The COVID-19 pandemic has placed immense pressure on the global personal protective equipment (PPE) supply. Demand for specific PPE products skyrocketed in March 2020, to meet spikes in cases and hospitalization. Single-use glove demand has continued unabated, with the market predicted to grow by 670 percent. Together with raw material (ingredient) shortages, glove manufacturers predict prices could continue rising into 2022.
The lack of glove supply has resulted in quality issues and increased social, economic and environmental problems. Sourcing from responsible companies with verifiable processes in place helps reduce these risks and ultimately is a better way of conducting business.
As history has shown, a problem of scarcity provides an opportunity for "bad actors" to come onto the scene in an attempt to profit. The fallout from this has most profoundly affected the industry in three ways:
Reject and poor quality gloves, which otherwise would have been discarded or recycled back into raw materials, are now commonly sold. This poses a direct health risk to front line workers as they do not provide sufficient barrier protection against infection. Counterfeit gloves are also now widely available. New dealers, traders and even hedge funds have entered the game to capitalize on demand, with no experience in the glove industry and sourcing from new and unknown factories with little quality control procedures in place.
Labor exploitation at glove factories has been frequently documented prior to manufacturing pressures due to the pandemic. In November 2020, the world's largest manufacturer of single-use gloves, Top Glove, had to close half of its 41 Malaysian factories, following positive coronavirus tests in almost 2,500 employees. The positive COVID-19 tests have been attributed to poor working conditions and crowded dormitory facilities that do not comply with local regulations.
Because of forced labor concerns, on July 15, 2020, the U.S. banned the import of surgical gloves from two subsidiaries of Malaysia's Top Glove, thought to affect about half of its sales to the United States, and follows quickly on from Top Glove’s previous documented labor violations in December 2018. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency (CBP) ordered port officials to seize all disposable gloves made by Top Glove in March this year after a months-long investigation confirmed its allegations of forced labor. This new ban extends to all disposable gloves from Top Glove factories in Malaysia.
The Environmental impact due to COVID PPE waste has become its own unique form of pollution. PPE is a necessary and often mandatory requirement in medical, food and industrial sectors, among others. Cheap, poor-quality items are not durable and often do not meet required standards, leading to gloves failing (ripping) when put on and being discarded before they can even be worn. To put this in perspective, pre-pandemic 228,000 gloves were used every minute, 328 million per day and a staggering 120 billion gloves per year - all then to waste or incineration! Worse yet, it is estimated that 15-20 percent of all gloves used in the U.S. are discarded due to ripping and failure prior to use, meaning 50-65 million gloves are discarded each day without ever having been used.
Food safety standards can be compromised. The barrier protection provided by a glove helps prevent cross-contamination - poor quality gloves will not provide sufficient protection to the user or the food being handled.
Food safety and glove user health can also be impacted by the glove raw material “ingredients” containing potentially toxic chemicals. With pressure on both raw material and glove manufacturers, cheap toxic compounds introduced during manufacturing can cause chemical migration to food and irritants to users. Glove surfaces have also tested listeria and E. coli due to poor hygiene standards during manufacturing standards.
Those involved in industries that rely on PPE can help alleviate this crisis by sourcing responsibly. By ensuring your glove supplier’s supply chain is transparent, responsible, and most important, verifiable, these risks can be mitigated. Because there are few controls required for glove manufacturing in relation to reliability and consistency of raw material ingredients, manufacturing processes and factory compliance, manufacturers can reduce cost with inferior raw material ingredients and quality procedures. Purchasing from companies with rigorous and independent quality control procedures in place will ensure consistency of product quality.
Additionally, when purchasing PPE products, it is important to ensure choosing a supplier who purchases directly from the manufacturer, rather than using a third-party dealer or broker. If ethical sourcing is important to you and your company, ask your supplier for first-hand, independent audits and certifications, and in person Supplier Code of Conducts for verification. Companies who profit from labor exploitation are not only ethically wrong, but purchasing from them could affect your company's reputation.
Finally, studies estimate 65 billion gloves per month have been used globally since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the percent increase of all PPE waste (including masks and garments) due to COVID-19 estimated to be around 500 percent. This also poses the question of safe PPE disposal.
Even with the increased use of gloves across multiple industries since the beginning of the pandemic, those responsible for purchasing don’t always consider how their choice of glove product can have a profound impact on their business and the health and safety of employees and consumers. Making conscious choices related to the types of gloves may seem like a small act, but it can add up to significant reductions in waste of both PPE, and food products.
Steve Ardagh, “The Glove Guy,” is the founder and CEO of Eagle Protect. After establishing Eagle Protect as an industry leader in New Zealand, he relocated with his family to the US in January 2016 and launched Eagle Protect PBC, bringing with him Eagle’s values of providing products that are certified food safe, ethically sourced and environmentally better. Steve is driven to keep consumers safe, one high-quality disposable glove at a time, and has been instrumental in developing Eagle’s proprietary third party fingerprint glove testing program.