Following on from our online story about COVID waste killing wildlife and how to pick COVID PPE litter safely, Kristin Barrett discusses how laboratories can reduce their solid waste streams by recycling gloves and apparel to avoid PPE reaching landfill
As users of PPE in our daily lives, we all need to be more responsible and dispose of our waste correctly...
Image credit: University of Edinburgh
Covid-19 has changed our lives. And while the circumstances and implications of the pandemic are devastating, it has also illustrated how quickly behaviour can change. Who would have thought at the start of 2020 that working from home would become the “new normal”? Even more surprising is that this way of working is likely to continue for many workers, given reports of cost and time savings, increased productivity and well-being.
Rebuilding with a green focus
In her article ‘Sustainability and COVID-19’, Isabela del Alcázar, Global Head of Sustainability at IE University says: “It’s during times like these that we challenge our belief system and our role in this complex and interconnected network that represents the world in which we live. This pandemic has shown that we are ready to put aside individual priorities in order to contribute to the collective welfare, that we are ready for a behavioural change. Now, let’s apply this to the environment. It is time to reorient our political, economic, and social systems at all levels and to help citizens begin to think and behave in ways that foster a more sustainable planet.”1
A Mckinsey & Company survey found that consumers became more engaged in sustainability topics during Covid-19, with 88% of respondents believing that more attention should be paid to reducing pollution. Consumers also started changing their behaviours during lockdown, with 60% going out of their way to recycle and purchase products in environmentally friendly packaging.2
Many companies are beginning to rebuild with a green focus. In fact, in a recent survey of >3,000 people in eight countries, more than two thirds of respondents thought economic recovery plans should make environmental issues a priority.³
Companies that commit to sustainability during the crisis will come out stronger, with more solid customer and supplier relationships, enhanced corporate reputations, and improved employee loyalty and productivity.4
Unintended consequences of lockdown
An unintended result of the outbreak in countries with stringent lockdowns was a noticeable drop in pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. However, the pandemic has caused other types of pollutions to rise. With an estimated 2-3x surge in demand for gloves and masks due to Covid-19, masks and gloves are now found frequently on our streets and even in the sea.
Each and every one of us can do something about unnecessary pollution created by discarded PPE. As users of PPE in our daily lives, we all need to be more responsible and dispose of our waste correctly. But could we also recycle this PPE? And what happens with this waste within companies who are already using large amounts of single use gloves and other single-use PPE? In most companies PPE waste goes either to landfill or is incinerated.
Industrial glove and apparel recycling
Industrial manufacturing operations have long recognised the benefits of recycling as a way to reduce their solid waste streams. And many have become quite good at recycling primary commodities such as cardboard, paper, plastic and aluminium. To get to a higher level of waste diversion and potentially reach zero waste, businesses are looking more and more at recycling non-traditional or secondary commodities.
One relatively new form of recycling in this category is glove and apparel recycling. Because of their prevalence in labs, and the fact that workers can go through several pairs in the course of a day, gloves are a big contributor to a lab’s solid waste stream. One audit conducted by the University of Washington found that 22% of its research waste consisted of nitrile gloves. Likewise, a University of California Santa Cruz laboratory waste assessment found that nitrile gloves made up a majority of laboratory waste destined for landfill. But there are solutions to address this. Look for a manufacturer-led, auditable programme that diverts used gloves from the landfill through recycling.
The RightCycle™ Programme from Kimberly-Clark Professional™ is one such programme. Since 2011, it has enabled large global corporations, research facilities, universities, non-profits and other businesses to collect used nitrile gloves and single-use apparel items and turn them into new plastic products and consumer goods. To date, the programme has globally diverted more than 1,200 metric tons of waste from landfills. The University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry was the first in Europe to sign up for the scheme and has since recycled ~85% of all its used laboratory gloves – reaching 15 tonnes or 1 million pairs in 2019.5
With programmes like these and individual effort, it is unnecessary for personal masks, or laboratory glove and apparel waste to end up in landfill or scattered throughout our environment where it can cause damage to wildlife.
1 Sustainability and COVID-19 - Building Resilience, Isabela del Alcázar, IE University blog, ie.edu
2 Survey: Consumer sentiment on sustainability in fashion, Anna Granskog, Libbi Lee, Karl-Hendrik Magnus, and Corinne Sawers, mckinsey.com
3 Here’s how sustainability can make you stand out from the crowd, The European Sting and World Economic Forum, europeansting.com
4 Covid-19 Gives Sustainability a Dress Rehearsal, Jenny Davis-Peccoud and Jean-Charles van den Branden, Bain & Company, bain.com
Author: Kristin Barrett, EMEA Scientific Marketing Manager, Kimberly-Clark Professional™ kimtech.eu