The relationship between the coronavirus pandemic and the environment has already been the subject of much academic interest and research – and that’s set to continue in the coming years. In the initial stages, some climate researchers suggested the temporary drop in travel and manufacturing could reduce global CO2 levels, although more recent research into this issue has been less optimistic.
One area, however, which is less debatable is the rapid increase in the production of disposable PPE products, such as single-use masks and surgical gloves. Currently, around 80 million gloves are required per month for global medical personnel, with some factories increasing production to meet demand.
Although these items play a crucial role in limiting the spread of the virus, the increased production also means increased waste. And the issue is further compounded by the fact that most of the gloves produced to satisfy this surge in demand are made from petroleum-based nitrile rubber, which can take up to a century to decompose. The requirement to regularly change and dispose of used gloves and PPE only adds to the potential for a vast recycling challenge.
Natural latex gloves without the allergic reaction
Researchers at the UK’s Cranfield University have attempted to tackle this issue and are working together with a glove manufacturer in Malaysia to create a new, more eco-friendly type of surgical glove made from natural rubber latex. The material itself is nothing new – in fact, natural latex used to be the standard material used for disposable gloves – but it has become less popular due to the fact that many people are allergic to the proteins within the latex. And although natural latex (as opposed to synthetic latex) will eventually fully biodegrade in landfill conditions, this process can still be incredibly slow.
After closely examining the production methods of natural latex, the team was able to locate and remove the proteins responsible for the allergic reaction as well as streamline production and increase biodegradability. Traditionally, natural latex gloves are produced by dipping a mannequin hand into a mixture before it is dried and cured. This method often results in a large amount of waste raw materials while also demanding high energy requirements. The team claims the new natural latex can be produced in a similar way but in half the time and with as little as half the energy, resulting in a less resource-intensive production process.
The source of the natural latex could also potentially provide an environmental boost. Natural rubber is derived from rubber trees, which secretes the substance in a sap-like form. After maturing for six years, the trees can be tapped for up to 28 years, providing a natural supply of latex produced from only carbon, sunlight and water. By using rubber trees as the source of surgical gloves, it is hoped the industry can not only become cleaner, but perhaps even carbon neutral – i.e. by removing at least the same amount of carbon that is produced in the manufacturing process.
The real environmental cost of rubber
Although in some cases, environmental arguments were made for rubber plantations, such as increasing forest cover, the nature of the plantations can also have a detrimental environmental impact. The vast majority of the figure above consisted of monoculture plantations which consist of only one species of tree. Such monocultures have been described as ‘biological deserts’ which reduce biodiversity as well increasing soil erosion and demands on the water suply.
On the other hand, rubber trees are in fact more effective at absorbing carbon than natural mixed rainforests, and could play an important role in reducing global atmospheric carbon. Krzysztof Koziol, Professor of Composites Engineering at Cranfield University, explained in an interview that up to 50 percent of excessive atmospheric carbon could theoretically be taken out of the atmosphere if we were switch over eventually to this more sustainable type of glove – thanks to the rubber trees needed to produce them.
Currently, the Cranfield team are working to further speed up the biodegradability of their gloves, with the team aiming to reduce the time taken to around just a few weeks. Meanwhile, Meditech Gloves, who has funded the research, and is one of Malaysia’s leading producers of surgical gloves, has shown significant interest in turning the results of their work into a product that they can soon bring to market.