In the late 1880s, the growing awareness of the need for hygiene brought changes in medical practice. Doctors began to understand that infection was the leading cause of death on the operating table as a clear correlation appeared between the lack of sterilization and contamination. Regular handwashing was not practiced at the time.
Dr. William Halsted, Johns Hopkins’ first surgeon-in-chief, is credited with the development of the first surgical glove. He was a stickler for cleanliness, and when his wife, a nurse, developed rashes to some of the chemicals used, he asked the Goodyear Rubber Company to create a protective glove. Sterilizing gloves to protect patients from infection were introduced in 1894 when another surgeon, Dr. Joseph Lister, who was in the habit of sterilizing his medical equipment before use, asked that gloves also be sterile.
Medical disposable gloves were invented in 1965 and became widespread in the early 1990s when the transmission of HIV was discovered to be through infected bodily fluids.
Since then, disposable gloves have come a long way. From rubber to latex, from transparent to colored, from extra-small to extra-large, the disposable glove market is a booming industry because, the fields where they can be used are many. Disposable gloves can be found, for example, in food preparation and sanitation professions such as hazardous waste professionals, garbage collectors, sanitation engineers and janitorial staff.
Disposable gloves are, as the name suggests, single-use items and there are no decontamination procedures for their further use. Even without a global pandemic, more than 300 billion gloves are used and thrown away in a year in the US alone. During this pandemic, signs of Covid-19 are everywhere as streets and parking lots around the world are peppered with disposable gloves, along with masks and wet-wipes, as the result of careless littering. This is both irresponsible and a health hazard. Some people dispose of them in toilets, believing that they will disintegrate — in fact they just block sewers. This is becoming a major environmental problem.
Can disposable gloves be recycled? Latex and vinyl gloves are non-biodegradable, vinyl being especially bad because it contains PVC, which releases dangerous toxins that are harmful to human health. Nitrile gloves might be recyclable but there aren’t any facilities that do so.
Protective gear is essential, yet the long-term impact of this new form of garbage is worrying. We do need protection ... but so does our planet. There must be a way for companies to make the nonbiodegradable degradable, the non-recyclable recyclable.
Hoda Al-Helaissi is a member of the Shoura Council since 2013. She is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee within the Shoura.