Disposable Gloves: From Germ Protection to Litter Disaster

Citizens are turning to disposable gloves to protect them against coronavirus. Around the world, it's quickly becoming a hygienic mess of global proportions.

The packaging was meant to look like a condom in every way, right down to the copied logo. I stared at it with a curious fascination. My coworker proudly showed me the individually wrapped handy-pack of disposable gloves she brought to clean our dusty workstation.

“These are so cheap on Taobao. They come in hundreds though, so you’ll have to buy a lot each time. But we’ve got to be careful with this virus epidemic these days,” my coworker enthused.

I nodded with a dopey grin, but my stomach was churning with the thought of hundreds of these pairs of clear plastic gloves and their plastic wrappers being thrown away after just a few minutes’ use. That’s when I realized other people were also buying these gloves in bulk from online sources.

Since the coronavirus reached pandemic levels, many other citizens have also resorted to protecting themselves with single-use plastic gloves. Warfare is being waged on germs, but it’s also leading to massive problems with litter.

“CORONA, PNEUMONIA, DON’T LET THAT VIRUS OWN YA”

Do disposable gloves really help prevent the spreading of viruses and bacteria? It turns out the minuses outweigh the pluses.

Apparently, disposable gloves can give a false sense of security. In Hong Kong, restaurant staff who are wearing these gloves to serve food are washing their hands much less frequently than before, simply because they can’t feel it when their hands have been soiled. This dampens their natural inclination to wash their hands after clearing a table of dirty dishes. Cross-contamination is much more frequent.

There are also warnings that people are failing to wash their hands AFTER removing their disposable gloves. Even when medical workers are wearing disposable gloves, it turns out the protection is only effective for a very short term. The gloves can only protect the hands from coarse contaminants, such as blood and bodily fluids. The porous nature of disposable gloves means that the longer you wear them, the easier it is for pathogens to penetrate the protective material and end up on your skin. Disposable gloves are not meant to be a replacement for handwashing.

Another little-known is risk is that the act of wearing gloves while touching mobile phones or the face is still a highly effective way to spread pathogens over a large area.

Also, gloves can be a prime breeding ground for bacteria, leading to exponential growth for the little guys. The layer of plastic or latex material upon our hands makes the skin start to sweat quickly when we wear disposable gloves. This warm and humid climate is an ideal environment for bacteria and viruses to grow.

In fact, the concern over the incorrect use of disposable gloves in public is being discouraged by doctors. “Stop wearing medical gloves in public! It’s a hygienic mess on a massive scale,” says German doctor Marc Hanefield on Twitter. “Under the glove, bacteria happily multiply in the warm, humid space. And after taking it off, without disinfection, you have a sewer on your hands. Congratulations!”

If that wasn’t bad enough, an incorrect method of taking off the gloves could lead to further contamination and germ-spreading. Hygienist and infectious disease specialist Prof. Dr. Ojan Assadian, President of the Austrian Society for Hospital Hygiene, advises that people who aren’t medically trained shouldn’t be wearing disposable gloves in everyday life. “It requires a certain amount of know-how and practice to take off disposable gloves in such a way that any microorganisms adhering to them remain on them and glove wearers do not smear them onto their hands, wrists or the sleeves of their outer clothing when taking them off,” he explains.

Scientist Dr.Jacquelyn Gill explains how to use disposable gloves correctly.

WHERE DO SINGLE-USE PLASTICS GO?

Already, there are viral posts of used personal protective equipment (PPE) strewn about on sidewalks and streets. In Hong Kong, we’ve noticed a lot of discarded or lost facemasks on hiking trails and in public exercise areas, not to mention urban streets. For sanitation workers and environmentally conscious ploggers (joggers who use their exercise routes as a way to pick up discarded rubbish) who are cleaning up after litter bugs, this could pose a biohazard threat. Contaminated gloves can become a means to spreading infectious materials to other people and surfaces, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Increasingly, the risk of contamination to others is becoming a citywide concern.

In the US, the proper way to treat to medical waste like PPE is to sterilise it and take it to landfills according to strict standards, because the Environmental Protection Agency has discouraged incineration since 1997. In other countries where there are less advanced regulations on treating biohazard waste, the surge of discarded face masks and other disposables, whether in hospitals or amongst civilians, could lead to a secondary environmental crisis, with billions of these items ending up in waterways and oceans.

In reality, the current global crisis with the treatment of used PPE is that it’s being found discarded carelessly on the streets by civilians after they’ve been worn. Photographer Dan Giannopoulos documented the severity of the problem when he noticed that discarded gloves were piled up in gutters, protruding from bushes and bins, flung on doorsteps and poking through wire fences. “I couldn’t walk more than a few metres without finding one,” he wrote.

SUSTAINABILITY IN THE MEDICAL SUPPLY CHAIN

Not surprisingly, the makers of these disposable protective products are well aware of the sheer scale of PPE waste that needs to be handled after they’ve become worn and contaminated. Medical companies have come with some eco-friendlier solutions, such as nitrile gloves. Nitrile is a synthetic rubber that is usually an alternative to latex. It’s hyper elastic, and not easy to puncture, which is why it’s often used in food processing and medical facilities. Commonly, nitrile gloves come in colours like purple or blue.

Manufacturer Kimberly-Clark has come up with a recycling program for nitrile gloves. Unfortunately, they can only accept gloves made by their company, because they must know about the ingredients in the product in order to recycle it. So far, they have reported diverting 70,000 pounds of waste from landfills with their nitrile glove recycling program. According to the company, the gloves are being upcycled and sold in the raw materials market for products.

Photo source: KCprofessional.com

Alternatively, some companies are exploring ways to re-use gloves into waste bags, such as the American brand Chipotle Mexican Grill. The used gloves are collected from restaurants, recycled into pellets, which are made into plastic bags. The bags are then re-used in their own restaurants. The restaurant chain claims this recycling of plastic gloves helps to reduce at least 8.8% of Chipotle’s total waste, amongst their other waste management efforts.

The Harm of Building a Super Hero Personal Plastic Shield

Here in Hong Kong, we have a little problem with getting our hands dirty. For decades, there has already been a love-hate relationship with tactile foods like fried chicken. To get around the problem of squeamishness, fast food places like KFC issue clear plastic disposable gloves with each meal. When this habit was first introduced as fried chicken fast-food chains appeared locally in the 1980’s, the absurdity was used as a gag in a storyline for a major comedic film. These days, we’ve gotten so used to seeing and using single-use disposables, customers don’t even blink an eye when the glove-issuing is a default that comes with each fried chicken food order.

Photo source: Taobao

Before my coworker had showed me the condom-look-alike package of plastic gloves, the single-use consumer goods industry was a world of commerce I had never considered in detail. But a quick google reveals there’s even a massive plastic version of a plastic toilet seat cover—for people to take a guaranteed-germ-free bath in a hotel bathtub, or even in your own tub at home. Are we becoming a bit too zealous about our germaphobia? Would it be more helpful to us to boost our immune system instead of boosting our “Super Hero Personal Plastic Shield”?

Photo source: Mafengwo.cn

And if clear plastic gloves aren’t environmentally friendly, then what about latex? The truth is, latex gloves rip very easily. They’re not designed for use when we go out, run up stairs or do everyday things. When they quickly get holes in them, we could find ourselves disposing and replacing latex gloves without a second thought.

The solution? A better way to protect ourselves in these times would be use a tissue or paper towel to grab surfaces in public areas, or use hand disinfectant more frequently. Toilet paper and tissues take anywhere up to two years to break down in natural environments, but that would still beat the damage done by plastic gloves that end up in the stomachs of whales.

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