By Zakir Abdi, Head of Global R&D and Sustainability, Midas Safety Inc.
Over the last decade there have been many advances in safety products, particularly around hand protection, with gloves becoming more lightweight and offering more technical features, leading to greater comfort, increased dexterity, and more protection for the wearer. During this time of innovation, the focus has been on the protection features offered and not on the impact on the environment. Now as we enter a new era, the importance of sustainability to the lifecycle of a glove, combined with the protection, functionality and features offered, is growing in importance. As the world requires new sustainable consumer products so changes to material selection, manufacturing processes, new standards, and the need for transparent communication and reporting start to play a key role.
Sustainable PPE and in particular hand protection requires a new way of thinking about the supply chain, the global standards, manufacturing process and packaging, here we explore these topics to make safety sustainable.
As the world grows more technical, the risk factors for many workers have changed, becoming more complicated, with many requiring their hand protection to be multi-functional. Many environments now require workers to operate touchscreen technologies, whilst maintaining their safety in an environment which has cut, abrasion or other risks, such as electrostatic dissipation. Consideration now also needs to be given to the sustainability of the materials used, the environmental impact of the manufacturing process and the shipment from factory to the final end-user as well as what will happen to the glove once its lifecycle is completed.
In the future, companies considering which PPE hand protection is required for the various risks within their work environments won’t have to consider whether a product meets their sustainable goal targets, as it will be a given that all products will meet with these standards. Today, however, consumers and customers are far from being assured that the hand protection they buy will meet both risk standards and the standards needed to attain their environmental or sustainability goals.
With this in mind, there are two global standards that are in use to help us understand products that have been made from recycled materials, these are the Global Recycling Standard (GRS) and the Recycled Claim Standard (RCS). These standards have been created to help with product selection and being able to identify products which offer recycled material options. Both standards cover recycled content and chain of custody and are designed to provide purchasers with reassurance around products made from recycled materials.
As companies consider the types of PPE that they want their workers to use they will have to consider not only the type of risk and the type of product needed to protect against the risks identified and the right standards for those risks, but also what environmental standards the product conforms to and how it will contribute to the achievement of their environmental targets.
There are several sustainability options that a specifier of PPE must consider, first, whether a product is biobased, that is whether the product is free from the use of fossil-based materials both in the product, its packaging and in the production process. Secondly, what will happen to the product once the user has finished with it, is it biodegradable? Finally, what material is the glove made from? Has it been made from sustainable sources, e.g., a regenerated material, such as cotton or rubber, or even from recycled materials, such as gloves made from recycled polyester yarn. The yarn is derived from a 5-step process which converts plastic bottles to the base materials used to produce high-quality hand protection.
With many companies committing to reduce their emissions and the carbon footprint of their operations to net-zero by 2035, an important metric that businesses need to be aware of for all their PPE is the carbon-footprint from cradle to grave, and hand protection is no exception. Manufacturers need to consider their processes to shift away from conventional fossil fuels and consider how they can adopt the use of renewable energies, such as solar, wind or biomass. As well as the energy used, also consider how your manufacturer is managing water throughout the manufacturing process, are they harvesting rainwater to reduce impact on local supplies, reusing or recycling it, and do they treat it before it is returned to the local source.
Another area to consider when selecting gloves which meet your sustainability goals is the packaging. Often over-looked, many of us might consider the product and how it is produced, but not check on the packaging in which it is shipped, stored, and sold. It is important that we reduce the amount of plastic we consume, that finds its way back into the environment and in particular the oceans. Check to see if your supplier can offer your hand protection products with reusable or recyclable packaging and that it is plastic free, e.g., paper bags instead of using polybags for glove packaging.
The need to ensure sustainability of our operations, so that we leave a future for the generations which will follow us means that we need to consider many options now as we look to provide safety in the workplace. The GRS and RCS standards are there to guide us, but they are fairly recent to the market, and it will take time for them to be adopted and understood by the marketplace. Governments and legislative bodies globally are still determining what is necessary and achievable before issuing directives and so it remains with consumers to decide what they perceive as acceptable standards.
It is therefore not only up to manufacturers to determine what processes and materials can be changed or adapted to meet the exacting standards of comfort, dexterity, protection, and care for the environment, it also needs the joint effort and out of the box thinking of the manufacturers, distributors, and end users of PPE to drive forward sustainable options to safeguard the future of our planet.