Glove and apparel recycling is a relatively new form of recycling that is beginning to gain traction in lab and cleanroom settings. Photo: Kimberly-Clark Professional

Waste diversion is an essential goal for labs and cleanrooms, as well as virtually every other kind of facility. It can be achieved through a variety of ways, such as source reduction, reuse, composting and recycling.

In 2014, more than 89 million tons of municipal solid waste were recycled and composted, providing an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, comparable to the annual emissions from over 38 million passenger cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The benefits of recycling are well known:
•    Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators
•    Conserves natural resources such as timber, water and minerals
•    Prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials
•    Saves energy
•    Reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change
•    Helps sustain the environment for future generations

As recycling becomes the norm, rather than the exception, in labs and cleanrooms, facilities are getting pretty good at recycling primary commodities such as cardboard, paper, plastic and aluminum.

But to get to a higher level of diversion and potentially reach the holy grail of zero waste, other non-traditional or secondary commodities must also be diverted from landfill, and recycled and repurposed into usable products and durable goods.

Glove and apparel recycling is a relatively new form of recycling that is beginning to gain traction in lab and cleanroom settings. In 2011, Kimberly-Clark Professional launched The RightCycle Program, the first large-scale recycling effort for non-hazardous lab and cleanroom waste. Since then, the program has diverted more than 350 tons of waste from landfill.

RightCycle removes gloves, masks, garments, shoe covers and other apparel accessories from the waste stream. The products are collected and shipped to domestic recycling centers, where they are turned into nitrile pellets that are then used to create eco-responsible consumer products and durable goods.

As long as gloves, garments and accessories (such as masks, hoods, shoe covers and hairnets) do not contain bio-hazardous materials, they can be safely recycled and turned into items such as: lawn furniture, flowerpots and planters, shelving, totes and storage bins.

It all adds up
Gloves are ubiquitous in labs and cleanrooms, and workers can go through several pairs in the course of a day. While this is necessary to protect both the worker and the process, the amount of waste can add up.

Consider these statistics:
•    One university estimated that nearly 30 percent of its waste stream came from laboratory and research buildings.  
•    A University of Washington lab waste audit found that 22 percent of its research waste consisted of nitrile gloves.  
•    A University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) laboratory waste assessment found that nitrile gloves made up a majority of laboratory waste destined for landfill.

Because of this, many labs are participating in The RightCycle Program. The environmental benefits of glove and apparel recycling programs are evident. They take commonly used and essential lab and cleanroom products out of the solid waste stream, significantly
reducing waste generation.

Putting glove recycling into practice
The University of Washington and UCSC now participate in The RightCycle Program, as does the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois and Purdue University. ISTC is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Its mission is to drive statewide economic growth through sustainability. To fulfill that mission, ISTC conducts scientific research and, in the process, uses a lot of gloves.

“We conducted a waste audit to see how we could go to zero waste in our own building and realized that gloves were about 10 percent of our total waste by weight,” said Shantanu Pai, ISTC assistant sustainability researcher. “We were already effectively recycling other items—glass, aluminum, paper and cardboard.”

With RightCycle, ISTC was able to reach 89 percent compliance for gloves in its labs—even higher than the rate for paper and cardboard recycling. It then decided to take the program a step further, piloting it in the university’s main dining hall and achieving an estimated diversion rate of 90 percent. It is in the process of expanding the effort to all dining facilities and campus labs. In fact, the university has purchased a storage container to house the gloves so shipments can be made just once a year.

Since implementing The RightCycle program in 2013, the center and the university have diverted 4,945 pounds from landfills.

“RightCycle has had a huge impact on our activities and our sustainability metrics,” said Kevin O’Brien, Director of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. “If you ever used gloves as part of your laboratory work, you quickly appreciate the value this program brings from a sustainability perspective.”

Purdue University
Across its campus in the course of a year, Purdue University uses approximately 360,000 disposable gloves. That’s a lot of trash—3.5 tons to be exact, all of which would normally wind up in a landfill.

The university, based in West Lafayette, Ind., has won numerous awards for sustainability. Its efforts extend to many different areas—recycling, planning management, landscaping and green construction. With a diversion rate goal of 85 percent, the university is always seeking new and different ways to reduce its solid waste stream.

In 2014, Purdue University added glove recycling to its list of sustainability accomplishments when it adopted The RightCycle program. Since November 2014, the chemistry department at Purdue University has diverted 8,163 pounds of lab gloves from landfills. Michael Gulich, director of campus master planning and sustainability, is looking to expand the program to other campus labs as well as food preparation areas.

“Once you address cans, bottles, paper and cardboard recycling, you get into smaller niche streams,” he said. “We have some addressed very well, such as electronics waste and landscape debris. Previously, gloves didn’t have a solution. Anything that increases our diversion rate is good.”

Other participants
University laboratories aren’t the only facilities that have adopted this innovative recycling solution. Cell Signaling Technology (CST), a life sciences company, uses about 200,000 pairs of gloves each year. Reducing its environmental footprint has long been a core company value, so finding a way to reduce the volume of glove waste was important.

CST began researching The RightCycle Program in 2013, and made its first recycling shipment in 2015. The program has helped CST reduce the costs of trash removal and move closer to its goal of zero waste to landfill.

“We’re glad to have made an impact on our waste profile and to have our lab gloves repurposed for safe practical purposes,” said Sustainability Coordinator Elias Witman. “And it was fun for our employees to see our recycled gloves come back to CST in the form of a flying disc, which was tossed around after a company meeting.”

Since joining The RightCycle Program, Cell Signaling Technology has recycled approximately 150,000 pairs of gloves.

“The RightCycle Program is highly visible and practical,” Witman added. “People see it and want to participate. Programs like this can help shape a culture of sustainability in the lab and yield positive impacts for the planet.”