A student-led research project, conducted before COVID-19 impacted operations at many UBC laboratories, has helped build the case for potentially diverting seven million gloves (28 tonnes) from the landfill each year if scaled up across campus.
Conducted as part of the SEEDS Sustainability Program, the project studied a one-year glove recycling pilot championed by researchers at the Centre for Comparative Medicine, an animal care facility at UBC Vancouver. The project aligned with one of the SEEDS Sustainability Program’s research main priority areas – exploring the potential for a circular economy at UBC including the reduction of waste and pollution.
“The outcomes from this research could make way for more sustainable management of disposable gloves as labs resume operations in the future,“ said Bud Fraser, Senior Planning and Sustainability Engineer.
The study was led by Environmental Engineering and Chemical Biological Engineering students and coordinated by the Green Labs Program, whose mandate is to increase sustainability practices at UBC’s labs.
Studying the RightCycle Pilot
Green Labs, in collaboration with UBC’s scientific vendor VWR, worked with staff at the Centre for Comparative Medicine to implement Kimberly-Clark Professional’s RightCycle Program. The program takes used gloves from the manufacturer and recycles and repurposes them into new consumer goods such as outdoor furniture. The non-hazardous nitrile gloves are a vital part of personal protective equipment (PPE) in many UBC labs.
SEEDS student researchers studied how staff in the facility were able to adjust their practices by collecting gloves for the RightCycle Program, diverting them from the landfill, and evaluating the environmental and business impacts of the program.
“We analyzed the cost, feasibility, and environmental benefit of recycling the millions of nitrile gloves discarded at UBC Vancouver every year through the RightCycle program,” said Simonne Mikolay, third year Environmental Engineering student. She and her project team found that recycling the gloves would make economic sense as long as shipments were coordinated to save shipping costs and reduce carbon emissions. “Through this project we learnt about the benefits of a circular economy and how to conduct life cycle analysis. We were happy to find that reducing waste was also a good business decision for UBC,” said Mikolay.
Championing the program
Varsha Rani and Emily Morton, animal care technicians and sustainability coordinators championed this program by training their fellow staff members to deposit gloves into the designated recycling collection bins instead of the garbage bin. “Given our high volume of glove usage, the size of the facility, and the space capacity for storage, our facility was a prime location for the pilot project,” said Varsha Rani.
“We encountered some minor hurdles during implementation due to the lack of awareness of the project. We overcame this through sending email communications and posting clear signage,” said Rani. “It was eventually successful and the overall consensus amongst the users showed that they were keen to participate in glove recycling. Their willingness to recycle made it easier for them to change their behaviour surrounding the glove disposal.”
A viable option for glove recycling
“This SEEDS project demonstrated that the RightCycle program is a viable option for glove recycling on campus and provides a model for future UBC-vendor partnerships aimed at sustainable purchasing and the responsible disposal of lab materials,” said David Righter, Green Labs Environmental Impact Specialist. “With UBC labs throwing away an estimated 7 million disposable gloves each year, this program can help divert a significant portion of the 28 tonnes of this waste sent to landfills.”
Next up, Green Labs will take lessons learned from this one-year pilot with the Centre for Comparative Medicine, identifying similar facilities with high potential for glove recycling, and experimenting with rolling out the program at a larger scale.
“This SEEDS Sustainability Program project will help the Green Labs Program and researchers advance more sustainable management of lab waste materials, which are often more challenging than many other types of waste, and are an emerging opportunity area,” said Fraser.
- Read the Nitrile Gloves Recycling Assessment report on the SEEDS Sustainability Library
- Learn more about sustainable practices in labs