The Environmental Footprints of Protective Clothing

Something as simple as protective clothing can have a large impact on the environment.

The textile industry is one of the leading causes of water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Because of the enormous amounts of water and energy required, manufacturing protective clothing has a major effect on the environment.

Although protective clothing is essential for ensuring people's safety, there are unintended consequences that should be taken into account. Bringing more light to this problem will allow you to make more responsible decisions and propel positive change. We can learn more about the environmental footprint of protective clothing production, use and disposal with the help of research studies if we take a closer look.

The Manufacturing Phase

The production of protective clothing involves resource extraction, energy consumption and chemical-intensive manufacturing processes. Research indicates that the production of synthetic protective fabrics, such as polyester and nylon, contributes significantly to carbon emissions and fossil fuel depletion. Ecosystems and human health are also at risk from the extraction of raw materials like petroleum and the use of harsh chemicals like dyes and flame retardants.

The textile industry is notorious for its water consumption. Studies estimate that the production of a single cotton T-shirt, which is commonly used as a base material in protective clothing, requires thousands of liters of water. Considering the global demand for protective garments, this water-intensive production process exerts tremendous pressure on already scarce water resources.

The Use Phase

It’s in this phase that the environmental impacts of protective clothing continue to accrue. Many disposable protective garments, including masks, gloves and coveralls, are designed for single-use, contributing to an alarming amount of waste. Improper disposal of these items not only pollutes our landfills but also poses a threat to marine ecosystems when they end up in our oceans.

The laundering and maintenance of reusable protective clothing also have environmental implications. Frequent washing and the use of energy-intensive dryers contribute to increased water and energy consumption. Moreover, the release of microplastics from synthetic fabrics during washing further exacerbates the issue, as these particles find their way into water bodies, harming aquatic organisms.

The Disposal and the End-of-Life Phase

The disposal of protective clothing is often overlooked, yet it presents a significant environmental challenge. Research has found that disposing of single-use items creates a mounting pile of waste that takes centuries to decompose, adding to the burden on our already overflowing landfills. Additionally, the incineration of certain protective garments releases harmful pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

For reusable protective clothing, the end-of-life stage poses a different set of challenges. While these garments may offer prolonged use, they eventually reach a point where they are no longer functional. The lack of proper recycling infrastructure for these specialized textiles results in a significant portion being incinerated or sent to landfills, squandering valuable resources and perpetuating the cycle of waste.

The Selection of PPE Material Matters

One of the research studies mentioned earlier also found that switching to reusable gowns could cut down on the use of natural resources by 64 percent in terms of energy consumption, 66 percent in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, 83 percent in terms of blue water consumption and 84 percent in terms of solid waste generation. However, compared to disposable gowns, reusable ones use more water and electricity.

Until recyclable alternatives are developed, it will be challenging to replace disposable gowns and other single-use PPEs made from synthetic fiber. The reason for this is that in order to combat particularly infectious diseases like COVID-19, recyclable alternatives need to meet stringent regulatory requirements. Finally, compared to reusable gowns, disposable ones have a much larger negative effect on the environment.

Fortunately, there are sustainable alternatives to single-use PPEs that can help reduce the environmental footprint of personal protective clothing. Reusable and recyclable options are now available, minimizing waste and decreasing the carbon footprint of the textile industry.

About the Author

Nick Warrick is the Sales Manager at All Seasons Uniforms. With over 15 years of experience in the work uniform business, he has worked with over 100 clients across 20 different industries. Holding bachelor’s degrees in both Business Administration and Information Technology, Nick revamped the company’s online presence, offering its customers a new uniform shopping experience.

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