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Going green within the hand protection industry

Supplier: Showa By: Dave Shutt
08 November, 2013

What is the definition of 'going green'?

For most, this statement defines a movement toward a cleaner, more efficient future where the by-products of our lifestyle and work style create less negative impact on the earth and our precious resources.
Looking at this from a personal standpoint — one often hears the phrase "we need to look out for our children, and our children's children" when the topic of environmentalism and sustainability arises. It's essentially "guilting" one into making the green decision. And, this is a very valid argument. However, opinions drastically change when the personal nature of this commitment is taken away, and we start looking at the bottom line.
Often times it comes down to immediate business expense versus long-term global expense. Companies must face the question: what kind of business are we and what kind of changes must we make to be more sustainable and environmentally-friendly?
The solutions do not come overnight, but with gradual changes. However, the question is becoming ever-important for commercial entities — and is one that has been asked of the energy industry for quite some time. This is a question that will continue to be asked in the years to come. The solutions, however, are quite varied.
Of course, in the industry of hand protection — the same question exists. The protection of the hand in various industries is a multi-million dollar business, saving countless industrial workers from pain and suffering caused by hand and arm injury each year. However, what becomes of the gloves when that shift is over?
Some styles are launder-able, enabling the user to reuse their gloves multiple times before the need arises to switch them out for a new pair. However, other styles such as disposable nitrile by design do not have this luxury and are tossed into the trash after use — sometimes expending 5-10 pair a day depending on the industry. Now, multiply that by the amount of individuals in these industries and you'll start to envision the scope of this need.
Each year, industrial applications expend a massive amount of disposable waste, filling landfills with gloves and many other waste materials difficult to impossible to breakdown.
For some, this is a macro-trend that needs to change. In total, the US solid waste industry managed approximately 545 million tons of waste in 1999. Of the total, about 374 million tons, or 68 per cent, was ended up as landfill; 31 million tons, or 5 per cent, was incinerated; and 140 million tons, or 27 per cent, was recycled.* These are staggering figures — and are relative to the US alone.
R&D teams within some of the most influential global hand protection companies are looking to break this trend with the advent of materials that will make an impact on our global hand print. Just a few of these are discussed below.
Using sustainable materials
This is key and gaining popularity, yet there are only a select few products that can currently make this claim within the hand protection industry today.
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, the leading trend is biodegradation. The issue is that typical materials such as nitrile cannot 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.
Groundbreaking products and programs do exist within this niche of the hand protection marketplace. Products such as GREEN-DEX from Showa Best Glove offer the world's first biodegradable disposable nitrile gloves.
Using patent-pending Eco Best Technology, EBT accelerates the biodegradation of nitrile in biologically active landfills and anaerobic digesters as validated by independent certified labs using intentionally recognised test methods.
EBT is composed of organic materials designed to make GREEN-DEX attractive to microbial activity. These microorganisms consume the material and excrete enzymes that depolymerise the nitrile, leaving biogases and inert humus in their wake.
Organic material
Another popular sustainable product is the use of bamboo fibre within the gloves shell. More than a decade old, turning bamboo into fibre offers sustainable value, since these gloves are made of "environmentally-friendly" materials. Unlike synthetic fibres, bamboo is not petroleum-based, which is becoming more important in a world of high oil prices and dwindling reserves.
Recycled materials
Post consumer recyclate (PCR), for example, 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 is also increasing for fibres such as biopolymers based on starch, cellulose and polylactic acid (PLA), which are used in disposable products.
Recycled packaging
Aside from the gloves themselves, a fundamental first step in the supply chain could potentially be the materials used in the packaging of hand protection products. Using 100 per cent post-consumer waste and dispensers from 100 per cent recycled material is one such way to improve this trend, which reduces packaging waste tremendously.
Extended-life products
Simply put, as part of any PPE approach, one should use gloves for as long as they are effective — which in most cases is quite a bit longer than users will anticipate. Being aware of what is and what is not launder-able and enabling this practice within a company's PPE plan is one step to minimise the quantity of gloves that end up in landfills prematurely. For example, many (supported) glove styles can be laundered, which means they can be washed or dry cleaned and then re-used for added value and sustainability. Mechanical and/or chemical resistant properties typically remain after three washes but this depends on the degree of wear to the glove - which must be checked. Manufacturers typically include specific laundering instructions with the appropriate glove styles and this should be followed closely.
Setting long-term company sustainability goals, building a conservation culture and tracking performance
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.
There is a need to focus on pollution prevention, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and designing products and packaging to be environmentally friendly. It's impossible to make sweeping changes company-wide overnight, but gradual, minor changes across the supply chain can make prolific strides to reach long-term sustainability goals. These start with environmental goal setting and performance tracking, while priorities that stakeholders expect. These can be positive steps in the right direction for a more sustainable future within the industry.
Among other measures include a sustainable program along the entire supply chain — minimising waste and creating a much more efficient business ecosystem. A long-term goal may for companies be to become ISO certified within all manufacturing facilities meaning these have trackable, environmentally-friendly policies in place.
Recycling, setting policies for pollution prevention, and promoting an effective training regimen for employees are very effective ways to promote a sustainable and environmentally-friendly future in our industry.
True sustainability
In closing, sustainability is as much a corporate culture as it is an additive, and it is a trend that will continue to guide the hand protection industry in the years to come.
R&D teams in this industry will continue to create new, more efficient ways to decrease the hand print on our planet, whilst at the same time, determine the viability of recycling materials for reproduction and repurposing.
Aside from these cited tactile examples of changes within operations and glove production processes, another interesting viewpoint on 'sustainability' comes from Deborah Grubbe, chair of the AICHE (American Institute of Chemical Engineers) Institute for Sustainability and owner of Operations and Safety Solutions, LLC: "Consider safety, particularly human safety, as the ultimate form of sustainability… [if this isn't the case] Why do we need continued innovation? Why do we need enlightened leadership? It's so the human race can continue to survive, to flourish. And one way to do that is to assure that the human race is as safe and sustainable as possible."
In this sense, we are all stewards of sustainability. I guarantee it.