Chemistry majors go through a lot of synthetic rubber gloves. On any given day at the College of Charleston that could mean hundreds of pairs of the tight-fitting blue or purple nitrile gloves. Until recently, those gloves were simply discarded into the local waste stream (the ones contaminated with toxic solutions are neutralized first). But now, a new program will ensure that the majority of them are recycled.

You can thank chemistry major Evan Bailey and biology major Caroline Gilmer for this initiative. These two first met in the Honors College sequence of chemistry courses four years ago. After a few semesters at the College, the fact that the gloves weren’t being recycled began to concern Bailey.

“At the time, I was enrolled in a course called Innovation, Technology and Sustainability with Professor Lancie Affonso, and he suggested that I get a recycling program going by applying for funds from the ECOllective Student Projects Committee. That group disburses funds for student-proposed projects that can help educate the campus community or encourage positive action for society and the environment,” says Bailey, a forward on the College’s Men’s Basketball Team. “It was a great idea, but I didn’t really have the time. Between my classes and the fact that I was on the basketball team, I was maxed out. So I asked Caroline to help out.”

Evan Bailey and Caroline Gilmer display their nitrile gloves. (Photos by Reese Moore)

Though Bailey wasn’t aware of of it, faculty from the chemistry department had investigated the possibility of recycling materials years before, but such a program was deemed too expensive at the time. In addition, the company they attempted to work with would only accept a certain brand of gloves. Since then, the College’s increasing focus on sustainability has made funds available for such a recycling program.

Bailey adds that Affonso also suggested the perfect company to handle the recycling – TerraCycle. It turns out that the College’s Office of Sustainability, which oversees the ECOllective Student Projects Comittee, became one of TerraCycle’s collection sites some time ago. This arrangement means that the College can now recycle nearly any material from coffee capsules to pens to nitrile gloves.

Bailey and Gilmer, both of whom are seniors, applied for an ECOllective Fund grant. After their proposal was reviewed and approved, their initiative was awarded $5,000 to pay for the shipping boxes that TerraCycle provides.

“The boxes will go into every lab,” Bailey explains. “That means the general chem labs, the research labs, the upper level course labs, all of them. It’s really a big change and we’re so appreciative that the professors and administrators in the department have been super supportive.” In particular, he says, professor Kate Mullaugh helped them pave the way for this program.

Gilmer concurs, saying, “I think it’s a more of a consciousness shift for the chemistry department. Before this, it was customary to throw away everything. After a while, you notice how wasteful that is. And so many of the things we use in research and experiments are plastic and thus they’re seen as disposable. We’re hopeful that this glove recycling program will lead to other similar efficiencies.”

Though both Bailey and Gilmer are graduating this spring, they’ll both be on campus this summer so they’ll be able to monitor the success of the recycling program as it gets under way.

So what’s their biggest takeaway from this experience? That students should take greater advantage of the opportunities offered by programs like the ECOllective Fund.

“Applying for a grant and actually getting the funding is a really beneficial process,” says Gilmer. “The challenge is coming up with a feasible idea. A lot of times, the ideas someone has are just too big, but I think ours was ideal. It was manageable and it can be built on as well.”

Bailey adds, “And it doesn’t have to be about recycling. Someone could propose a project that reveals how much water is wasted on campus via showers, and maybe that would lead to more sustainable solutions.”

The best solutions, says Gilmer, are those that mean something. That’s how change occurs.

“I’d encourage students to find something in their department that bothers them regarding sustainable practices,” offers Gilmer. “I know the waste in this department regarding nitrile gloves really concerned me. Being able to do something about it is empowering because you’re sort of challenging the culture in your department. And there’s probably something in everyone’s department that could be changed. It could be something relevant to environmental sustainability, or it could pertain to social justice or something economical, too. Just give it a try.”