Walk into any medical examining room, chemistry lab or clean room and you won’t have to look far to see boxes of lab gloves.
They’re often racked on the wall, sometimes three or four high, where workers can grab them quickly, snap them into place, and get to work for a few minutes or more than an hour.
But what happens after the exam or the lab work is over? They likely get flung in the hazardous waste trash, and then shipped out to an incinerator or hazardous waste landfill.
The market for disposable medical gloves is considerable: about $4 billion, according to Global Industry Analysts. Much of that is due to the rising emphasis on health, occupational safety and hygiene among health care workers.
Across the U.S., they are used by the millions to protect patients, caregivers and scientists from infection and contamination.
But some institutions, such as Purdue University, are trying to put a dent in that waste.
Since 2014, the chemistry department at Purdue has diverted 444,718 lab gloves from landfills, or more than three tons (6,862 pounds). That’s a big chunk of its glove inventory. Purdue uses about 360,000 lab gloves a year.
The university—along with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Sustainable Technology Center—is using a recycling program that turns used gloves and garments into shelving, flowerpots, and lawn and garden furniture.
The program was developed by Kimberly-Clark Corp. as a large-scale recycling program for non-hazardous lab and industrial waste.
The “RightCycle” program removes gloves, masks, garments, shoe covers and other apparel accessories from the trash and turns them into plastic pellets. The pellets are then formed by plastics companies into consumer products, such as storage bins, shelving and totes.
That seemed a natural fit for Purdue, which has a waste-diversion rate goal of 85 percent. In 2014, it added glove recycling to its list and has so far kept nearly a half-million gloves from the landfill.
“Once you address cans, bottles, paper and cardboard recycling, you can into smaller niche streams,” Michael Gulich, director of Purdue’s campus master planning and sustainability, said in a written statement. “We have some addressed very well, such as electronics waste and landscape debris.”
He added: “Previously, gloves didn’t have a solution. Anything that increases our diversion rate is good.”