Environmental concerns, textiles and fast fashion

12 12 2012

I went to the stores this week, looking for presents (as it’s the season), and was bombarded with slogan after slogan of companies trying to make their product stand out from the crowd.   It made me think  about  the journey I’ve personally taken since founding O Ecotextiles – going from somebody who was totally clueless, to having an exquisitely sensitive slant to environmental concerns regarding textiles.  And now I talk every day to people who I realize are at the place I was seven years ago.  Bridging the gap between what Steven Bland says are those who are climbing the mountain, and those who haven’t even heard of the mountain is maybe the hardest part. As he says, “the reality is that the core messages and realities of sustainable development are often lost in a sea of ‘greenwash’ and climate-change frenzy”.  “We have a fully GOTS certified fabric for upholstery” I say, excitedly.  The response?  Blank faces (or silence over the phone), or “what’s GOTS?”  Explaining the concept behind GOTS (including my belief that the chemicals in the fabrics are subtly altering us), while staying positive, has been difficult.

So in this optimistic season, it’s important to remember to remain positive as we climb.  Here are some important concepts to remember as we go forward:

  1. Remember the importance of optimism. The catastrophic and  negative portrayals of the environmental movement have desensitized people to many environmental issues. The number of people who deny that human  activity causes climate change is growing, not diminishing. How do we  create a positive vision of the future, whilst convincing people of the  scale and urgency of the problem at hand?
  2.  Adopt systems  thinking.  Steven Bland, writing in Forum for the Future puts it this way:  “Are Christmas trees sustainable, I ask myself, as I wrap them in  plastic netting which I fear could end up in the stomach of some  unfortunate seabird.”   Truly  understanding the sustainability of the humble Christmas tree has less to  do with netting and more about the systems with which the tree interacted  and was a part. What effect did growing have on local ecological systems?  Were the people who trimmed them into shape paid a living wage? And how did this impact local societies?  The importance of systems thinking involves  seeing the forest, in spite of the trees. Creating a more just and  prosperous future will require us to change the way we think fundamentally.”[1]
  3. Remember to push on with those things that make business  sense in finding some responses to climate change:  responding to this constraint can drive  game-changing innovation.  Learn to win with sustainability.  As Zac Goldsmith says,  “We have to rewrite  the rules so that the market, which for so long has been an engine of  unsustainable, colossal destruction, becomes a force for good. The market  is the most powerful force for change, other than nature itself. And there  are so many signs that it can be transformed, so many examples: if you make  waste a liability, waste is minimized; if you put a value on something,  it’s valued. It’s really very simple: we free the market to do what it’s  best at, but change the parameters in which it operates…you simply need to take the best of today and turn  it into the norm of tomorrow. If you did that in every sector, we would be  there. Yes the problem is formidable, it’s huge, it’s off the scale. But  it’s not so big that we can’t deal with it.”[2]   A market-based, fee-and-dividend program for carbon emissions, for      example,  could have an impact by  charging polluters for emitting carbon into the atmosphere, yet it seems  unlikely that such measures will have the regulatory teeth they need. The  rapidly spreading method of fossil fuel extraction known as fracking, for  instance, is already exempt from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory.

What are you wearing right now? No peeking at the label  –  do you know what it’s made of, who manufactured it and where? And how do you think your answers might be different in 15 years’ time?

Clothing is ripe for some futures thinking. There are thorny issues like water and pesticide use in cotton fields;  residual chemicals in the fabrics we live with and the water used to produce them; massive challenges over worker conditions (the recent fire in a Bangladesh factory made news in the West this time, unlike many others which didn’t) and wages in production; and lengthy supply chains that criss-cross the world and navigate tit-for-tat protectionism. And there’s the small matter of consumer power: a cool trillion dollars worldwide is spent on clothes by consumers, whose demands change faster than the models’ outfits on a catwalk.

Society’s fascination with ‘fast fashion’ is emerging as a hot topic. Critics argue that this high-turnover industry is fundamentally unsustainable: cheap and cheerful goods are worn one day and thrown away the next.  Fashion Futures is aiming to discover how behavioral changes or new technologies can create a different future.  Supported by Levi Strauss & Co, they’re exploring various possible worlds for the global apparel industry in 2025.  Here’s a YouTube video about Fashion Futures:





Climate change and extreme weather

23 04 2012

I just saw this powerful video based on a recent editorial by Bill McKibben  in the Washington Post on May 23, 2011.   Narritation is  by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia.com, who accompanies the piece with striking footage of the events Bill wrote about.





How to buy a sofa: part 4: so which fabric will it be?

16 09 2011

So for the past two weeks we’ve discussed the differences between synthetic and natural fibers.  But there’s more to consider than just the fiber content of the fabric you buy.  There is the question of whether a natural fiber is organically grown, and what kind of processing is used to create the fabric.

First, by substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers you are supporting organic agriculture, which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits.  Not only does organic farming take far less energy than conventional farming (largely because it does not use oil based fertilizers) [1] , which helps to mitigate climate change, but it also:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health  and agrobiodiversity;
  • conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion);
  • ensures sustained biodiversity;
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not  vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles.  As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change.[2]  For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [3]

But if you start with organic natural fibers (a great choice!)  but process those fibers conventionally, then you end up with a fabric that is far from safe.  Think about making applesauce:  if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stablizers and who knows what else – do you end up with organic applesauce?  The US Department of Agriculture would not let you sell that mixture as organic applesauce, but there is no protection for consumers when buying fabric.  And the same issues apply, because over 2000 chemicals are used routinely in textile processing.(4)  Many of the chemicals used in textile processing have unknown toxicity, and many others are known to be harmful to humans (such as formaldehyde, lead, mercury, bisphenol A and other phthalates,  benzenes and others).   In fact, one yard of fabric made with organic cotton fiber  is about 25% by weight synthetic chemicals – many of which are proven toxic to humans. (5)

I know you’re saying that you don’t eat those fabrics, so what’s the danger?  Actually, your body is busy ingesting the chemicals, which are evaporating (so we breathe them in), or through skin absorption (after all, the skin is the largest organ of the body).  Add to that the fact that each time you brush against the fabric, microscopic pieces of the fabric abrade and fly into the air – so we can breathe them in.  Or they fall into the dust in our homes, where pets and crawling babies breathe them in.

Should that be a concern?  Well, there is hardly any evidence of the effects of textiles themselves on individuals, but in the US, OSHA does care about workers, so most of the studies have been done on workers in the textile industry.  Greenpeace also did a study on specific items manufactured by Disney, but I would guess the results pertain all across the spectrum:

  • Autoimmune diseases (such as IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis,  for example, and linked to many of the chemicals used in textile processing) are reaching epidemic rates,  and a 14 year study published by the University of Washington and the National Institutes of Health found that people who work with textiles (among other industries) are more likely to die of an autoimmune disease than people who don’t (6);
  • We know formaldehyde is bad for us, but in fabric?  A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths.[7]  Note: most cotton/poly sheet sets in the U.S. are treated with a formaldehyde resin.
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[8]
  • A study in France revealed a correlation between the presence of cancer of the pharynx and occupation in the textile industry.(9)
  • A high degree of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer has been found among textile workers, and a relationship between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and working in the textile industry was observed.(10)

And consider this:

  • The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides. (11)
  • Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They have recently been banned in the State of California in children’s toys.   They are ubiquitous –  and are also found  in most  textile inks.[12]  So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for  can be  nevertheless  unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on cute printed sheets full of phthalates.

Though some argue that we’re less prepared because we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens, it’s also true that we’re  encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the maximum.  And our children are the pawns in this great experiment.

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis?   Some argue that we’re less prepared because we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens.  All plausible.   But if you think they are the main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the maximum  has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness.  We don’t have to debate which source is primary; especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Textiles are the elephant in the room – the industry is global, relatively low tech, and decentralized –  certainly not the darling of venture capatalists who look for the next big thing.  So not many research dollars are going into new ways of producing fabrics.    Most of the time people are looking for the lowest price fabric for their projects or products – so the industry is on a race to cut costs in any way possible:   in 2007, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer detailed the pollution caused by Chinese textile industries who were being pushing by their multinational clients to cut costs, resulting in untreated effluent discharge (13).

 


[1] Aubert, C. et al.,  (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.

[2]  Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19

[3] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf  Also see:  Muller, Adrian, “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries’, Environement for Development, April 2009

(4)  See the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ (AATCC) Buyers Guide, http://www.aatcc.org/

(5) Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals:  Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609

(6) Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008

(7) Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.

(8) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
10.1136/oem.2009.049817  SEE ALSO:  http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp  AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

(9) Haguenour, J.M., “Occupational risk factors for upper respiratory tract and upper digestive tract cancers” , Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol 47, issue 6 (Br J Ind Med1990;47:380-383 doi:10.1136/oem.47.6.380).

(10)  http://www.fibre2fashion.com/industry-article/3/297/safety-and-health-issues-in-the-textile-industry2.asp

(11) http://www.mountsinai.org/patient-care/service-areas/children/areas-of-care/childrens-environmental-health-center/cehc-in-the-news/news/mount-sinai-childrens-environmental-health-center-publishes-a-list-of-the-top-ten-toxic-chemicals-suspected-to-cause-autism-and-learning-disabilities

(12)  “Textile Inkmaker Tackles Phthalates Ban”, Esther D’Amico, Chemical Week,  September 22, 2008  SEE ALSO:  Toxic Textiles by Disney, http://archive.greenpeace.org/docs/disney.pdf

(13) Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.

 





How much is enough?

1 06 2011

Last week I talked about the fears associated with feeding a world population of 7 billion – let alone 9 billion – and mentioned that there are those who see organic agriculture as a niche market, unable to provide the calories needed for those 9 billion.  The topic is extraordinarily complex, and we can only begin to review various components that figure significantly in the equation.  For those interested, I highly recommend the report published by The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London, entitled “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”.  The executive summary can be downloaded here.

To begin our exploration, let’s figure out how much food we’re talking about.  How much is enough?

The answer may surprise you.

Today, according to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)[1],   the world is producing enough food to provide every man, woman and child with 2,700 calories a day, several hundred more than most adults are thought to need (which is around 2,100 a day).  Indeed, Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, stated on the Atlantic Food Channel that in 2008, globally, we grew enough food to feed over 11 billion people.  We grew 4,000 calories per day per person—roughly twice what people need to eat.[2]  Allowing for all the food that could be eaten but is turned into biofuels, and the staggering amounts wasted on the way, farmers are already producing much more than is required (to feed everyone in the world).  If there is a food problem, it does not look like a technical or biological one.[3]

Eric Holt Gimenez, of Food First (The Institute for Food and Development Policy) put it eloquently: “In 2008 more food was grown than ever before in history. In 2008 more people were obese than ever before in history. In 2008 more profit was made by food companies than ever before in history. And in 2008 more people went hungry than ever before in history.”  But why are people going hungry if we have enough food to feed them?

Amartya Sen,  Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, argued that the 1943 Bengal famine, in which 3 million people died from starvation and malnutrition, was not caused by a shortage of basic food – indeed, India was exporting food during the time that millions of its citizens were dying.  It was, rather, caused by a bunch of other factors[i].  The primary reason, though, was that the poor couldn’t pay for their food:   India was experiencing an economic boom which raised food prices, thereby raising the cost of food beyond the means of millions of rural workers whose wages didn’t keep up.

And the price of our food keeps going up:  In early January, 2011, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that its Food Price Index had reached an all-time high in December, exceeding the previous record set during the 2007-08 price surge. Even more alarming, The FAO announced later that the December record had been broken in January as prices climbed an additional 3 percent – then in February they reached the highest level ever recorded.[4]

So if we accept Dr. Sen’s conclusion that food prices are the cause of hunger, what can be done to lower them?  That answer – surprise! – is also extremely complex, including political conflict, poverty, harmful economic systems, and yes, climate change.  To simplify things we’ll just look at one facet of the argument that goes like this:  “ if output can be increased then food prices will moderate”.

How do we increase output enough to moderate food prices AND to feed an additional 2 billion people?  It’s not an impossible task:  according to the FAO’s Kostas Stamoulis, producing enough food to feed the world in the next four decades should be easier than in the previous four.” [5]  But it means changing the way food is produced, stored, processed, distributed and accessed – all in a world constrained by Earth’s lands, oceans, and atmosphere.  But producing enough food in the world so that everyone can potentially be fed is not the same thing as ensuring food security for all.[ii]

In the past, if more food was needed farmers just cleared more land, or they went fishing. Yet over the past 5 decades, while grain production has more than doubled, the amount of land devoted to arable agriculture globally has increased by only about 9%[6].  In recent decades, agricultural land that was formerly productive has been lost to urbanization and other human uses, as well as to desertification, salinization, soil erosion, and other consequences of unsustainable land management.  Further losses, which may be exacerbated by climate change, are likely.  Some new land could be brought into cultivation, but the competition for land from other human activities makes this an increasingly unlikely and costly solution, particularly if protecting biodiversity and the public goods provided by natural ecosystems (for example, carbon storage in rainforest) are given higher priority.  Recent policy decisions to produce first-generation biofuels on good quality agricultural land have added to the competitive pressures[7].

So we’re going to have to produce more food on the same amount of land  – probably less.   And fishing doesn’t seem to be an answer:  Virtually all capture fisheries are fully exploited, and most are overexploited.

Recent studies suggest that the world will need 70 to 100% more food by 2050 [8].  How to achieve that is hotly debated between those who support conventional agriculture (more and better technology) and those who think organic agriculture is a better way to deal with the long term problems created by this food crisis.  You can’t argue the point without knowing a bit about the Green Revolution, since conventional agriculture looks to that model to support its argument.  And that’s next week’s blog.


[3] “Feeding the World”, The Economist

[4] Brown, Lester, “Why world food prices may keep climbing”, Guardian Environment Network, http://www.guardian.co.uk

[5] “Feeding the World”, Ibid.

[6] J. Pretty, Agricultural Sustainability: Concepts, principles and evidence.  Philos. Trans. R. Soc. London Ser. B Biol Sci 363, 447 (2008).

[7] J. Fargione, J Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky, P. Hawthorne, Land Clearing and the biofuel carbon debt, Science, 319, 1235 2008).


[i] The government at the time was not a democracy, and the rulers had little interest in listening to the poor, even in the midst of famine.  Dr. Sen believes that shortfalls in food supplies will not cause famine in a democracy because vote-seeking politicians will undertake relief efforts.  So the famine was a combination of a myriad of factors:  wages, distribution, even democracy.

[ii] For more on this topic, see “The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability”, The Government Office for Science (GO-Science), London





Do we need a national plastics control law?

20 10 2010

John Wargo wears at least three hats:  he is a professor of environmental policy, risk analysis, and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he chairs the Environmental Studies Major at Yale College, and is an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He published this opinion on plastics in the United States last year – and I couldn’t have said it better myself:

Since 1950, plastics have quickly and quietly entered the lives and bodies of most people and ecosystems on the planet. In the United States alone, more than 100 billion pounds of resins are formed each year into food and beverage packaging, electronics, building products, furnishings, vehicles, toys, and medical devices. In 2007, the average American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic, creating nearly $400 billion in sales.

It is now impossible to avoid exposure to plastics. They surround and pervade our homes, bodies, foods, and water supplies, from the plastic diapers and polyester pajamas worn by our children as well as our own sheets, clothing and upholstery,  to the cars we drive and the frying pans in which we cook our food.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is a significant factor in an unexpected side effect of 20th century prosperity — a change in the chemistry of the human body. Today, most individuals carry in their bodies a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents, and by-products of fuel combustion, according to studies of human tissues conducted across the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults, with the amounts also varying according to gender and ethnicity. Many of these substances are recognized by the governments of the United States and the European Union to be carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive and developmental toxins, or endocrine disruptors that mimic or block human hormones.

Significantly, these chemicals were once thought to be safe at doses now known to be hazardous; as with other substances, the perception of danger grew as governments tested chemicals more thoroughly. Such is the case with Bisphenol-A (BPA), the primary component of hard and clear polycarbonate plastics, which people are exposed to daily through water bottles, baby bottles, and the linings of canned foods.

Given the proven health threat posed by some plastics, the scatter shot and weak regulation of the plastics industry, and the enormous environmental costs of plastics — the plastics industry accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum and natural gas, and more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic wastes now sit in U.S. garbage dumps — the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics control law.

One might assume the United States already has such a law. Indeed, Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 intending to manage chemicals such as those polymers used to form plastics. Yet TSCA was and is fundamentally flawed for several reasons that have long been obvious. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are now traded in global markets, and Congress exempted nearly 60,000 of them from TSCA testing requirements. Among 20,000 new compounds introduced since the law’s passage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued permits for all except five, but has required intensive reviews for only 200. This means that nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their environmental behavior or effects on human health. The statute’s ineffectiveness has been recognized for decades, yet Congress, the EPA, and manufacturers all share blame for the failure to do anything about it.

In contrast, the European Union in 2007 adopted a new directive known as “REACH” that requires the testing of both older and newly introduced chemicals. Importantly the new regulations create a burden on manufacturers to prove safety; under TSCA the burden rests on EPA to prove danger, and the agency has never taken up the challenge. Unless the U.S. chooses to adopt similar restrictions, U.S. chemical manufacturers will face barriers to their untested exports intended for European markets. Thus the chemical industry itself recognizes the need to harmonize U.S. and EU chemical safety law.

The most promising proposal for reform in the U.S. is the “Kid-Safe Chemical Act,” a bill first introduced in 2008 that would require industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they are added to consumer products. Such a law is needed because there is little doubt that the growing burden of synthetic chemicals has been accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of many illnesses during the past half-century. These include respiratory diseases (such as childhood asthma), neurological impairments, declining sperm counts, fertility failure, immune dysfunction, breast and prostate cancers, and developmental disorders among the young. Some of these illnesses are now known to be caused or exacerbated by exposure to commercial chemicals and pollutants.

Few people realize how pervasive plastics have become. Most homes constructed since 1985 are wrapped in plastic film such as Tyvek, and many exterior shells are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding. Some modern buildings receive water and transport wastes via PVC pipes. Wooden floors are coated with polyurethane finishes and polyvinyl chloride tiles.

Foods and beverages are normally packaged in plastic, including milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene. Most families have at least one “non-stick” pan, often made from Teflon, a soft polymer that can scratch and hitchhike on foods to the dinner table. Between 1997 and 2005, annual sales of small bottles of water — those holding less than one liter — increased from 4 billion to nearly 30 billion bottles.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and cell phones purchased each year in the United States use a wide variety of plastic resins. And the almost 7.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States each year contain 2.5 billion pounds of plastic components, which have little hope of being recycled, especially if made from polyvinyl chloride or polycarbonate.  The American Plastics Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average yearly.

The chemical contents of plastics have always been a mystery to consumers. Under federal law, ingredients need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling or unable to disclose these contents or their sources. Indeed, often the only clue consumers have to the chemical identity of the plastics they use is the voluntary resin code designed to identify products that should and should not be recycled — but it offers little usable information.

The true costs of plastics — including the energy required to manufacture them, the environmental contamination caused by their disposal, their health impacts, and the recycling and eventual disposal costs — are not reflected in product prices.  Adding to the environmental toll, most plastic is produced from natural gas and petroleum products, exacerbating global warming.

Plastics and Human Health

The controversy over BPA — the primary component of hard and clear plastics — and its potential role in human hormone disruption provides the most recent example of the need for a national plastics control law.

Normal growth and development among fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents is regulated in the body by a diverse set of hormones that promote or inhibit cell division. More than a thousand chemicals are now suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity. These include many pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plasticizers, solvents, metals, and flame retardants.

Scientists’ growing interest in hormone disruption coincided with a consensus within the National Academy of Sciences that children are often at greater risk of health effects than adults because of their rapidly growing but immature organ systems, hormone pathways, and metabolic systems. And many forms of human illness associated with abnormal hormonal activity have become more commonplace during the past several decades, including infertility, breast and prostate cancer, and various neurological problems.

BPA illustrates well the endocrine disruption problem. Each year several billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, in results consistent with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in human serum, breast milk, and maternal and fetal plasma. BPA travels easily across the placenta, and levels in many pregnant women and their fetuses were similar to those found in animal studies to be toxic to the reproductive organs of the animals’ male and female offspring.

Government scientists believe that the primary source of human BPA exposure is foods, especially those that are canned, as BPA-based epoxy resins can migrate from the resins into the foods. In 1997, the FDA found that BPA migrated from polycarbonate water containers — such as the five-gallon water jugs found in offices — into water at room temperature and that concentrations increased over time. Another study reported that boiling water in polycarbonate bottles increased the rate of migration by up to 55-fold, suggesting that it would be wise to avoid filling polycarbonate baby bottles with boiling water to make infant formula from powders.

Scientists have reported BPA detected in nonstick-coated cookware, PVC stretch film used for food packaging, recycled paperboard food boxes, and clothing treated with fire retardants.

Since 1995 numerous scientists have reported that BPA caused health effects in animals that were similar to diseases becoming more prevalent in humans, abnormal penile or urethra development in males, obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system disorders. BPA can bind with estrogen receptors in cell membranes following part-per-trillion doses — exposures nearly 1,000 times lower than the EPA’s recommended acceptable limit.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of 38 scientists to review the state of research on BPA-induced health effects. The panel, selected for its independence from the plastics industry, issued a strong warning about the chemical’s hazards:

“There is chronic, low level exposure of virtually everyone in developed countries to BPA… The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”

The American Chemistry Council, which advocates for the plastics industry, has criticized most scientific research that has reported an association between BPA and adverse health effects. The council’s complaints have included claims that sample sizes are too small, that animals are poor models for understanding hazards to humans, that doses administered in animal studies are normally far higher than those experienced by humans, that the mechanism of chemical action is poorly understood, and that health effects among those exposed are not necessarily “adverse.”

Research on plastics, however, now comprises a large and robust literature reporting adverse health effects in laboratory animals and wildlife at even low doses. Claims of associations between BPA and hormonal activity in humans are strengthened by consensus that everyone is routinely exposed and by the rising incidence of many human diseases similar to those induced in animals dosed with the chemical. Two competing narratives — one forwarded by independent scientists and the other promoted by industry representatives — have delayed government action to protect the health of citizens through bans or restrictions.

Action Needed

How has the plastics industry escaped serious regulation by the federal government, especially since other federally regulated sectors that create environmental or health risks such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, motor vehicles, and tobacco have their own statutes? In the case of plastics, Congress instead has been content with limited federal regulatory responsibility, now fractured among at least four agencies: the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None of these agencies has demanded pre-market testing of plastic ingredients, none has required ingredient labeling or warnings on plastic products, and none has limited production, environmental release, or human exposure. As a result, the entire U.S. population continues to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals from plastics without their knowledge or consent.

What should be done? The Kids Safe Chemical Act represents a comprehensive solution that would apply to all commercial chemicals including plastic ingredients. Yet the nation’s chemical companies, with their enormous political power, are not likely to agree to assume the testing costs, nor are they likely to accept a health protective standard. Rather than pass another weak statute, Congress should consider a stronger alternative.

The nation needs a comprehensive plastics control law, just as we have national laws to control firms that produce other risky products, such as pesticides. Key elements of a national plastics policy should include:

  • tough  government regulations that demand pre-market testing and prohibit chemicals that do not quickly degrade into harmless compounds. Exempting previously permitted ingredients from this evaluation makes little sense, as older chemicals have often been proven more dangerous than newer ones.
  • The chemical industry itself needs to replace persistent and hazardous chemicals with those that are proven to be safe.  Plastics ingredients found to pose a significant threat to the environment or human health should be quickly phased out of production. Congress chose this approach to manage pesticide hazards, and it has proven to be reasonably effective since the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996.
  • Federal redemption fees for products containing plastics should be set at levels tied to chemical persistence, toxicity, and production volume. These fees should be high enough that consumers have a strong incentive to recycle.
  • We need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients, in order to allow consumers to make responsible choices in the marketplace.
  • Finally, manufacturers should take responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination from the more than one trillion pounds of plastic wastes they have produced over the past 50 years.




Happy 40th, Earth Day!

22 04 2010

I remember the spring of 1970 vividly, but not  because of the first Earth Day.  I remember that  Richard Nixon was president,  Simon & Garfunkle’s  “Bridge over Troubled Waters” was playing on the radio and the Flip Wilson Show was on TV.   The academy award for best movie went to “Patton”.  (Actually I had to look that up.)  I was in college  –  and it was spring, for heaven’s sake!

I remember thinking that these Earth Day folks should get a grip:  political turmoil had sent the country reeling and students across the country were up in arms about the draft, civil rights and other issues.   Protests against the escalation in Vietnam had reached a fevered pitch–demonstrations had reached hundreds of college campuses. Violence peaked during an antiwar protest at Ohio’s Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guard troops gunned down four student protesters.

But many people had been paying attention to some of the more obvious signs of our careless treatment of our environment:   Pollution from cars and industry had led to several fatal smog events, including a 1965 episode that killed 80 New Yorkers. Scientists told us that Lake Erie was dying and that the other Great Lakes were threatened by pollution from the steel plants, oil refineries, paper mills, and city sewage plants which for the previous one hundred years had befouled the world’s largest fresh water system.  In January 1969, a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara blackened 30 miles of California’s coastline.   For eleven days, 200,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the channel from a disabled oil rig. In the aftermath, 3600 birds were dead along with ten seals and dolphins and countless fish and marine invertebrates.  Then in June, 1969,  Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, a dump for steel mills and other industries, had burst into flames – one of many “river fires” caused by oil and chemical pollution.   (This was not the first time the Cuyahoga had caught fire.)  Time magazine reported on the event:

Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,”  Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly,  “he decays”. . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” It is also — literally — a fire hazard.

Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events:

“Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems…is being planned for next spring…when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”

On April 22, 1970, some 20 million people across the country rallied to protest the state of the planet.  This first Earth Day was, as American Heritage Magazine said, “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”  Earth Day was a spontaneous response  at the grassroots level  which spurred Congress to create America’s core environmental protection laws, and continues to be a day of celebration and activism worldwide.

Much has been achieved.  Because of Earth Day,  Congress passed basic legislation designed to preserve our environment, including the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency.   Efforts to clean up air, land, and water have yielded all of us inestimable benefits and will continue to do so.   But 40 years later there is still much to be done.  Why is it that – even though many agree that ignoring the needs of our ecosystem puts us in mortal peril – we continue to bicker like school kids about who is responsible rather than putting our great minds to solving this  problem facing mankind?   I think David Suzuki expressed it very well:   “We’re in a giant car heading toward a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”

Curtis White, writing an article entitled “The Idols of Environmentalism” in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine, presents a thought provoking explanation of why we seem to be in this predicament.  I found his article to be inspired and inspiring, and I’ve copied it here:

ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves. This delusional strategy is embedded in the Kyoto agreement, which is little more than a complex scheme to create a giant international market in pollution. Even Kyoto, of which we speak longingly—“Oh, if only we would join it!”—is not an answer to our problem but a capitulation to it, so concerned is it to protect what it calls “economic growth and development.” Kyoto is just a form of whistling past the graveyard. And it is not just international corporations who do this whistling; we all have our own little stake in the world capitalism has made and so we all do the whistling.

The problem for even the best-intentioned environmental activism is that it imagines that it can confront a problem external to itself. Confront the bulldozers. Confront the chainsaws. Confront Monsanto. Fight the power. What the environmental movement is not very good at is acknowledging that something in the very fabric of our daily life is deeply anti-nature as well as anti-human. It inhabits not just bad-guy CEOs at Monsanto and Weyerhaeuser but nearly every working American, environmentalists included.

It is true that there are CEO-types, few in number, who are indifferent to everything except money, who are cruel and greedy, and so the North Atlantic gets stripped of cod and any number of other species taken incidentally in what is the factory trawler’s wet version of a scorched-earth policy. Or some junk bond maven buys up a section of old-growth redwoods and “harvests” it without hesitation when his fund is in sudden need of “liquidity.” Nevertheless, all that we perceive to be the destructiveness of corporate culture in relation to nature is not the consequence of its power, or its capacity for dominating nature (“taming,” as it was once put, as if what we were dealing with was the lion act at the circus). Believing in powerful corporate evildoers as the primary source of our problems forces us to think in cartoons.

Besides, corporations are really powerless to be anything other than what they are. I suspect that, far from being perverse merchants of greed hellbent on destruction, these corporate entities are as bewildered as we are. Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty.

THE IDEA THAT WE HAVE powerful corporate villains to thank for the sorry state of the natural world is what Francis Bacon called an “idol of the tribe.” According to Bacon, an idol is a truth based on insufficient evidence but maintained by constant affirmation within the tribe of believers. In spite of this insufficiency, idols do not fall easily or often. Tribes are capable of exerting will based on principles, but they are capable only with the greatest difficulty of willing the destruction of their own principles. It’s as if they feel that it is better to stagger from frustration to frustration than to return honestly to the question, does what we believe actually make sense? The idea of fallen idols always suggests tragic disillusionment, but this is in fact a good thing. If they don’t fall, there is no hope for discovering the real problems and the best and truest response to them. All environmentalists understand that the global crisis we are experiencing requires urgent action, but not everyone understands that if our activism is driven by idols we can exhaust ourselves with effort while having very little effect on the crisis. Most frighteningly, it is even possible that our efforts can sustain the crisis. The question the environmental tribe must ask is, do our mistaken assumptions actually cause us to conspire against our own interests?

The belief that corporate power is the unique source of our problems is not the only idol we are subject to. There is an idol even in the language we use to account for our problems. Our primary dependence on the scientific language of “environment,” “ecology,” “diversity,” “habitat,” and “ecosystem” is a way of acknowledging the superiority of the very kind of rationality that serves not only the Sierra Club but corporate capitalism as well. For instance:

“You can pump this many tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without disturbing the major climatic systems.”

“This much contiguous habitat is necessary to sustain a population allowing for a survivable gene pool for this species.”

“We’ll keep a list, a running tally of endangered species (as we’ll call these animals), and we’ll monitor their numbers, and when that number hits a specified threshold we’ll say they are ‘healthy,’ or we’ll say they are ‘extinct.’ All this is to be done by bureaucratic fiat.”

I am not speaking here of all the notorious problems associated with proving scientifically the significance of environmental destruction. My concern is with the wisdom of using as our primary weapon the rhetoric and logic of the very entities we suspect of causing our problems in the first place. Perhaps we support legalistic responses to problems, with all their technoscientific descriptors, out of a sense that this is the best we can do for the moment. But the danger is always that eventually we come to believe this language and its mindset ourselves. This mindset is generally called “quantitative reasoning,” and it is second nature to Anglo-Americans. Corporate execs are perfectly comfortable with it, and corporate philanthropists give their dough to environmental organizations that speak it. Unfortunately, it also has the consequence of turning environmentalists into quislings, collaborators, and virtuous practitioners of a cost-benefit logic figured in songbirds.

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

We use our most basic vocabulary, words like “ecosystem,” with a complete innocence, as if we couldn’t imagine that there might be something perilous in it. What if such language were actually the announcement of the defeat of what we claim to want? That’s the worm at the heart of the rose of the “ecologist.” It is something that environmentalism has never come to terms with because the very advocates for environmental health are most comfortable with the logic of science, never mind what else that logic may be doing for the military and industry. Would people and foundations be as willing to send contributions to The Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club if the leading logic of the organization were not “ecosystems” but “respect for life” or “reverence for creation”? Such notions are, for many of us, compromised by associations with the Catholic Church and evangelicalism, and they don’t loosen the purse strings of philanthropy. “Let’s keep a nice, clean scientific edge between us and religion,” we protest. In the end, environmental science criticizes not only corporate destructiveness but (as it has always done) more spiritual notions of nature as well.

Environmentalism seems to conclude that the best thing it can do for nature is make a case for it, as if it were always making a summative argument before a jury with the backing of the best science. Good children of the Enlightenment, we keep expecting Reason to prevail (and in a perverse and destructive way, it does prevail). It is the language of “system” (nature as a kind of complicated machine) that allows most of us to feel comfortable with working for or giving money to environmental organizations. We even seem to think that the natural system should work in consort with our economic system. Why, we argue, that rainforest might contain the cure for cancer. By which we also mean that it could provide profitable products for the pharmaceutical industry and local economies. (God help the doomed indigenous culture once the West decides that it has an economy that needs assistance.) Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth may have distressing things to say about global warming, but subconsciously it is an extended apology for scientific rationality, the free market, and our utterly corrupted democracy. Gore doesn’t have to defend these things directly; he merely has to pretend that nothing else exists. Even the awe of Immanuel Kant’s famous “starry skies above” is lost to modern environmentalism, so obsessed is it with what data, graphs, and a good PowerPoint presentation can show.

In short, there would be nothing inappropriate or undesirable were we to understand our relation to nature in spiritual terms or poetic terms or, with Emerson and Thoreau, in good old American transcendental terms, but there is no broadly shared language in which to do this. So we are forced to resort to what is in fact a lower common denominator: the languages of science and bureaucracy. These languages have broad legitimacy in our culture, a legitimacy they possess largely because of the thoroughness with which they discredited Christian religious discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But many babies went out with the bath water of Christian dogma and superstition. One of those was morality. Even now, science can’t say why we ought not to harm the environment except to say that we shouldn’t be self-destructive. Another of these lost spiritual children was our very relation as human beings to the mystery of Being as such. As the philosopher G. W. Leibniz famously wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For St. Thomas Aquinas, this was the fundamental religious question. In the place of a relation to the world that was founded on this mystery, we have a relation that is objective and data driven. We no longer have a forest; we have “board feet.” We no longer have a landscape, a world that is our own; we have “valuable natural resources.” Even avowed Christians have been slow to recall this spiritualized relationship to the world. For example, only recently have American evangelicals begun thinking of the environment in terms of what they call “creation care.” We don’t have to be born again to agree with evangelicals that one of the most powerful arguments missing from the environmentalist’s case is reverence for what simply is. One of the heroes of Goethe’s Faust was a character called Care (Sorge), who showed to Faust the unscrupulousness of his actions and led him to salvation. Environmentalism has made a Faustian pact with quantitative reasoning; science has given it power but it cannot provide deliverance. If environmentalism truly wishes, as it claims, to want to “save” something—the planet, a species, itself—it needs to rediscover a common language of Care.

THE LESSONS OF OUR IDOLS come to this: you cannot defeat something that you imagine to be an external threat to you when it is in fact internal to you, when its life is your life. And even if it were external to you, you cannot defeat an enemy by thinking in the terms it chooses, and by doing only those things that not only don’t harm it but with which it is perfectly comfortable. The truth is, our idols are actually a great convenience to us. It is convenient that we can imagine a power beyond us because that means we don’t have to spend much time examining our own lives. And it is very convenient that we can hand the hard work of resistance over to scientists, our designated national problem solvers.

We cannot march forth, confront, and definitively defeat the Monsantos of the world, especially not with science (which, it should go without saying, Monsanto has plenty of). We can, however, look at ourselves and see all of the ways that we conspire against what we imagine to be our own most urgent interests. Perhaps the most powerful way in which we conspire against ourselves is the simple fact that we have jobs. We are willingly part of a world designed for the convenience of what Shakespeare called “the visible God”: money. When I say we have jobs, I mean that we find in them our home, our sense of being grounded in the world, grounded in a vast social and economic order. It is a spectacularly complex, even breathtaking, order, and it has two enormous and related problems. First, it seems to be largely responsible for the destruction of the natural world. Second, it has the strong tendency to reduce the human beings inhabiting it to two functions, working and consuming. It tends to hollow us out. It creates a hole in our sense of ourselves and of this country, and it leaves us with few alternatives but to try to fill that hole with money and the things money buys. We are not free to dismiss money because we fear that we’d disappear, we’d be nothing at all without it. Money is, in the words of Buddhist writer David Loy, “the flight from emptiness that makes life empty.”

Needless to say, many people with environmental sympathies will easily agree with what I’ve just said and imagine that in fact they do what they can to resist work and consumption, to resist the world as arranged for the convenience of money. But here again I suspect we are kidding ourselves. Rather than taking the risk of challenging the roles money and work play in all of our lives by actually taking the responsibility for reordering our lives, the most prominent strategy of environmentalists seems to be to “give back” to nature through the bequests, the annuities, the Working Assets credit cards and long distance telephone schemes, and the socially responsible mutual funds advertised in Sierra and proliferating across the environmental movement. Such giving may make us feel better, but it will never be enough. Face it, we all have a bit of the robber baron turned philanthropist in us. We’re willing to be generous in order to “save the world” but not before we’ve insured our own survival in the reigning system. It’s not even clear that this philanthropy is a pure expression of generosity since the bequest and annuity programs are carefully measured to provide attractive tax benefits and appealing rates of return.

Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. We are even further from knowing how to take the collective risk of leaving this system entirely and ordering our societies differently. We are not ready. Not yet, at least.





Our finite pool of worry

14 04 2010

Earth Day is coming up and I am having a hard time with climate change.  It’s such a big, complicated issue.  Climate change, according to Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED),  is  inherently abstract, scientifically complex, and globally diffused in causes and consequences.  People have a hard time grasping the concept, let alone taking action.  What can one person do to have an impact on such an overriding problem?

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Research shows that most Americans are  aware of climate change and even rank it as a concern,  but they don’t perceive it on a par with, say, the economic downturn or health care reform.   According to CRED,  most Americans do not currently associate climate change with disastrous impacts, such as drought, extreme weather events, and coastal flooding. And although most people can recite at least a few things they could do to help mitigate global climate change (like replacing light bulbs or carrying  reuseable grocery bags) – most are not doing them.

I’m ashamed to say,  I’m in that category.  I forget my grocery bags.  I use the car when I should really walk.  I  wash dishes by hand rather than using the dishwasher.  (What’s that?  Did you know that a running faucet can waste 2.5 gallons of water every minute!  So if I do the dishes by hand and it takes me 15 minutes, I’ve just wasted 37.5 gallons of water.  It’s better for me to run the dishwasher  – which uses only 11 gallons of water per use – even if it isn’t full. But I’m an old dog and habits die hard.)    It’s not easy, is it?  Don’t you just feel like throwing up your hands?

I’m faced with decisions every day in our fabric collection that could have far reaching effects – for example, a supplier wants to know if it’s o.k. to use the mill which has antiquated water treatment because that mill is closer (thereby reducing the energy needed for transport) and, not least, they’re cheaper!  There it is again –   Cost.  The bottom line in most decisions.  And if we decide to go with the sub optimal water treatment,  we might gain a cost advantage (so YOU might buy the fabric) but what will it mean in terms of the health of our children and the kind of world we leave them?

Each day I do more research into the effects that synthetic chemicals are having on us and our environment.  It chills me and I really believe that we’re causing ourselves harm.  We’re playing Russian roulette with the chemical mix we allow in our systems – thinking that since we’re not sick now it’s really nothing we have to worry about.   I absolutely believe that long term effects of our love affair with synthetic chemicals will be profound and that we must do something to stem the tide.  I proselytize to expectant mothers (I can’t help myself) about using organic fabrics and mattresses for their infants and themselves – because much of the research shows exposure in utero is when the most harm can be done.  But research also shows that future consequences are discounted, so people think they’ll just put off thinking of this until they have more time.

I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that we still behave in destructive ways – we don’t buy organic foods because it costs more (and it’s not gonna kill us – tomorrow, anyway),  we forget our reuseable grocery bags and we don’t take the time to replace light bulbs.  It’s like losing weight or exercising – we know it’s good for us, but we still don’t do it.

A report entitled The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, released  by CRED, looks at how people process information and decide to take action …  or not.  It seems people can deal with only so much bad news at a time before they tune out.   Social scientists call this the “finite pool of worry”.   And for really big threats like climate change, people are likely to alleviate their worries by taking only one action, even if it’s in their best interest to take more than one action.

For Americans, recycling has become the catchall green measure, the one action that anybody can do and feel that they’re doing something.  As with every action, there are costs and benefits.  The recycling of some products, such as computers and other electronics, creates a more severe strain on the environment that do other types of products, such as newsprint.  Again, even this topic is so fraught with subtleties and variety that dissecting it is hard.

I’d like to focus on plastics because the textile industry has concentrated sustainability efforts on recycled polyesters – many fabric collections claim green credentials because certain of their fabrics are made of recycled, rather than virgin, polyester.  And we all smile and pat ourselves on the back because we’re doing something – and hey, it doesn’t even cost any more.

Polyester is just one of the many plastics that are in use today;  plastic recycling – bottles, packaging, bags – has been adopted  as the mascot of our green efforts – as one school program says, it “teaches children social responsibility and reinforces learning to respect and take care of the environment”.   But what does plastic recycling really accomplish?

Stay tuned.





What about soil resistant finishes like Scotchgard, GoreTex, NanoTex and GreenShield – are they safe?

10 02 2010

Last week I promised to take a look at soil and stain repellant finishes to see how each is applied and/or formulated.  Some of these trademarked finishes claim impeccable green credentials, so it’s important that we are able to evaluate their claims – or at least know the jargon!  The chemistry here, as I said in last week’s post, is dense.  The important thing to remember about all these finishes is that they all depend on flurocarbon based chemistry to be effective.

The oldest water repellant finishes for fabrics were simply coatings of paraffin or wax – and they generally washed out eventually.  Perfluorochemicals (PFC’s) are the only chemicals capable of repelling water, oil and other liquids that cause stains. Fabrics finished with PFCs have nonstick properties; this family of chemicals is used in almost all the stain repellant finishes on the market today.  Other materials can be made to perform some of these functions but suffer when subjected to oil and are considerably less durable.

The earliest type of stain resistant finish (using these PFCs)  prevented the soil from penetrating the fiber by coating  the fiber. For use on a textile, the chemicals are joined onto binders (polyurethane or acrylic) that acts as a glue to stick them to the surface of the fabric.  Gore Tex is one of these early coatings – a thin film was laminated onto the fabric; another, manufactured by 3M Corporation for nearly 50 years,  is Scotchgard.   Scotchgard was so popular and became so ubiquitous that “Scotchgard” entered the language as a verb.  

The chemical originally used to make Scotchgard and Gore Tex breaks down into perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a man-made substance that is part of the family of perfluorochemicals.   PFOS and PFOA have chains of eight carbon atoms; the group of materials related to PFOA and PFOS is called C8 –  this is often referred to as “C8 chemistry”.

An aside on C8 chemistry:

If you recall from last week’s post, the PFC family consists of molecules having a carbon backbone, fully surrounded by fluorine.  Various “cousins” have carbon backbones of different lengths:  PFOS or C8, for example,  has 8 carbon atoms, C7 has 7, and so on.  There is controversy today  about  the so-called  “bad” fluorocarbons (C8 ) and the “good” ones (C6) which I’ll address below.

C8  –  (the backbone  is made of a chain of 8 carbon atoms):  two methods are used to produce two slightly different products:

1)     electrofluorination:  uses electrolysis to replace hydrogen atoms in a molecule by fluorine atoms to create the 8 unit chain containing just carbon and fluorine.  A small amount of PFOS (perfluorooctane sulphonate) is created during this process.

2)     Telomerisation:  chemical equivalent of making a daisy chain: produces mini polymers by joining single units together in chains.  The usual aim is to produce chains that are an average of 8 units long, but the process is not perfect and a range of chain length will result – ranging from 4 units to 14 units in length. So you can have a C4, C6, C12, etc. In this method a small amount of byproduct called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) is produced.

C6 – this chemistry produces a by-product called PFHA (perfluorohexanoic acid), which  is supposed to be 40 times less bioaccumulative than PFOA.  But it’s also less effective, so more of the chemical has to be used to achieve the same result.  Manufacturers are trying to find smaller and smaller perfluorocarbon segments in their products, and even C4 has been used.  The smaller the fluorocarbon, the more rapidly it breaks down in the environment.  Unfortunatley, the desired textile performance goes down as the size of the perfluorocarbon goes down. “C6 is closest chemically to C8, but it contains no PFOA. It breaks down in the environment – a positive trait – but it doesn’t stick as well to outerwear and it doesn’t repel water and oil as well as C8, which means it falls short of meeting a vague industry standard, as well as individual company standards for durability and repellency.”[1]

Back to Scotchgard:

Scientists noticed that PFOS (the C8 fluorocarbon) began showing up everywhere: in polar bears, dolphins, baby eagles, tap water and human blood. So did its C8 cousin PFOA.   These two man-made perfluorochemicals (PFOS and PFOA) don’t decompose in nature. They kill laboratory rats at higher doses, and there are potential links to tissue problems, developmental delays and some forms of cancer.  Below are tables of results which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released from data collected by 3M and DuPont; some humans have more PFOA in their blood than the estimated levels in animals in this study.  For a complete review of this study, see the Environmental Working Group’s website, http://www.ewg.org/node/21726.

PFOA and PFOS, according to the U.S. EPA:

  • Are very persistent in the environment.
  • Are found at very low levels both in the environment and in the blood of the U.S. population.
  • Remain in people for a very long time.
  • Cause developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.

Eventually 3M discontinued Scotchgard production.  Yet accounts differ as to whether 3M voluntarily phased out the problematic C8 chemistry or was pressured into it by the EPA after the company shared its data in late 1999.  Either way, the phase-out was begun in December 2000, although 3M still makes small amounts of PFOA for its own use in Germany. 3M, which still monitors chemical plants in Cottage Grove, Decatur, and Antwerp, Belgium, insists there are no risks for employees who handled or were exposed to the chemicals.  Minnesota Public Radio published a timeline for milestones in 3M’s Scotchgard, which can be accessed here.

The phase-out went unnoticed by most consumers as 3M rapidly substituted another, less-effective spray for consumers, and began looking for a reformulated Scotchgard for carpet mills, apparel and upholstery manufacturers.   For its substitute, 3M settled on perfluorobutane sulfonate, or PFBS, a four-carbon cousin of the chemical in the old Scotchgard, as the building block for Scotchgard’s new generation. This new C4-based Scotchgard is completely safe, 3M says. The company adds that it has worked closely with the EPA and has performed more than 40 studies, which are confidential. Neither 3M nor the EPA will release them.

According to 3M, the results show that under federal EPA guidelines, PFBS isn’t toxic and doesn’t accumulate the way the old chemical did. It does persist in the environment, but 3M concluded that isn’t a problem if it isn’t accumulating or toxic. PFBS can enter the bloodstream of people and animals but “it’s eliminated very quickly” and does no harm at typical very low levels, said Michael Santoro, 3M’s director of Environmental Health, Safety & Regulatory Affairs. 3M limits sales to applications where emissions are low.

3M says convincing consumers Scotchgard is safe is not its No. 1 challenge; rather it’s simply getting the new, new Scotchgard out. The brand, 3M maintains, is untarnished. “This issue of safety, oddly enough, never registered on the customers’ radar screen,” said Michael Harnetty, vice president of 3M’s protective-materials division.

Scotchgard remains a powerful brand:  “We still get really good requests like, ‘Will you Scotchgard this fabric with Teflon?’ ” said Robert Beaty, V.P. of Sales for The Synthetic Group, a large finishing house.[2]

Another early soil resistant finish is Teflon, which was produced by DuPont.  Teflon is based on C8 chemistry, and PFOA is a byproduct of the manufacturing of fluorotelomers used in the Teflon chemistry.

There has been a lot of information on 3M, DuPont and these two products, Scotchgard and Teflon, on the web.  The Environmental Working Group  http://www.ewg.org/ has detailed descriptions of what these chemicals do to us, as well as the information on the many suits, countersuits, and research studies.  The companies say their new reformulated products are entirely safe – and other groups such as the Environmental Working Group, question this assumption.

By the way, both DuPont and 3M advertise their products as being “water based” – and they are, but that’s not the point and doesn’t address the critical issues.  In TerraChoice’s “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” this would be considered Sin #5: the sin of irrelevance, which is:  “An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products. ‘CFC-free’ is a common example, since it is a frequent claim despite the fact that CFCs are banned by law.”

In January 2006, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approached the eight largest fluorocarbon producers and requested their participation in the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and their commitment to reduce PFOA and related chemicals globally in both facility emissions and product content 95 percent by 2010, and 100 percent by 2015.

The fluoropolymer manufacturers are improving their processes and reducing their waste in order to reduce the amount of PFOA materials used. The amount  of PFOA in finishing formulations is greatly diminished and continues to go down, but even parts per trillion are detectable. Finishing formulators continue to evaluate new materials which can eliminate PFOA while maintaining performance but a solution is still over the horizon.  One critical piece in this puzzel is that PFOA is also produced indirectly through the gradual breakdown of fluorotelomers – so a stain resistant finish may be formulated with no detectable amounts of PFOA yet STILL produce PFOA when the chemicals begin to decompose.

Recently a new dimension was added to stain resistant formulations, and that is the use of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology is defined as the precise manipulation of individual atoms and molecules to create layered structures. In the world of nanoscience, ordinary materials display unique properties at the nanoscale.  The basic premise is that properties can dramatically change when a substance’s size is reduced to the nanometer range. For example, ceramics which are normally brittle can be deformable when their size is reduced. In bulk form, gold is inert, however, once broken down into small clusters of atoms it becomes highly reactive.

Like any new technology, nanomaterials carry with them potential both for good and for harm. The most salient worries concern not apocalyptic visions,  but rather the more prosaic and likely possibility that some of these novel materials may turn out to be hazardous to our health or the environment.  As John D. Young and Jan Martel report in “The Rise and Fall of Nanobacteria,” even naturally occurring nanoparticulates can have an deleterious effect on the human body. If natural nanoparticulates can harm us, we would be wise to carefully consider the possible actions of engineered nanomaterials.  The size of nanoparticles also means that they can more readily escape into the environment and infiltrate deep into internal organs such as the lungs and liver. Adding to the concern, each nanomaterial is unique. Although researchers have conducted a number of studies on the health risks of individual materials, this scattershot approach cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the hazards—quantitative data on what materials, in what concentrations, affect the body over what timescales.

As a result of these concerns, in September, 2009,  the U.S. EPA  announced a study of the health and environmental effects of nanomaterials – a step many had been advocating for years.  And this isn’t happening any too soon:  more than 1,000 consumer products containing nanomaterials are available in the U.S. and more are added every day.

And nanotechnology has been used for textiles in many ways: at the fiber as well as the fabric level, providing an extraordinary array of nano-enabled textile products (most commonly nanofibers, nanocomposite fibers and nanocoated fibers)  – as well as in soil and stain resistance.

For scientists who were trying to apply nanotechnology to textile soil and stain repellency, they turned, as is often the case in science, to nature:  Studying the surface of lotus leaves, which have an incredible ability to repel water, scientists noticed that the surface of the lotus leaf appears smooth but is actually rough and naturally dirt and water repellent. The rough surface reduces the ability of water to spread out. Tiny crevices in the leaf’s surface trap air, preventing the water droplets from adhering to the service. As droplets roll off the surface they pick up particles of dirt lying in their path. Using this same concept, scientists developed a nanotechnology based finish that forms a similar structure on the fibers surface. Fabrics can be cleaned by simply rinsing with water.

Nano-Tex (www.nano-tex.com) was the first commercially available nanoparticle based soil repellant fabric finish.  It debuted in December of 2000.  Another nanotech based soil repellant is GreenShield (www.greenshieldfinish.com) which debuted in 2007. Both these finishes, although they use nanotechnology, also base their product on fluorocarbon chemistry.  Nano-Tex’s website does not give much information about their formulation – basically they only say that it’s a new technology that “fundamentally transforms each fiber through nanotechnology”.  You won’t get much more in the way of technical specifications out of Nano-Tex.   GreenShield is much more forthcoming with information about their process.

In the GreenShield finishes, the basic nanoparticle is amorphous silica, an inert material that has a well-established use in applications involving direct human consumption, and is generally recognized as safe and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency for such applications.  The use of silica enables GreenShield to reduce the amount of flurocarbons by a factor of 8 or more from all other finishes and it reduces overall chemical load by a factor of three – making GreenShield the finish which uses the least amount of these flurocarbons.

The GreenShield finish gets mixed environmental ratings, however.   Victor Innovatix’s Eco Intelligent Polyester fabrics with GreenShield earned a Silver rating in the Cradle to Cradle program. However, the same textile without the GreenShield finish (or any finish) earned a higher Gold rating, reflecting the risk of toxicity introduced to the product by GreenShield. Information on product availability is at www.victor-innovatex.com.


[1]PFOA Puzzle – Textile Insights — http://www.textileinsight.com/articles.php?id=37

[2] Bjorhus, Jennifer, “Scotchgard is Attractive Again”, St. Paul Pioneer Press, May 27, 2003





Air pollution and your cashmere sweater

4 11 2009

We’ll be at Greenbuild next week, booth 910, with our good friends from LIVE Textiles.  Please stop by to see us if you’re there.

We are introducing a new organic wool upholstery fabric at Greenbuild  (we’re hoping it will be GOTS certified, though it is touch and go as to whether the certificate will be in place by then – there are so many hoops!).    So for the past six months or so we’ve been learning lots about wool – and wool is a complicated subject!  It’s a gorgeous fiber, but it has, as we say, issues.  Not unsolvable, but like everything you have to know your suppliers and what questions are important to ask.  We talked about wool and animal husbandry in two previous posts (“What does organic wool mean?” 8.11.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings?” 8.4.09);  some of the issues surrounding wool are enumerated in those posts.

I’m always a sucker for soft and luxurious, so naturally when talking about wool I began hinting I’d like a cashmere fabric – or wool/cashmere blend.  But we looked into cashmere, and what we found is startling and unexpected: a story of how your cashmere sweater pollutes the air you breathe.    There is an improbable connection, according to Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune, “between cheap sweaters, Asia’s prairies and America’s air, (which) captures how the most ordinary shifts in the global economy are triggering extraordinary change.”  Please read Mr. Osnos’ article, “China’s Great Grab”, from which most of the information in this blog is taken.   He won the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for distinguished journalism for this series.

Cashmere has recently become ubiquitous –  cashmere sweaters, for example, once so very high priced that the very word “cashmere” became synonymous with luxury,  are suddenly “affordable”.  Coincidentally, Saks Fifth Avenue ran a full page ad in Sunday’s  New York Times touting their low priced cashmere goods – and telling you to “Shop Smart”.   We’ll help you to shop smart – please read this post!

What happened to bring down the price of cashmere?  Behind this new affordable price tag is something the consumer rarely sees or thinks about: the cascade of consequences around the world when the might of Chinese production and western consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.

Cashmere comes from the downy underhair of special goats, the majority of which live in the coldest regions of China and Mongolia.  In fact, the world’s best and most expensive cashmere comes from the Alashan Plateau, an area in China’s north straddling the Mongolian border,  boiling hot in summer and way below zero in winter.  This area is part of China’s mythic grasslands, where Genghis Khan and his horde rode the limitless horizon.  The fiber itself, known as “diamond fiber” in China,  sells for 6 times the cost of ordinary wool.

This rare and wonderful fiber is remarkably soft, silky and warm.  Side by side under a microscope a single cashmere strand makes a human hair look like a rope.  And it was also synonymous with high price.  European spinning mills have sourced the best cashmere yarns from this region for years.

The combination of demand and high prices led to China’s rapid increase in production to meet that demand,  and  conditions were in place to create an almost perfect storm – with money to be earned from “diamond fiber”, herders rapidly increased their goat populations and caused severe overgrazing.  In  Inner Mongolia, for example, the livestock population increased from 2 million in 1949 to 28.5 million in 2004.(1)

20080318-desertification Julie Chaol

The goats are eating the grasslands bare:  Goats consume over 10% of their body weight daily in roughage, eating not just the grass but also their roots and stripping bark from seedlings, preventing the regrowth of trees.  The land is so barren that herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to keep their animals alive.  Overgrazing is so severe that the health of the goats is at risk: their birthrate is sinking and even the cashmere has begun to suffer from these stressed goats, with shorter, coarser, less valuable fiber.

In addition to stripping the land of all vegetation, the feet of these goats have been compared to stiletto heels, vs. the big soft pads of camel’s feet, which have a far lesser impact on the ground.  These “stiletto heel” hooves  pierce the crust formed on the land, and the fine sand beneath it takes flight.  So the animals remove the vegetation, and the winds finish the job by blowing away the top soil, transforming the grasslands into desert.

In this perfect storm, the rapid increase in the number of goats has occurred at the same time the area is undergoing a severe drought due to climate change.  The goats require water, which also leads to overuse of that resource.  So many cashmere plants and other industries have opened in Alashan that authorities must ration water, forcing each factory to close for days at a time. (2)

And without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, the deserts in Alashan are expanding by nearly 400 square miles each year. The World Bank warned of grave consequences for the environment and for farmers.

Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages –  a migration on the scale of the Dust Bowl in the United States is taking place in China today. A study by the Asian Development Bank found 4,000 villages at risk of being swallowed by drifting sand (3)

Exhib_001031

But the environmental degredation doesn’t stop in Alashan.  Eroding grasslands means that silt is deposited into the headwaters of rivers that flow all across Asia: to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.  And the dust storms, which have been a fact of life in this area of the world since before Genghis Kahn, are becoming increasingly common:  in the 1950s, China suffered an average of five dust and sand storms per year; in the 1990s storms struck 23 times each year.  (4)  These storms do a lot of damage:  A storm in 2002 forced 1.8 million South Koreans to seek medical help and cost the country $7.8 billion in damage to industries such as airlines and semiconductors, said the state-run Korea Environment Institute. (5)

And added to the damage the storms cause in China, they also act as a high altitude conveyor belt for pollution.  Think of it like this:  the dust and sand generated in Alashan  is sent east by the winds, where China’s coal powered industry adds pollution.  Together the noxious brew reaches the U.S. within five days, where it can combine with local pollution to exceed the limits of healthy air, according to Rudolf Husar, an atmospheric chemist at Washington University in St. Louis.(6)

According to Eric Osnos’ article, “Of most concern are ultra tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. One storm that began in China and Mongolia in spring 1998 caused a spike in air pollution that prompted health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue warnings to the public.”

The situation has become so bad that herders are moving off the land to try their hand at trades in the cities, and the government is putting many new programs into place to help stem the damage which has been done (including banning grazing on some lands).  The price of cashmere has begun to climb.  But with ads such as the one from Saks, promoting yet another cheap product, these problems will continue to persist.

(1)  Osnos, Evan;  “China’s Great Grab: Your cheap sweather’s real cost”, The Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2006.

(2) Ibid.

(3) http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=389&catid=10&subcatid=66#07)

(4) Osnos, op cit.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.





Prosperity without growth

27 10 2009

Have you ever heard of the Easterlin Paradox?  It is a theory developed in 1974, which goes something like this:  Money makes you happier until you reach about an average income.  After that, money’s affect on happiness is greatly reduced.  But there are those who argue that “happiness” is a very imprecise science, so maybe  Senator Bobby Kennedy (who might have known what he was talking about) might have gotten closer to the problem:  “Gross Domestic Product measures everything…except that which makes life worthwhile.”

The government of Bhutan has been following a policy of Gross National Happiness since 1972, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently announced that happiness levels would be taken into account when measuring the country’s economic performance.  Whether this happiness component is taken into consideration or not, there seems to be a paradigm shift from neoclassical to ecological economics now underway.  Is it possible that  there is a direct correlation between economics, ecology and happiness?

This new shift is  typified by Tim Jackson and his new book, Prosperity Without Growth, which is a completely revised and updated version of the Sustainable Development Commission report of the same name.  Tim Jackson is a Professor of Sustainable Development in the Centre for Environmental Strategy (CES) at the University of Surrey.  Since January 2003, Tim has been employed at CES under a research fellowship on the ‘social psychology’ of consumer behavior.   In the last twelve years he has pioneered the development of an ‘adjusted’ measure of economic growth – a ‘green GDP’ – for the UK. He is also an advisor to the UK government as a Commissioner on the Sustainable Development Commission and  is an Associate of the New Economics Foundation.  In other words, no lightweight.

Tim  wrote an article last summer which appeared in Adbusters  (and if you don’t know about Adbusters please check them out – they are working to change the “ way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society”.  It’s entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable”,  based on Prosperity without Growth;  it explores the point at which economic growth becomes uneconomic growth.  The conclusions are disturbing.   Charles Siegel of The Sierra Club says it should be  required reading for everyone working to avoid ecological collapse (click here to read the review) . The article from Adbusters is reproduced below; the entire book will be available November 2 through Earthscan (www.earthscan.co.uk/pwg) or you can read the original report online at http://www.sd-commission.org.uk/publications.php?id=914:

prosperity-without-growth

Every society clings to a myth by which it lives. Ours is the myth of economic growth. For the last five decades the pursuit of growth has been the single most important policy goal across the world. The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate, the economy will be 80 times that size by the year 2100.

This extraordinary ramping up of global economic activity has no historical precedent. It’s totally at odds with our scientific knowledge of the finite resource base and the fragile ecology we depend on for survival. And it has already been accompanied by the degradation of an estimated 60% of the world’s ecosystems.

For the most part, we avoid the stark reality of these numbers. The default assumption is that – financial crises aside – growth will continue indefinitely. Not just for the poorest countries where a better quality of life is undeniably needed, but even for the richest nations where the cornucopia of material wealth adds little to happiness and is beginning to threaten the foundations of our well-being.

The reasons for this collective blindness are easy enough to find. The modern economy is structurally reliant on economic growth for its stability. When growth falters – as it has done recently – politicians panic. Businesses struggle to survive. People lose their jobs and sometimes their homes. A spiral of recession looms. Questioning growth is deemed to be the act of lunatics, idealists and revolutionaries.

But question it we must. The myth of growth has failed us. It has failed the two billion people who still live on less than $2 a day. It has failed the fragile ecological systems we depend on for survival. It has failed spectacularly, in its own terms, to provide economic stability and secure people’s livelihoods.

Today we find ourselves faced with the imminent end of the era of cheap oil; the prospect (beyond the recent bubble) of steadily rising commodity prices; the degradation of forests, lakes and soils; conflicts over land use, water quality and fishing rights; and the momentous challenge of stabilizing concentrations of carbon in the global atmosphere. And we face these tasks with an economy that is fundamentally broken, in desperate need of renewal.

In these circumstances, a return to business as usual is not an option. Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice is no foundation for a civilized society. Economic recovery is vital. Protecting people’s jobs – and creating new ones – is absolutely essential. But we also stand in urgent need of a renewed sense of shared prosperity. A commitment to fairness and flourishing in a finite world.

Delivering these goals may seem an unfamiliar or even incongruous task for policy in the modern age. The role of government has been framed so narrowly by material aims and hollowed out by a misguided vision of unbounded consumer freedoms. The concept of governance itself stands in urgent need of renewal.

But the current economic crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to invest in change. To sweep away the short-term thinking that has plagued society for decades. To replace it with policy capable of addressing the enormous challenge of delivering a lasting prosperity.

For at the end of the day, prosperity goes beyond material pleasures. It transcends material concerns. It resides in the quality of our lives and in the health and happiness of our families. It is present in the strength of our relationships and our trust in the community. It is evidenced by our satisfaction at work and our sense of shared meaning and purpose. It hangs on our potential to participate fully in the life of society.

Prosperity consists in our ability to flourish as human beings – within the ecological limits of a finite planet. The challenge for our society is to create the conditions under which this is possible. It is the most urgent task of our times.








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