Malaysia is one of the world’s largest producers of rubber gloves. Essential to various industries, rubber gloves were of utmost importance during the height of the pandemic.
Medical-grade gloves are usually made from nitrile because this material is resistant to body fats and oils.
They have also become more popular due to their resistance to chemicals and solvents. Since they are latex-free, nitrile gloves are safe for people with latex allergies.
As nitrile gloves undergo rigorous quality checks during the glove production process, large amounts of glove waste are generated.
“Based on our research, approximately 100 tons of waste was sent to landfills and incinerators each month, causing environmental hazards,” said Steven Ng, founder of Geomax Rubber Innovative Products.
With 20 years of experience in the rubber industry behind him, Steven launched Solewell, a brand that turns discarded nitrile gloves into eco-friendly footwear, in 2018.
From hands to feet
Looking at the key benefits of nitrile mentioned above, Steven realized that the material could prove beneficial elsewhere. However, he was initially alone in this thinking.
“When I first came up with the idea of recycling nitrile rubber gloves, I received comments that the material was not recyclable,” he admitted to Vulcan Post.
Much trial and error happened with the limited resources and equipment he had at the time. But perhaps Steven’s long years in the rubber industry served him well, since most of his expertise was in the design and manufacture of rubber soles.
Limited funding for his project and obtaining the necessary lab tests has been a challenge, he also noted.
Thanks to his determination and three years of R&D, Steven succeeded in recycling nitrile rubber gloves. Now he claims his eco-friendly compound is 100% recyclable with good rubber properties.
“Today we have created a new green and clean recycling technology to recycle these nitrile rubber gloves,” added Steven, who also patented the mentioned technology.
The ecological sandal
Over the past few years, Solewell has refined its methods of making and selling a few varieties of eco-friendly shoes.
To make them, discarded nitrile rubber gloves donated by partner factories are ground up and turned into an eco-friendly compound. Using this compound, Solewell molds the soles of its eco-friendly shoes.
Solewell’s Anti Slip Eco sandals are designed to make their wearer feel comfortable and secure as they claim to be able to grip watery or oily surface well as nitrile is known to be good. The sandals also won the Malaysia Good Design Award in 2019.
Supporting these claims, the product page states that the Eco Sandals sandals were tested on a 30° slope made slippery with oil and water. The patterns and the grooved soles of the shoes have been designed to adhere well for the safety of its wearer.
Therefore, shoes from Solewell can be advantageous for wearing where water and oily surfaces are most prevalent. They can include swimming pools, slippery toilets, gymnasiums, kitchens, etc.
For the best slip-resistant performance of the sandals, the brand recommends that the soles be dirt-free.
These selling points for the product seem to apply to most of Solewell’s other shoe varieties. Flip flops and sandals come in sizes from size four to size 12 and cost RM25 and RM30 respectively.
“Each pair of our Eco Sandal can save 18 pairs of gloves from being thrown into landfills or sent for incineration,” Steven said.
“Our goal is to recycle up to 10 tonnes of discarded nitrile rubber gloves per month. We are capable of producing 10,000 pairs of insoles with 10 tons of gloves.
In addition to open-toed shoes, Solewell also offers a range of hand-crafted leather shoes made from its recycled nitrile rubber soles and genuine cowhide leather.
Cover larger areas
Apart from simply creating its own shoes, Solewell also supplies the rubber soles it manufactures to its collaborators made up of cobblers who produce shoes and sandals.
For now, it looks like Solewell’s closed-toe product line is aimed primarily at the male market. When asked if Steven plans to expand to appeal to the women’s market by developing heels, flats, etc. eco-friendly, the founder said the team is currently exploring the possibilities.
Apart from that, the brand is also looking at other ways to use its eco-friendly compound for more rubber products, floor tiles being an example given by Steven.
In the future, one of his company’s short-term plans is to set up its own recycling plant, equipped with R&D laboratory testing equipment.
- Learn more about Solewell here.
- Check out other Malaysian startups here.
Featured Image Credit: Steven Ng, Founder of Solewell