By Kenneth Kuhn, Nikola Čanigová, and Saki the Artist
6 labs. 2 weeks. 400 gloves. 1 artist.
Scientists at the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (ISTA) collaborated with Saki the Artist to create a unique couture ball gown made entirely out of nitrile glove waste. Used gloves were collected by scientists from 6 labs and donated to Saki, who spent over 200 hours meticulously stitching them together into a corseted dress, complete with a petticoat made from bubble wrap packaging sourced from shipment containers from the same labs.
Saki debuted the finished garment at the Vienna Ball of Sciences on 27 January 2024. In addition to raising awareness for the need for an Austrian recycling program to process nitrile glove waste, Saki wanted to also draw attention to the wastefulness of the fashion industry: “I wanted to prove that I didn’t have to wear silk or velvet to gain admission into a Viennese ball—a high society event where those who don’t adhere to the strict dress code are denied entrance. If I can do it, then so can celebrities and politicians.” After all, a luxury garment shouldn’t be defined by its starting materials, but rather how those materials are transformed and elevated.
Inspiration behind the dress
Saki’s inspiration for the design comes from her experience as a scientist. Before devoting her life to art, Saki worked for seven years at a biotech company in California, where she observed first-hand how environmentally irresponsible the research industry can be. “Many scientists my age are hoping to find a cure for cancer, or a way to extend the human lifespan. Those are nice goals, but what good is human longevity if the Earth becomes uninhabitable in 20 years?”
Saki leverages the power of art to raise awareness, provoke thought, spark conversation, and change hearts. She believes that infrastructural change is not simply about making laws: “A new rule or law may make people feel cornered and attacked, and in response, they will oppose the change. Instead of forcing people to behave a certain way, we need to help them understand why they should care about things like sustainability. If we can align our values by demonstrating that everyone is on the same team, then a policy change will be welcomed, making it less necessary to enforce rules.”
So, why gloves?
Here at ISTA, we go through about 450,000 gloves (equating to approximately 90,000 kilograms of glove waste) per year, based on the amount we purchased in 2023. Even though most of the gloves are used to handle chemicals and biological samples that make them unsafe for recycling, a fair amount is used for non-toxic purposes such handling electronics, measuring water to dilute a stock solution, or opening the door of a clean room. In just 2 weeks, we collected about 800 of these non-contaminated gloves, only half of which were used by Saki to make the dress.
While nitrile gloves are perfectly recyclable, Austria currently doesn’t have any recycling facilities to make use of this resource. Members of ISTA’s Sustainability Group have been in negotiations with two private companies to start a recycling program, but they have so far been unsuccessful. One of the major hurdles is that currently, the gloves would have to be exported to the UK for processing. Another obstacle is that the cost of shipping recyclables is paid by the consumer (in this case ISTA), so there is no monetary incentive to separate recyclables if we are charged for waste disposal either way.
How scientists can help
How can individuals contribute to the cause? Here are some ways to reduce nitrile glove use:
- Check your glove box expiration date! Several unopened boxes of gloves donated to Saki were found in the back row of a storage shelf. Be sure to stock new boxes from the back so that the older boxes are in front and consumed first.
- Design your workflow to use fewer gloves. If possible, handle non-toxic materials first and then use the same gloves afterward for toxic/biohazard work and cleanup.
- Reuse non-hazardous gloves whenever possible. Nitrile gloves can be sterilized using conventional methods, as well as simply washed with soap and water for non-sterile reuse.
The easiest method is to spray them with ethanol before removing them from your hands. According to this study, nitrile gloves can be sterilized (by UV irradiation, heat, or steam) up to 20 times without affecting their barrier protection properties.
- Share your knowledge of sustainable practices and the need for a long-term solution. Sometimes people are willing to help but aren’t even aware that there’s a problem in the first place. Raising awareness is the first step!
- Until we find a better way to utilize glove waste, partner up with artists like Saki who will give the material a second life.
Plans for the future
ISTA will continue to negotiate with local recycling initiatives until a recycling solution for these gloves is found. We have already successfully partnered with a private recycling company to take most of our single-use polypropylene and high-density polyethylene plastics (mainly pipette tip boxes and centrifuge tubes). We are working on getting our polystyrene waste recycled too. It’s an ongoing process.
In the meantime, we continue to collaborate with Saki and other artists, to turn our unrecyclable lab waste into masterpieces, which will serve as a reminder that we can collectively make a change toward a brighter, sustainable future.
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ISTA Sustainability Group: @ista.sustainability