THE Covid-19 pandemic has been largely responsible for the surge in world demand for rubber gloves. As public health issues continue to disrupt economies and health systems, business analysts predict the robust demand for rubber gloves will continue indefinitely.
Natural rubber was for years the preferred material for making rubber gloves. This has been largely attributed to its unmatched strength. No synthetic material can match natural rubber’s durability and dependability.
Looking back, a surge in demand for medical rubber gloves also happened when the AIDS/HIV epidemic rocked the world in the late 1980s. I remember many put their money into the business.
The technology then was rather shaky in Malaysia, though. Many of the glove-making machines were imported from Taiwan. Some were also locally made. Problems with quality, especially related to pinholes, were common then. Scientists at the then Rubber Research Institute Malaysia (RRIM) contributed to some changes to the formulations that resulted in massive improvement in the manufacture of rubber gloves here. Natural rubber remained the favoured material then.
Suppliers of competing synthetic materials were not taking the matter lying down, though. They tried all sorts of means to make users of natural rubber gloves switch to synthetic material. One effort that gained currency among medical practitioners was the issue of allergenicity among some patients. This was blamed on the protein content of natural rubber. RRIM scientists then developed a natural rubber material that was very low in protein. Deproteinised natural rubber, or DPNR, was then introduced into the market.
But the campaign against natural rubber continued unabated. As a result of years of intense R&D by synthetic rubber producers, natural rubber was strongly challenged by nitrile latex. Producers claimed nitrile not only produced thinner gloves but also had a strength that matched that of natural rubber. Inevitably, natural rubber surrendered much market share to nitrile.
In Malaysia, another reason why many glove companies opt for nitrile latex is because of the difficulty of obtaining latex concentrate locally. Local latex concentrate production has declined drastically since the big plantation groups abandoned rubber growing. More than 90% of local production is now in the hands of smallholders.
The incentive to supply latex with its higher labour requirement is no longer attractive to the smallholders. They would rather produce rubber “cup lumps” (cup lumps are obtained directly from rubber trees without going through any manufacturing process). Hence, most of the latex concentrate used by glove companies here is imported, mainly from Thailand and also Vietnam. Nitrile latex, on the other hand, can be easily made here.
But the worrying part is when Thailand expands its glove manufacturing business. There are already strong indications that both Thailand and Vietnam are moving that way. This development has also driven many Malaysian companies to set up shop in Thailand.
That may be bad news for Malaysia. But there are some developments that offer good news for natural rubber production. Recent news from Britain suggest a new environmental concern involving gloves. As a result of the massive rise in their use, there is also a consequent rise in the number of gloves that are thrown away. Used gloves are inundating landfills, posing a serious environmental problem.
The concern is over the biodegradability of the gloves. Compared with natural rubber gloves, nitrile gloves, which are made from petrochemicals, are less biodegradable. They can remain in landfills for hundreds of years, according to one estimate. On the other hand, natural rubber gloves degrade more easily in the presence of landfill microbes. This new finding may well turn the tide in favour of natural rubber. But Malaysia will only benefit if we produce latex concentrate, which we are currently not doing.
PROF DATUK DR AHMAD IBRAHIM
Fellow, Academy of Sciences Malaysia
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