The cost of providing clean workwear is on the increase. Ray Wheeler, MD of Guardline Technology, investigates reprocessing items once considered single-use
The disposable market in the cleanroom industry is vast – some four billion gloves are sold and thrown away worldwide each year. This disposal process has huge environmental implications, contributing to constantly swelling waste sites, causing pollution to rivers and stealing valued land space from our rapidly diminishing countryside.
Landfill concerns the environmentalist at heart, but to those facing the day-to-day challenges of running businesses, cost is the ultimate cause of anxiety.
Apprehension derives from the recent announcement that the world is currently facing a natural rubber shortage, and it is due to get worse. Of course, the ecological problems are the main concern, but to most who buy latex gloves the immediate effect will be the financial implications of this shortage.
Natural rubber latex prices have increased steadily throughout the past few months to an all-time high, and major industry experts predict that the price levels will remain at this high rate.
In terms of rubber production, The International Rubber Study Group predicts that tropical natural rubber prices will double in price and rise to a record of US$2/kg within a few years from US$1.09/kg in 2005.
With a shortage of tropical natural rubber latex and higher prices, the natural assumption is that medical and other specialty consumer product manufacturers will seek synthetic alternatives; however, prices for synthetic rubber have also been rising because synthetics are petroleum-based and currently affected by record prices for crude oil.
One answer is to reprocess disposables. The term disposable is actually quite a misleading term for these types of products purchased in the cleanroom industry. They are items of convenience, that can be purchased in bulk, and discarded at leisure, providing an easy life for the end user, as no maintenance is required or imposed. However, the suitability of these products is rarely confined to just a single use. They have the physical properties to withstand a laundry process, rendering them suitable for use by many operators.
EcoGUARD is a process run by Guardline Technology that offers a laundry service dedicated to garments that were once considered single-use only. The process is almost identical to a laundry service for permanent garments, but uses specialised, delicate washing procedures that are aimed towards the less heavy duty articles. EcoGUARD facility has a dedicated water plant, with custom-designed washers and dryers, purpose-built to deliver the wash cycles required to maintain and even enhance the physical properties of the garment or gloves.
The increased lifespan means that the end user may wear the same 10 gloves in any given period, instead of the 50 gloves that were discarded in the same space of time. This example alone displays an 80% reduction in waste, saving valuable landfill space, not to mention reducing latex requirements.
The process is not only environmentally sound, it is also a cost-effective scheme. It is known to reduce annual disposable glove budgets by an average of 30%. For example, a microelectronics company in France using the EcoGUARD programme in 2000, published findings of its savings in its corporate environmental report. The company re-used 26% of its gloves, saving $15,000, and 34% of its overshoes, saving $16,000 – a total annual saving of $31,000.
Surprisingly the washing process actually enhances the gloves’ physical properties: after one wash the gloves are cleaner than they were when they were originally purchased; after the second wash they continue to become cleaner, and the particle count per micron drops each time they are washed. The glove, however, retains the important characteristics such as tensile, and elasticity.
The programme can be applied not only to gloves, but also to overshoes, garments and wipes.
As the cost for environmental waste, diminishing rubber products continues to rise , more companies may be encouraged to reconsider their approach to single-use garments.