Both environmental habits and cost-cutting measures are becoming commonplace in facilities across the United States, including cleanrooms and research laboratories. Due to the nature of work performed and the hazardous chemicals, pathogens, and dust that may be present, companies have often found themselves with large amounts of waste. Reducing the amount of material used in the cleanroom or laboratory is the best way to cut back on waste, but may not be possible at all times. However, recycling programs can greatly diminish the amount of used material sent to the landfill.
Research—as well as partnerships between distributors, suppliers, waste haulers, and other businesses—have provided controlled environment facilities the opportunity to cut costs, produce less waste, and reduce their impact on the environment. For example, Kimberly Clark Professional (Roswell, Ga.) and TerraCycle (Trenton, N.J.) have launched a business-to-business recycling program for cleanroom garments and other waste.
Many cleanroom garments are made from spunbond polypropylene bonded to polyolefin film laminate. These materials are not traditionally recyclable because they cannot be processed by municipal facilities. Despite a lack of local processors, the materials are readily recyclable and can be melted down for reuse. A cleanroom with 100 operators can eliminate approximately 25 tons of waste in one year by recycling used materials.
By recycling instead of sending the garments to the landfill, 14 grams of carbon emissions can be saved per item, according to an independent lifecycle analysis performed by Zerofootprint, a Toronto- and New York-based organization that tracks environmental statistics. The carbon emissions are saved because the existing material can be made into recycled plastic, replacing the need for manufacturers to make virgin plastic.
The most common disposal option for garments—as well as other non-hazardous cleanroom facility waste—is the landfill. Some programs collect, launder, and resell garments, giving extra life to the garments. Eventually, the garments wear out and are sent to a landfill. Another option is incineration or waste-to-energy. This option is better than landfill disposal because the incineration process can help produce electricity, will not litter the planet, overfill landfills, or potentially contaminate groundwater.
However, with incineration, greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. Additionally, incineration can cause odors in the surrounding area and eliminate the possibility of a second life for the waste.
Recycling to raw materials
In the recycling process for cleanroom garments, a facility signs up and receives shipping boxes and labels to send the used garments to a collection facility. A barcode tracks participation and waste reduction for recycling statistics and analysis.
Currently, Kimberly Clark’s KIMTECH Pure* A5 apparel and KleenGuard A10-A65 product families are recycled, including accessories such as hoods, boot covers, and sleeves that are made with polypropylene fabric. More materials are being tested, and the number of accepted items is expected to grow.
After collection, the items are palletized and shipped to a TerraCycle waste facility where boxes are checked into inventory. The garments are shipped to a processor for shredding. The non-plastic elements, including zippers, elastic, and paper labels, are separated and reused.
The plastic is sent to an extrusion pelletization process, where it is heated and melted, then formed into small plastic pellets, which are molded or extruded into new products. The pellets also can be mixed with other recycled materials and molded into plastic lumber, watering cans, bike racks, picnic tables, or other products.
Other recycling improvements
Aside from garments, cleanrooms also produce waste from sterile gloves, hand towels, wipers, and other non polypropylene-based materials. The only current disposal methods for these and bio-hazardous material are incineration or decontamination and reuse. Kimberly Clark Professional and TerraCycle plan to expand their recycling program in 2012 to include more waste streams from cleanrooms and make the programs easier for smaller facilities that cannot accommodate shipments that are large enough to palletize.
In 2011, the companies launched a pilot program for the collection of disposable nitrile gloves at Life Technologies Corp.’s Pleasanton, Calif. facility. With the addition of the glove recycling, the landfill diversion rate of the facility increased from 37% to 83%, demonstrating the critical sustainable differences that a program can enable in a cleanroom or laboratory setting. The numbers are also indicative of the difference that potentially could be made in hospitals, manufacturing locations, and other facilities that use disposable gloves at a high rate and have no other recycling solution.
The environmental implications for cleanroom garment recycling are not fully understood because the program has been available for less than a year. As cleanrooms continue to recycle, they can divert tons of waste from the landfill every year. For every coverall recycled, a half-pound of waste does not go to a landfill. When facilities across the country participate, the number can add up.
In the first six months of the garment recycling program, participating cleanrooms and laboratories sent in more than 7,000 pounds of garment waste and requested more than 1,000 pallets of collection boxes to return additional garments. Collections are on track to surpass 350,000 pounds in coming months, a positive indication of how much cleanroom waste can be diverted from the landfill.
Sustainability measures can often be costly and time-consuming, but companies are paying attention to these drawbacks and trying to make programs accessible and affordable. In the end, the time, effort, and cost could lead to financial and environmental savings.
By getting a start on recycling efforts, cleanrooms and laboratories can make an investment in good practices and be prepared for potential emissions, waste output, and impact reduction regulations in the future.
Albe Zakes‘ passion for recycling started while working for the Public Interest Research Group. Since 2006, he’s helped TerraCycle grow from a fertilizer company to an international leader in the collection and repurposing of non-recyclable waste materials.
This article was published in the July/August 2012 issue of Controlled Environments magazine, pp. 26-27.