Nitrile gloves are used in multiple different industries, from the medical field to science labs to the beauty industry and more.
These gloves are used as an alternative to latex gloves, but they are still designed to be used only one time and disposed of afterward to avoid the possibility of contaminating whatever it is you’re working with,
Because nitrile gloves are single-use, it raises concerns about their eco-friendliness, especially in the midst of a global pandemic that is seeing large amounts of gloves be used and disposed of in the environment.
Those concerns are valid because nitrile gloves are not eco-friendly due to being made with synthetic materials and having limited ways that they can be disposed of.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at nitrile gloves, including what exactly they are made of and if there are any alternative disposal methods besides just throwing them away.
1. Are Nitrile Gloves Rubber?
The answer to this question is both yes and no.
Although nitrile gloves have a similar feel to rubber gloves, they are not made with natural rubber.
Nitrile gloves are often used as an alternative to rubber gloves because some people are allergic to rubber.
But it’s not necessarily rubber that they are allergic to. It’s the chemical found in rubber known as latex.
Even if the wearer of the gloves isn’t allergic to latex, the person who is receiving services could be, so nitrile gloves are used as an alternative to rubber or latex gloves for safety purposes.
With that being said, nitrile gloves are actually made from synthetic rubber which is latex-free.
Two chemicals called acrylonitrile and butadiene are combined to create the synthetic rubber material.
Synthetic rubber has a similar texture and properties to natural rubber without causing an allergic reaction since they contain no latex proteins.
2. Are Nitrile Gloves Made of Plastic?
Again, the answer to this question is both yes and no. To clarify, let’s look at how nitrile gloves are made and how they are comparable to plastic.
Nitrile gloves are made by combining the two chemicals mentioned above: acrylonitrile and butadiene. Acrylonitrile is a volatile liquid and butadiene is a gaseous organic compound.
These two chemicals are both derived from crude oil and they are combined using a chemical reaction called polymerization which turns them into liquid nitrile.
The liquid nitrile is then combined with other chemicals to turn it into a more stable, dried, and crumbled material.
The makers of the nitrile gloves then turn the dried material back into a liquid and pour it into a mold that is the shape of a hand. The molds are then baked, cooled, and dried and the gloves are removed.
We said all that to say that the process for making nitrile gloves and the source of the original materials used to make the gloves is very similar to plastic.
Plastics are also derived from crude oil and under polymerization in order to turn them into usable materials that are then turned into something else.
However, synthetic rubber – and nitrile gloves in particular – are not the same thing as other types of plastic. Plastics are polymers whereas synthetic rubber is made of a specific type of polymer called an elastomer.
The difference between other plastics and synthetic rubber is that synthetic rubber is elastic so it can stretch and return to its original shape. Plastic is not stretchy and doesn’t return to its original shape when stretched.
At the very least, nitrile gloves can be considered a synthetic material, but whether or not they are technically plastic just depends on who you ask.
3. Are Nitrile Gloves Eco-Friendly?
Regardless of whether or not you consider nitrile gloves to be a type of plastic or a different category of synthetic materials, it doesn’t change the fact that they are not eco-friendly.
The original materials used to create nitrile gloves are sourced from refining crude oil, which is a non-renewable resource that has the potential to cause pollution and habitat destruction upon collection.
For example, crude oil can pollute the ocean through drilling and oil spills and it can cause habitat loss due to the installation of pipelines and other equipment used in the collection of it.
Creating nitrile gloves may not use as many chemicals or manufacturing processes as making other types of synthetic materials.
However, a lot of dangerous chemicals are still used in the making of nitrile gloves that can also cause pollution in the form of soil and water contamination if those chemicals are improperly disposed of.
Plus, a lot of energy is used in creating nitrile gloves, especially during the process of baking the gloves in the mold.
This energy likely comes from burning fossil fuels, another non-renewable resource, and burning them also causes greenhouse gas emissions into the air.
4. Are Nitrile or Latex Gloves More Eco-Friendly?
Latex gloves are more eco-friendly than nitrile gloves since latex gloves are made from natural rubber.
The natural rubber used to make latex gloves comes from the rubber tree, which is a natural and renewable resource.
The latex itself is essentially the sap of the tree and it can be collected by tapping without having to cut the tree down and without killing the tree.
Once the latex has been collected, it still has to undergo some chemical and mechanical processing in order to be turned into latex gloves.
However, latex gloves are still more eco-friendly than nitrile gloves considering that they come from more sustainable resources.
Despite this fact, latex gloves still aren’t an option in many industries due to people having latex allergies and it being cheaper to just go with nitrile gloves instead of buying both.
However, some industries do have both and only use nitrile when there is an allergy involved.
5. Are Nitrile Gloves Better Than Vinyl?
Vinyl gloves are another alternative to latex gloves when someone has a latex allergy, and they are cheaper than nitrile gloves as well.
However, nitrile gloves are better than vinyl from both a durability and eco-friendly standpoint.
Vinyl gloves are not as thick as nitrile gloves and they can get punctured and torn easily as well as not being as resistant to chemicals.
They are not suitable for applications in which there are potential hazards and biohazards involved, such as laboratory settings and high-risk medical settings.
Instead, vinyl gloves are mostly used for food handling, clean-up, and manufacturing jobs in which there is less risk if the gloves become punctured or break.
But durability aside, vinyl gloves are also less eco-friendly than nitrile gloves. Vinyl is one of the worst plastics for the environment.
The production, use, and disposal of it all have the potential to release toxic, chlorine-based chemicals into the air, water, soil, and food chain.
Not only can this cause problems for the environment, but for humans as well. In addition to vinyl gloves, all kinds of products that we use in our daily lives are made from vinyl, including toys, furniture, building materials, etc.
The use and exposure to these products can result in increased levels of chlorine in our bodies which can lead to severe health problems, including cancer.
So although neither nitrile gloves nor vinyl gloves are eco-friendly, nitrile gloves are the better and safer choice.
6. Are Nitrile Gloves Sustainable?
Nitrile gloves are not sustainable since they are made from non-renewable resources.
You have to consider that nitrile gloves are not the only product that is made from crude oil.
There are tons of other products made from crude oil, including most types of plastic as well as other products made from synthetic rubber.
Although crude oil can continue to be used to make products for many years, there simply isn’t enough of it to continue making nitrile gloves and other products out of it forever.
Plus, disposal methods can play a role in sustainability and eco-friendliness and there aren’t very many eco-friendly ways that you can dispose of nitrile gloves either.
7. Are Nitrile Gloves Biodegradable?
Nitrile gloves are not biodegradable since they are made with synthetic materials. They can take decades or even hundreds of years to biodegrade in a landfill.
Even if nitrile gloves do start to decompose, they have the potential to release some of the chemicals used to make them into the environment, which can cause pollution and contamination of soil and water.
Nitrile gloves not being biodegradable is unfortunate because many people dispose of them improperly or forget about laying them down somewhere when they take them off.
This can lead to many of them ending up on the ground or making their way into streams, waterways, and oceans where they can harm the wildlife that lives there.
8. Are Nitrile Gloves Compostable?
Since nitrile gloves are not biodegradable, they are not compostable either.
They will not decompose in your compost and you could end up contaminating your compost if you do try to compost them.
9. Are Nitrile Gloves Toxic?
A scientific study that sought to test the toxicity of various types of gloves made from synthetic materials found nitrile gloves to be non-toxic.
The study assessed cell responses after coming into contact with nitrile gloves as well as extracts of materials used to make them and found that the cells produced no toxic response to either the gloves or the materials used to make them.
10. Are Nitrile Gloves BPA-Free?
The good news is that nitrile gloves contain no BPA and don’t pose any risks to human health.
Bisphenol A (BPA) is a toxic chemical that is used in some synthetic materials.
It is thought to have negative effects on human health, particularly brain development in children but it has also been possibly linked to heart disease and diabetes as well.
11. Are Nitrile Gloves Durable?
Nitrile gloves aren’t as flexible as latex gloves – however, they are more durable and more resistant to chemicals.
They are also extremely puncture-resistant, which along with eliminating the risk of latex allergies, is why they are so commonly used in the medical field.
12. Are Nitrile Gloves Reusable?
Nitrile gloves are not designed to be reusable. The main reason for this is that many of them may have biohazardous materials or chemicals on them due to the industries in which they are used.
With that being said, if you’re just using them at home to protect your hands while painting, washing dishes, etc., then you could rinse them with soap and water and allow them to dry before reusing them provided that they aren’t ripped or damaged.
But if you work in any kind of industry, especially the medical field, you cannot simply wash nitrile gloves and reuse them. They must be disposed of after use for health and safety reasons.
13. Do Nitrile Gloves Create Microplastics?
The amount of microplastics created by nitrile gloves is still being studied as the number of nitrile gloves that end up in the environment has increased significantly due to the global coronavirus pandemic.
However, a study has shown that they might not create as many microplastics as were originally thought.
Upon closer examination of molecules that were being leached, many of them were mistaken for polyethylene plastic instead of stearate molecules which are similar in structure but are less harmful to the environment.
Regardless of how much microplastics are released into the ocean by nitrile gloves, the gloves still pose a problem for wildlife that could ingest or get trapped inside the glove so it is still important to dispose of them properly.
14. Are Nitrile Gloves Recyclable?
Nitrile gloves can be recycled provided that they aren’t contaminated with biohazardous materials or chemicals.
But how easy they are to recycle just depends on whether or not your local recycling program accepts them.
If your local program does accept them, just bag all of your used gloves up together and add them to your recycling bin – again, provided that they aren’t contaminated with biohazards (such as blood) or chemicals.
However, not all recycling programs will take them since they require a certain infrastructure and equipment in order to recycle them, which costs money.
If your local recycling center doesn’t take them, you can look into a disposable glove collection recycling program if you use a lot of nitrile gloves, such as Terracycle.
Alternatively, if you have a business or work in an industry that uses a lot of nitrile gloves, specifically Kimberly-Clark, they offer a recycling program provided that the gloves are not used for biohazardous or chemical applications.
When nitrile gloves are recycled, they are broken down into nitrile pellets that can be used to create products such as benches, plastic containers, and more.
How to Dispose of Nitrile Gloves Properly
If possible, the best way to dispose of nitrile gloves is to recycle them, but again, this isn’t always possible.
Nitrile gloves that are contaminated with biohazardous or chemical waste can contaminate the recycling stream as well.
Gloves that are contaminated shouldn’t be disposed of with other trash either that someone could come in contact with when they empty it and change out the bag.
Contaminated gloves should be disposed of in the proper bins for biohazardous chemical waste depending on what they are contaminated with.
That way they can be disposed of properly and with the proper protection to ensure that they don’t put anyone at risk or contaminate anything else.
If they aren’t contaminated and you can’t recycle them, you can just throw them away with your other trash.
It’s a good idea to roll one of them up inside the other and tie up the trash bag really well when you empty it to make sure that the gloves don’t end up in the environment or ocean so that they aren’t ingested by wildlife.
The global pandemic has let to an increased use of nitrile gloves and the improper disposal of them leads to more gloves ending up in the environment and oceans.
But the medical field isn’t the only industry that uses disposable gloves, and in many cases, these gloves are intended for single-use purposes.
Nitrile gloves are not eco-friendly due to being made from non-renewable resources and not being biodegradable, although they are recyclable in some cases.
However, there aren’t many better options out there, as vinyl gloves are even less eco-friendly and many people are allergic to latex which is the more eco-friendly option.
Hopefully, there will be a way to make nitrile gloves more eco-friendly very soon.
But if we can’t avoid using them altogether, then the best thing we can do for the environment is to make sure that we dispose of them properly so that they don’t end up in places they shouldn’t.