Pandemic reveals need for stricter glove disposal methods

Tested gloves released microparticles, organic matter, and heavy metals into water after weathering.

By Colleen MacPherson

Disposable gloves

Amid the explosive growth in disposable glove use during the COVID-19 pandemic, a study done at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) at the University of Saskatchewan into how gloves break down in the environment suggests stricter standards are needed for glove waste collection and disposal.

Dr. Zheng Wang with the Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering at Concordia University, said “increased use of personal protective equipment, including gloves, over the past two years in hospitals, restaurants, shopping and other work places” prompted his investigation into what happens to gloves when discarded, particularly in water environments.

He noted that an estimated 65 billion gloves are consumed globally every month, according to a paper from 2020.  

“Like other plastic products, gloves release microparticles into the environment so we looked at the types of gloves that are widely used,” said Wang.

The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, explored the physical and chemical changes latex, nitril, and vinyl gloves go through under simulated environmental conditions. Next, the gloves were analyzed using the Mid-IR beamline at the CLS, which revealed significant microscopic changes to the glove surfaces.

All the tested gloves released substances, including microparticles, organic matter, and heavy metals, into water after weathering but nitrile gloves, the most stable of the three, released the lowest concentration of particles, and latex released the most.

The study, one of only a few that has focused on the environmental effects of discarded gloves that make their way into water systems, also showed that gloves hold their physical structure longer than disposable masks. This indicates, said Wang, that disposable gloves pose a more uncertain environmental risk than masks.

The next step, he said, “is to further explore what kinds of masks or gloves pose the least risk and what kinds of materials would have more or less impact on the environment. But, they still shouldn’t be discarded randomly.”

The team of researchers involved in the study suggest there is a need “to employ more efficient and effective methods of collection and recycling of both disposable masks and gloves,” said Wang.

Wang, Zheng, Chunjiang An, Kenneth Lee, Xiujuan Chen, Baiyu Zhang, Jianan Yin, and Qi Feng. "Physicochemical change and microparticle release from disposable gloves in the aqueous environment impacted by accelerated weathering." Science of The Total Environment 832 (2022): 154986.

Photos: Synchrotron | Mid-IR beamline

Media Relations:

Victoria Schramm
Communications Coordinator
Canadian Light Source