didn’t have an outlet for gloves and apparel so it was great to be able to pull those out of our waste streams. And even better to see the products being made into lawn chairs and things of that nature.”

Kelly Wolff, a Kimberly-Clark formulation scientist who spearheaded The RightCycle Program launch at the company’s administrative sites, believes the program has had a huge impact on reducing waste. “All you have to do is slap a sticker on a box, fill it up and the janitorial staff takes it away. Hopefully, this paves the way for people to develop a new mindset about recycling and sustainability—and shows how a little innovation can make it easy for all of us to do more.”

Lisa Morden is vice president of safety and sustainability for Kimberly-Clark Corp., a manufacturer of personal care consumer products. Visit www.KCProfessional.com/rightcycle for more information about The RightCycle Program.

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