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Nitrile and Biodegradation

SUMMARY

 

What is biodegradation?

Biodegradation is defined as “a significant change in the chemical structure of a material, caused by biological activity.”

Biodegradation is the last of four ways that plastics can degrade in the environment. Once polymers get broken down through various degradation mechanisms, some are eventually broken down to a small enough molecular weight to be metabolized by microorganisms and converted into CO2 or CO2 + methane (biodegradation). This process takes a long time, and not all polymers are able to break down small enough to ever achieve biodegradation.

Are nitrile gloves biodegradable?

Nitrile gloves are not biodegradable. Nitrile gloves are made from the raw material nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR), which is a fossil-based polymer that can degrade over time but will never biodegrade due to its molecular structure.

Nitrile butadiene rubber (NBR) falls into the same category as conventional plastics, and while these plastics degrade over time, there is insufficient evidence to prove that the molecular bonds of nitrile break down into small enough fragments to be metabolized by microorganisms and converted into CO2 or CO2 + methane (biodegradation). Since the fragments are not able to break down small enough to be converted into CO2 or CO2 + methane, they remain as small pieces of plastic that are then left in the environment and can be harmful.

If nitrile isn’t biodegradable, why are there claims of that in the market?

Some manufactures have made claims that additives can cause nitrile to biodegrade. There is no evidence that these additives can change the molecular structure of nitrile and allow it to biodegrade.

Even though nitrile is not a biodegradable polymer, some manufacturers have made claims of it due to the use of organic additives. No additive can change the molecular structure of nitrile. Breaking the bonds of carbon-carbon backbone polymers requires temperatures over 400º C and special catalysts, which cannot be achieved in any landfill or natural environment. While these additives may help the nitrile to degrade, there is a lack of scientific evidence that they can facilitate biodegradation.

Are there standards that manufacturers must meet to be able to claim a product is biodegradable?

ASTM D5511 and ASTM D5526 are the most commonly used test method standards for biodegradation, but these tests do not provide pass/fail qualifications. A product can be tested against these standards, but that does not result in a certification or prove biodegradability.

What factors contribute to the waste from disposable gloves?

After conducting a life cycle assessment, which is the evaluation of a product’s environmental impact throughout its entire life, we have found that a majority of the carbon footprint of disposable gloves comes from the production process. The end-of-life portion of the carbon footprint, including the impact from landfills, accounts for as little as 2% of the total carbon emissions.

What is Ansell doing to prioritize sustainability with its disposable gloves?

The lifecycle assessment that Ansell conducted showed that approximately 64% of carbon emissions during a glove’s lifetime come from the production phase. For that reason, Ansell has taken an aggressive approach to its manufacturing process to reduce our environmental impact. Our state-of-the-art facility in Bangkok, Thailand utilizes various renewable resources that have significantly reduced our manufacturing impact.

What would you recommend as the most sustainable disposable glove option?

Based on Ansell’s extensive research, we believe that the most sustainable disposable glove options are those that are manufactured responsibly. For that reason, we have adopted this approach for our production site in Bangkok by using green energy and reducing our freshwater consumption through the use of a reverse osmosis system. We are proud that some of our most popular TouchNTuff® styles, including 92-600 and 92-675, are produced at Ansell Bangkok.


Sources:
https://echa.europa.eu/en/web/guest/hot-topics/microplastics
https://www.researchgate.net/publication/274432143_Plastic_Degradation_and_Its_Environmental_Implications_with_Special_Reference_to_Polyethylene_terephthalate
https://www.astm.org/d5511-18.html
https://www.astm.org/d5526-18.html


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