Industry seeks sustainable PPE through creative ideas
Industry seeks sustainable PPE through creative ideas
Society is striving for a more sustainable way of utilizing resources and protecting planet Earth. This development also affects the field of occupational safety and health. Today more and more customers are turning to more sustainable personal protective equipment (PPE). Many companies are responding with various strategies to make their PPE more sustainable.
Combining PPE and sustainability first requires some intellectual work on the part of companies because understanding of sustainability within the context of PPE diverges significantly. By definition, PPE serves to protect people wearing it from health hazards. The word sustainability, on the other hand, is not a standardized technical term, but combines many characteristics – for example, the emissions caused during production, the recyclability of a product, or the social responsibility of the company. So where do you start if you want to buy or produce sustainable PPE?
Off to the compost!
There are numerous ways and approaches to make protective clothing more sustainable. The company uvex, for example, has developed a workwear collection that is completely compostable. This includes not only the fabric, but also the dyes, yarns and buttons – everything decomposes after 400 days. The company promises that this can be achieved in an industrial composting plant as well as on the compost at home. The collection is Cradle to Cradle gold certified. During this certification process, the criteria of material health, recyclability, clean air and climate protection are confirmed. Responsible use of soil and water as well as social justice are also closely examined and subsequently evaluated.
Disposing of workwear on the compost heap – Uvex makes it possible.
Transparency and certifications are important components used to explain the sustainability of a product to customers in a comprehensible way. Fristads has taken this idea further and introduced an environmental product declaration for its products: a kind of product passport that measures all the environmental impacts that occur during the production of a garment. Consumers can thus track how their ecological footprint changes by using sustainable PPE. Among other sustainability goals, Fristads itself wants to reduce its emissions by 50 per cent. Find out how the product passport is developed and what difficulties Fristads is currently overcoming in the interview.
Digital solutions for more sustainability
Digitalization can also offer approaches for improving the traceability of a product's sustainability. The European Commission has been planning the introduction of a digital product passport since March 2022. It could be a big step towards obliging manufacturers to incorporate more sustainability on different levels and is envisioned to record data generated from the production of a product until its end of life – similar to what Fristads already uses. The reason for the development of the digital product passport is the European Green Deal, with which the European Commission wants to create the transition to a resource-efficient and competitive economy. In the course of this, sustainable products are to become the standard in Europe, circular business models promoted and the green transformation advanced.
For manufacturers and companies, this means developing and implementing new norms and standards. This includes, among other things, the proposal for an eco-design regulation for sustainable products. It is intended to make products recyclable, repairable, easier to maintain and refurbished.
Digitisation and digital product passports make the sustainability of a product apparent at first glance.
Another approach is the EU Sustainable and Recyclable Textiles Strategy: it aims to make textiles more durable by 2030 and also improves reusability. Specific measures include more comprehensible information, the digital product passport and binding EU regulations for extended producer responsibility. This strategy was developed against the externalities of fast fashion – the rapid production of clothing in large quantities that is then thrown away after only a short period of wear. But such generalized strategies usually have a shortcoming: they are aimed particularly at conventional clothing and often disregard the fact that other requirements necessarily apply to PPE.
EU must engage in exchange with manufacturers
Therefore, a close exchange with the industry and the manufacturing companies is needed for the development of corresponding guidelines. Manufacturers know best which goals are feasible and which demands on PPE are simply utopian. For this purpose, a working group on sustainability was founded at the European Safety Federation (ESF). It brings together manufacturers from different PPE sectors who then give feedback to the European Commission on the feasibility of the plans that are being developed under the umbrella of the European Green Deal.
In their work, they have established that the biggest challenge for sustainable PPE is PPE itself: because it is divided into so many different areas, sustainability cannot easily be implemented equally in each area. Guidelines that apply to hearing protection are far from being applicable to respirators or asbestos-exposed clothing. This clearly does not make the development of sustainable PPE an easily executed process for the complete sector.
Whether PPE can become more sustainable is therefore not exclusively in the hands of the manufacturers as if in an unregulated marketplace. External influences such as energy consumption, the manufacturing process and supply chains can certainly be optimized by companies on their own for the sake of the environment. The choice of materials, however, is strongly dependent on the subsequent field of application of the PPE. Nevertheless, many companies are making great efforts to go beyond the natural limits and make PPE more sustainable through innovative processes and materials.