Is Ultrasuede® a “green” fabric?

8 09 2010

In 1970, Toray Industries colleagues Dr. Toyohiko Hikota and Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto created the world’s first micro fiber as well as the process to combine those fibers with a polyurethane foam into a non-woven structure – which the company trademarked as Ultrasuede®.

In April 2009,  Toray announced “a new  environmentally responsible line of products which are based on innovative recycling technology”, called EcoDesign™.    An EcoDesign™ product, according to the company press release, “captures industrial materials, such as scrap polyester films, from the Toray manufacturing processes and recycles them for use in building high-quality fibers and textiles.”

One of the first EcoDesign™ products to be introduced by Toray is a variety of their Ultrasuede®  fabrics.

So I thought we’d take a look at Ultrasuede® to see what we thought of their green claims.

The overriding reason Toray’s EcoDesign™ products are supposed to be environmentally “friendly” is because recycling postindustrial polyesters reduces both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by an average of 80% over the creation of virgin polyesters, according to Des McLaughlin, executive director of Toray Ultrasuede (America).   (Conventional recycling of polyesters generally state energy savings of between 33% – 53%.)

If that is the only advance in terms of environmental stewardship, we feel it falls far short of being considered an enlightened choice.  If we just look at the two claims made by the company:

  1. Re: energy reduction:  If we take the average energy needed to produce 1 KG of virgin polyester, 125 MJ[1], and reduce it by 80% (Toray’s claim), that means it takes 25 MJ to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede® –  still far more energy than is needed to produce 1 KG of organic hemp (2 MJ), linen (10 MJ), or cotton (12 MJ).
  2. CO2 emissions are just one of the emissions issues – in addition to CO2, polyester production generates particulates, N2O, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide,[2] acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane (also potentially carcinogenic).[3]

But in addition to these claims, the manufacture of this product creates many concerns which the company does not address, such as:

  1. Polyurethane, a component of Ultrasuede®, is the most toxic plastic known next to PVC; its manufacture creates numerous hazardous by-products, including phosgene (used as a lethal gas during WWII), isosyanates (known carcinogens), toluene (teratogenic and embryotoxic) and ozone depleting gases methylene chloride and CFC’s.
  2. Most polyester is produced using antimony as a catalyst.  Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.  Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  So, recycled  – or not –  the antimony is still present.
  3. Ethylene glycol (EG) is a raw material used in the production of polyester.  In the United States alone, an estimated 1 billion lbs. of spent ethylene glycol is generated each year.  The EG distillation process creates 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[4] What does Toray do with it’s EG sludge?
  4. The major water-borne emissions from polyester production include dissolved solids, acids, iron and ammonia.  Does Toray treat its water before release?
  5. And remember, Ultrasuede®  is still  . . .plastic.  Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount.  A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [5]and they found:
    1. Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies.   Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
    2. Synthetics do not decompose:  in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater.  If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.
  1. Nor does it take into consideration our alternative choices:  that using an organic fiber supports organic agriculture, which may be one of our most underestimated tools in the fight against climate change, because it:
    1. Acts as a carbon sink:   new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil.  And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [6]
    2. eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
    3. conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
    4. ensures sustained biodiversity

Claiming that the reclamation and use of their own internally generated scrap is an action to be applauded may be a bit disingenuous.   It is simply the company doing what most companies should do as efficient operations:  cut costs by re-using their own scrap. They are creating a market for their otherwise un-useable scrap polyester from other operations such as the production of polyester film.  This is a good step by Toray, but to anoint it as the most sustainable choice or even as a true sustainable choice at all is  premature. Indeed we have pointed in prior blog posts that there are many who see giving “recycled polyester” a veneer of environmentalism by calling it a green option is one of the reasons plastic use has soared:     indeed plastic use has increased by a factor of 30 since the 1960s while recycling plastic has only increased by a factor of 2. [7] We cannot condone the use of this synthetic, made from an inherently non-renewable resource, as a green choice for the many reasons given above.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  The trend to eco consciousness in textiles represents major progress in reclaiming our stewardship of the earth, and in preventing preventable human misery.  You have the power to stem the toxic stream caused by the production of fabric. If you search for and buy an eco-textile, you are encouraging a shift to production methods that have the currently achievable minimum detrimental effects for either the planet or for your health. You, as a consumer, are very powerful. You have the power to change harmful production practices. Eco textiles do exist and they give you a greener, healthier, fair-trade alternative.

What will an eco-textile do for you? You and the frogs and the world’s flora and fauna could live longer, and be healthier – and in a more just, sufficiently diversified, more beautiful world.


[1]“Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Enviornemnt Institute

[2] “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[3] Gruttner, Henrik, Handbook of Sustainable Textile Purchasing, EcoForum, Denmark, August 2006.

[4] Sustainable Textile Development at Victor,  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

[5] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[6] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

[7] http://www.edf.org/documents/1889_SomethingtoHide.pdf and http://discovermagazine.com/2009/oct/21-numbers-plastics-manufacturing-recycling-death-landfill








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