Total sales of sustainable products are expected to pass $150 billion next year. And the demand for sustainable products is only expected to continue. Sustainable product sales have increased 40 percent since 2014 representing a gain of $43 billion. Sustainable product growth is not limited to just one market sector. An assessment of companies by market sector revealed that a wide range of companies are claiming added profits from sustainable products and offerings [Figure 1].

For example, the consumer products sector ranks high — as expected. But we also see companies from diverse, core industrial sectors such as industrial goods, energy and utilities, chemicals, automobiles all claiming differentiated profits from sustainable products and offerings.

Increased focus on sustainability for core industrial markets puts industrial PPE in the mix. For perhaps some more meaningful examples of corporate sustainability focus, all you have to do is visit websites of your customers (or their customers - depending on where you are positioned in the value chain). Company websites across every market sector, every company regardless of size are putting sustainability front and center. Even candidates are looking to join companies with a sustainable footprint – this is regarded as one of the top values job seekers are highlighting as important to their core values when looking for an organization to join. For my company, sustainability is meaningful to both our customers and our customers’ customers — I expect you will find a similar dynamic in your business.

What does all this mean?

An increasing number of companies are making and publicizing sustainability goals. Achieving these sustainability targets will take significant effort and expense. At the same time, internal and external stakeholders are expected to trim operating costs. This means customers are looking for sustainability wins that will not bust budgets.

There has been a lot of media coverage around disposable nitrile gloves as essential PPE for COVID- 19 response. It is estimated that COVID-19 response has generated a 45 percent spike in demand representing increased consumption of almost 140 billion single-use gloves. These gloves will eventually make their way into a landfill. There they will be combined with the almost 15 billion pounds of rubber waste. From a sustainability standpoint, this is a massive issue as rubber is a contaminant in current recycling streams. A typical nitrile glove will take potentially hundreds of years to decompose in a landfill.

With the increased focus on sustainability, wouldn’t it be amazing to turn this huge environmental loss into a sustainability win? Emerging technologies may do just that.

Glove technology

Many manufacturers are already working hard to address the environmental impact of PPE with sustainable PPE offerings. Some examples: gloves that are composed of fibers made from recycled water bottles. Reputable suppliers are making gloves that utilize technology that facilitates increased degradation of nitrile gloves in landfill environments. For example, new technology allows some nitrile gloves to degrade in less than 12 years (vs. 200 years for a typical nitrile glove) — all without any loss in glove performance. The degradation technology only activates once the glove is exposed to landfill (combined high heat, high moisture, no light, limited oxygen) conditions.

Further, these gloves release CH4 (Methane) gas when decomposing that can be reclaimed as a source for clean inexpensive energy. The Clean Air Act requires all landfills to reclaim methane and other Green House Gasses (GHG) and either burn the gas or use it to create energy. So now we have a new circular economy for nitrile waste. Gloves are worn and disposed at point of use, then collected and transported to municipal landfills that are designed to generate off gassing of methane as that trash decomposes. That methane gas can be captured and used to generate clean energy.

There are two primary tests for landfill biodegradation that can be applied to nitrile gloves: ASTM D5511 and ASTM D5526. Both test methods are designed to validate if a material can convert to biogas in high heat, high moisture, no light, anerobic (limited oxygen) environments — replicating landfill conditions. ASTM D5511 provides quick assessment while ASTM D5526 is a more extensive test. It is important to note that this testing is currently very expensive. For the mid-term, suppliers will have to balance value of performance claims vs. high cost of testing. In that context, D5511 is a minimum requirement. D5526 will give more real-world results. End-users should carefully assess and evaluate biodegradation claims from “cheaper” alternatives. Ask the supplier to share their ASTM test reports.

Imagine a world where communities are powered by the trash that they throw away. The technology to make that vision a reality for single-use gloves is here now. Going forward, the combination of consumer demand and the available advancing technology means that we can expect sustainable PPE will be a longstanding industry trend that is here to stay.