A customer once called our office asking about the environmental impact of our single-use exam gloves. True, they’re not as easy on Mother Earth as your average paper bag or melon rind, but exam gloves leave a smaller carbon footprint than you might think. In fact, studies from the early 2010s show that plastic waste from all healthcare services makes up about 0.2% of all non-recycled plastics in the US annually.
This customer’s got the right idea in terms of curiosity and asking questions. We interact with so many manufactured products on a daily basis that the details of their environmental impact can dissolve into the background as we think of them only in terms of how well they serve our purposes. Plastic straws: need ‘em for driving and slurping. Plastic water bottles: need ‘em for convenience. Plastic grocery store bags: am I supposed to *carry* my purchases out of the store?
In the same spirit, this year’s Ocean Day (June 8th) saw a tonally tame online campaign warning against the environmental nightmare that it the American plastic lifecycle. The ads asked simple, pointed questions like, “Is your plastic straw worth it? Have you considered the plastic you’d save from buying a reusable water bottle? Ever tried keeping a tote bag in your car for grocery trips?” Delivering these prompts in a more aggressive tone could jeopardize folks’ willingness to adjust their ways, not to mention the unfairness of being angry with those who aren’t instinctively environmentally-minded. These direct, neutral questions are exactly what Americans need to hear. Nationwide habit-breaking is one heck of an uphill battle, so why not gently remind each other that there are worthwhile, sustainable ways to be a better consumer and Earthling?
Take the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Discovered in the mid-late 1980s, it’s estimated to be somewhere between the size of Texas and Russia, with various densities of plastic bits and pieces, usually a fraction of the sizes shown in the iconic shots of fully intact plastic trash, as if fresh from a dumpster. If non-biodegradable trash in the ocean doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider that the United Nations Ocean Conference estimates the planet’s oceans might contain more weight in plastics than fish by the year 2050. Already, these plastics have leached into seawater and have been proven to cause marine life infertility, birth defects, and toxicity that is passed to humans through seafood.
Many believe that recycling some plastics is not efficient enough to justify purchasing them. Paper and glass are relatively easy to sort, but the growing variety of plastic composition makes the sorting process a true debacle. Intuitively, it seems like you should be able to toss any and all plastic products into the recycling bin and know that they’re headed off to be reincarnated as a milk jug or take-out box. In reality, plastic products that can’t easily be sorted into a stream are both thrown out as regular landfill-bound trash and also risk compromising other batches of otherwise recyclable products. This is why it’s important to take note on the capabilities of your local recycling facility.
Even if we emphasize the “reduction” tier of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” we commit ourselves to an abstracted, very delayed form of gratification, which can be a tall order for some. The benefits will show in areas where we don’t immediately exist, years down the road, for species not always our own. This kind of thankless behavior tuning doesn’t pop up in many other areas of life. It asks us to work a little harder than we’re inclined, to forsake our own ease in the interest of something larger, other, and more difficult to understand and prioritize than ourselves. Plus, it ain’t a bad point of personal pride.
Across the board, single-use disposable plastics are really gumming up the works when it comes to efficient resource life cycles. Of the 300 million metric tons of plastic used worldwide each year, half are disposed of within a year of purchase (most of these being product packaging). When we step outside the fog of our own habits, this wild statistic makes perfect sense. Now that we’re learning more all the time from ecological research (and in some cases, informal posts online can be pivotal learning moments for folks online), some of our choices about plastics need serious reevaluation. The healthcare sector is one arena in which plastic use is already hysterically low to begin with, compared to other plastic-using sectors. Plus, healthcare plastics work to achieve more than, say, simplifying the journey from cold beverage to mouth, so some would argue they’ve earned their small place in landfills until something better comes along.
As outlined in critical detail from a 2014 study, “Plastics and Environmental Health: The Road Ahead,” some primary goals of healthcare services are to ensure that treatment is inexpensive, safe, and time-saving. Disposable syringes helped prevent the spread of HIV in the 1980s; the advent of absorbable sutures cuts back on the need for duplicate appointments to have sutures removed, thus saving doctors’ time and money (and patients’); disposable exam gloves create an inexpensive, safe place where doctors can get all up in your business without risking unnecessary exposure, etc. Cutting corners in any of these areas of concern results in the demotion of the “quality of human health.” In lieu of greener alternatives, that seems like a pretty airtight justification for using healthcare plastics. Cheers, PosiPrene!
When we think about these safety-related goals of plastics, some rationales for certain civilian plastics (straws, water bottles, excessive product packaging etc), seem to fly out the window. It’s easy to blame ourselves, “other people,” industries, and corporations for perpetuating such unnecessary gumming-up of the planet’s limited storage space. However, while it’s true that we’re in a time that created the bedrock for all this chaos, this same era is packed with tools and resources to conduct personal research and find green-hacks to practice and tell friends about. Maybe we don’t decline a straw at the drive-thru every time, maybe we have a disability that requires use of a straw. A culture of excess has bolstered the idea that if we want something and if we want it fast and easy, we should do it that way. When faced with the choice of “all or nothing,” we forget that there’s room for nuance. We can simply vow to be more aware of our choices and their consequences instead of aiming to save the world with a drastic plastic-free lifestyle.
AKA, until technologies arise to create recyclable/biodegradable gloves that can serve patient safety as well as current single-use exam gloves can, PosiPrene gloves and similar gloves are pretty Green.