Taking Recycling to the Next Level

By Camille Hegwood


Waste diversion is an essential goal for labs and cleanrooms and can be achieved in a variety of ways — source reduction, reuse, composting and/or recycling. In 2014, more than 89 million tons of municipal solid waste were recycled and composted, which provided an annual reduction of over 181 million metric tons of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As recycling becomes the norm rather than the exception, labs and cleanrooms are getting pretty good at recycling primary commodities such as cardboard, paper, plastic and aluminum. But to attain a higher level of diversion and potentially reach the target of zero waste, other nontraditional or secondary commodities must also be diverted from landfill to be recycled and repurposed into usable products and durable goods.

The RightCycle Program

Glove and apparel recycling is a relatively new effort that is beginning to gain traction in lab and cleanroom settings. In 2011, Kimberly-Clark Professional launched the RightCycle Program, the first large-scale recycling effort for non-hazardous lab, cleanroom and industrial waste. Since then it has diverted more than 400 tons of waste from landfills.

When labs participate in The RightCycle Program, they ship used products to domestic recycling facilities where the items are turned into nitrile pellets and then reprocessed to make new items. Any non-biohazardous gloves, garments and accessories can be safely recycled and turned into lawn furniture, flower pots, shelving and storage bins.

It All Adds Up

Gloves are ubiquitous in labs and cleanrooms, and workers can use and discard multiple pairs in the course of a work day. Although this use is necessary to protect the workers and the process, the amount of waste can quickly add up. Consider these statistics:

  • One university estimated that nearly 30 percent of its waste stream came from laboratory and research buildings
  • A University of Washington lab waste audit found that 22 percent of its research waste consisted of nitrile gloves
  • An assessment at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) found that nitrile gloves made up a majority of laboratory waste destined for landfills

Putting Glove Recycling into Practice

The University of Washington and UCSC now participate in The RightCycle Program, as does the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) at the University of Illinois and Purdue University.

ISTC began recycling used nitrile gloves in 2013. The results?

  • Glove recycling in the labs has reached 89 percent compliance, a higher number than paper and cardboard recycling
  • The center and university have diverted 4,945 pounds (approximately 320,480 gloves) from landfills
  • A pilot to expand the recycling program to the university’s main dining hall has achieved an estimated diversion rate of 90 percent

Purdue University boasts an 85 percent diversion rate and is always seeking new and different ways to reduce its solid waste stream. In 2014, it added glove recycling to its list of sustainability accomplishments when it adopted the RightCycle Program. Since November 2014, the chemistry department at Purdue has diverted 8,163 pounds of lab gloves from landfills.

The university is now considering expanding the program to other campus labs as well as food preparation areas.

Camille Hegwood is channel marketing manager for the Kimberly-Clark Professional Scientific Business.

Content provided by