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Recycling Program Helps Universities Turn Used Gloves into Durable Goods

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Purdue University have diverted almost six tons of waste from landfills via a recycling program that turns used lab gloves and garments into shelving, flower pots and planters, totes, storage bins, and lawn and garden furniture. Both schools wanted to reduce their solid waste streams and increase sustainability, and they utilized the RightCycle program from Kimberly-Clark Professional (KCP), which the company reports is the first large-scale recycling program for non-hazardous lab and industrial waste. (Nov. 15 is America Recycles Day, #AmericaRecyclesDay.)

Since its inception in 2011, RightCycle has diverted more than 350 metric tons of waste from landfills, and as of July 2016 almost 200 customers were participating in the program, which KCP has expanded to Western Europe and may expand into other regions. "We pioneered this program because we recognized that the sustainability goals of our university and pharmaceutical customers included reducing landfill waste, and single-use gloves accounted for a large percentage of that waste," said Randy Kates, director of the Kimberly-Clark Professional Global Scientific Business. "We needed to find a recycling solution that helped them achieve their goals and enabled their people to be positively engaged in the process."

RightCycle removes gloves, masks, garments, shoe covers, and other apparel accessories from the waste stream and turns them into plastic pellets that are then used to create eco-responsible consumer products and durable goods.

The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center is a division of the Prairie Research Institute with the mission of driving statewide economic growth through sustainability. "We conducted a waste audit to see how we could go to zero waste in our own building and realized that gloves were about 10 percent of our total waste by weight," explained Shantanu Pai, ISTC assistant sustainability researcher. "We were already effectively recycling other items – glass, aluminum, paper and cardboard." With RightCycle, ISTC was able to reach 89 percent compliance for gloves in its labs, even higher than the rate for paper and cardboard recycling. It then piloted the program in the university's main dining hall and achieved an estimated diversion rate of 90 percent. So the university is in the process of expanding the effort to all dining facilities and campus labs and has bought a storage container to house the gloves so that shipments can be made just once a year.

Purdue University uses approximately 360,000 disposable gloves per year – 3.5 tons' worth. With a diversion rate goal of 85 percent, the university is always seeking new ways to reduce its solid waste stream, and in 2014 it added glove recycling to its list of sustainability accomplishments when it adopted the RightCycle program. Since November 2014, the chemistry department has diverted 6,862 pounds of lab gloves from landfills, or approximately 444,718 gloves.

"Once you address cans, bottles, paper and cardboard recycling, you get into smaller niche streams,” he said. “We have some addressed very well, such as electronics waste and landscape debris. Previously, gloves didn’t have a solution. Anything that increases our diversion rate is good," said Michael Gulich, director of campus master planning and sustainability, who is looking to expand the program to other campus labs and food preparation areas.

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