I know the polyester fabric costs less, but what else comes with it?

19 06 2013

When plastic was introduced in 1869, it was advertised as being able to replace natural products like ivory and tortoiseshell in items such as jewelry, combs and buttons – so it would “no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”(1)

What a success: Plastics are versatile – they can be hard or soft, flexible or brittle, and are durable, lightweight, formable – in fact, they’re so versatile that they’ve become a vital manufacturing ingredient for nearly every existing industry. They are practically ubiquitous. And now we’re beginning to find that our relationship with plastic is not healthy. Using dwindling fossil fuels to manufacture the stuff, plastic leaches toxic chemicals into our groundwater, litters landscapes and destroys marine life. As Susan Freinkel points out in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, it’s worth noting that discoveries of plastic’s toxic effects are being made in a world that is at least ten times more plastic than it was half a century ago. In the ’60s, an American might have used about 30 pounds of plastic a year – in 2011, 300 pounds. And we’re producing 300 million tons more every year.(2)

Plastics were marketed as “the material of the future”. And how true that is, because large polymers take practically forever to break down, so much of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, in landfills, in the plastic filled gyres found in our oceans (where the mass of plastic exceeds that of plankton sixfold) (3), and the stomachs of northern seabirds. And it will stay there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Just as some chemicals can impact children’s bodies much more than adult bodies, Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New Republic, reminds us: “plastic totally dominates the world of the child. Children drink formula in baby bottles and water in sippy cups, eat food with plastic spoons on bright melamine trays, chew on bath books and rubber ducks, and, if they don’t do these things at your house, they’ll do them at someone else’s or at school, no matter how many notes you write or mad-housewife-ish you’re willing to appear.” (4)

There are many studies to support the belief that these plastics are changing us – but what has really changed is that the scientific understanding of how these chemicals are poisoning us has undergone a conceptual revolution – our grandchildren may see our current attitudes about living with these chemicals as being analogous to doctors in the 1950s who appeared in ads for cigarettes.

Old toxicological notions are being stood on their heads. Certainly, the old “dose makes the poison” notion, which was first expressed by Paracelsus in the 16th century and which means that a substance can only be toxic if it is present in a high enough concentration in the body – because all things are poisonous in the right amounts. He wrote: “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy”. But today scientists are finding that timing of exposure might be the critical factor – a fetus might respond to a chemical at one-hundredfold less concentration or more than in an adult, and when the chemical is taken away the body is altered for life. Another theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHaD (for more about DOHaD, click here), and it paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.(5)

New methods have been developed which have taken the guesswork out of what were once theories: for example, biomonitoring now means that scientists can actually discover the degree to which people have been exposed to poisonous stuff when in the past their conclusions were largely guesswork; and microarray profiling, which means we’re beginning to understand how tiny doses of certain chemicals switch genes on or off in harmful ways during exquisitely sensitive periods of development.

Exposure to all that plastic has a cumulative effect. Now toxicologists can see that lots of tiny doses from many different estrogen-mimicking chemicals entering the body by multiple pathways can have a big impact. “If you’re being exposed to two-hundred fifty chemicals and only thirty of them have estrogenic activity, but they’re each very low, still, thirty of them might add up to be significant,” says Jerrold Heindel, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Judith Shulavith asks– if we live in this plastic environment – why we’re not sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? “The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical advances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our illnesses, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent since 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. According to one large study of men in Boston, testosterone levels are down to a degree that can’t be accounted for by factors such as age, smoking, and obesity. Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.”(6)

There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment; for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. But why can’t we just figure this out and come to some conclusions about certain chemicals as the cause of certain diseases? John Vandenberg, a biologist, explains the difficulty : “Well, one of the problems is that we would have to take half of the kids in the kindergarten and give them BPA and the other half not. Or expose half of the pregnant women to BPA in the doctor’s office and the other half not. And then we have to wait thirty to fifty years to see what effects this has on their development, and whether they get more prostate cancer or breast cancer. You have to wait at least until puberty to see if there is an effect on sexual maturation. Ethically, you are not going to go and feed people something if you think it harmful, and, second, you have this incredible time span to deal with.”(7)

Which diseases, exactly, have fetal origins and which chemicals have the power to sidetrack development, and how, is the goal of a giant, 21-year study of 100,000 children called the National Children’s Study (NCS), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. However, in 2013, it was announced that the decade-old effort would undergo radical restructuring to cut costs.(8)

Meanwhile, what can you do to protect yourself and your family, since the government isn’t doing that job?  I’ll have some ideas next week.

(1) Freinkel, Susan, “Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away”, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
(2) Ibid.
(3) Moore, C.J., et al, “Density of Plastic Particles found in zooplankton trawls from coastal waters of Northern California to the North Pacific Central Gyre”, Algalita Marine Research Foundation
(4) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Groopman, Jerome, “The Plastic Panic”, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010.
(8) Belli, Brita, “Changes to Children’s Study Threaten its value, experts say”, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative; 7 March 2013





Beyond natural fibers

11 07 2012

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle. The amount of plastic used to make the bottles is so enormous that estimates of total amount of plastic used is staggering. Earth911.com says that over 2,456 million pounds of PET was available for recycling in the United States in 2009. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bottles.
Those bottles exist – they’re not going away, except perhaps to the landfill. So shouldn’t we be able to use them somehow?
We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here, and here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics. All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.
So the reality is that polyester bottles exist, and using them any way we can before sending them to the landfill will prevent the use of more crude oil, which we’re trying to wean ourselves from, right? Recycling some of them into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.
Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise, recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers. So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.
Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips, sometimes called flakes. These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester, and and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets – we have no way to verify that. Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from. So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled. Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester. Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green. So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.
Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester. But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.
What does that mean? It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things. In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.
It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true? The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden. And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case? There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions. And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow. This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch. There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives. If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post-consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns, such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important. There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.

But now there is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues. The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system: Gold standard – products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;Bronze standard – products have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.





Global Recycle Standard update

1 05 2012

Textile Exchange, which administers the new Global Recycle Standard, has introduced what it says is a “minor but important” change in GRS version 2.1, according to the April/May 2012 issue of Ecotextile News.  (If you’re wondering what the Global Recycle Standard is all about, please see our blog post on the subject:  click here .)

The new change removes the allowance for the use of pre-industrial waste.  The Version 2.1 will only recognize pre-consumer and post-consumer waste.  This change was made because the Textile Exchange has determined that pre-industrial waste does not meet the Federal Trade Commission requirement for recycled input – which is that in order to be considered a recycled input, it must have been diverted from the waste stream.  An example of such pre-industrial waste that does not meet the criteria for being diverted from the waste stream is that of short cotton fibers which fall out of cotton during the spinning process;  the fibers are scooped up and re-introduced into the spinning process.  In terms of polyester, an example would be that of a manufacturer collecting plastic pellets that have spilled onto the manufacturing floor, washing them and then feeding them directly back into the same manufacturing process without reprocessing.

Both of these examples are considered an efficient manufacturing procedure and standard industry practice, not recycling.

Interpreting these pre-consumer recycled content claims can get very specific and technical.  Underwriters Laboratory has published a handy White Paper entitled  “Interpreting Pre-Consumer Recycled Content Claims: Philosophy and Guidance on Environmental Claims for Pre-Consumer Recycled Materials”.(1)

The new GRS standard becomes effective June 1, 2012.  All companies being newly certified to the GRS will be required to use the new GRS v.2.1, while companies with existing GRS v2 certification will be able to maintain their current status until the end of the validity date of their certification.

Textile Exchange is currently working on Version 3 of the GRS, and they say it will be more stringent than the current version, with further refining of definitions for inputs that can be claimed as recycled input and additional requirements for chemical inputs.

(1)  http://greenerul.com/pdf/ULE_whitepaper_July2010.pdf





Bioplastics – are they the answer?

16 04 2012

From Peak Energy blog; August 27, 2008

From last week’s blog post, we discussed how bio based plastics do indeed save energy during the production of the polymers, and produce fewer greenhouse gasses during the process.  Yet right off the bat, it could be argued that carbon footprints may be an irrelevant measurement,  because it has been established that plants grow more quickly and are more drought and heat resistant in a CO2 enriched atmosphere!   Many studies have shown that worldwide food production has risen, possibly by as much as 40%, due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.[1] Therefore, it is both ironic and a significant potential problem for biopolymer production if the increased CO2 emissions from human activity were rolled back, causing worldwide plant growth to decline. This in turn would greatly increase the competition for biological sources of food and fuel – with biopolymers coming in last place.[2]  But that’s probably really stretching the point.

The development of bioplastics holds the potential of renewability, biodegradation, and a path away from harmful additives. They are not, however, an automatic panacea.  Although plant-based plastics appeal to green-minded consumers thanks to their renewable origins,  their production carries environmental costs that make them less green than they may seem.  It’s important to remember that bioplastics, just like regular plastics, are synthetic polymers; it’s just that plants are being used instead of oil to obtain the carbon and hydrogen needed for polymerization.

It’s good marketing, but bad honesty, as they say, because there are so many types of plastics and bioplastics that you don’t know what you’re getting in to;  bioplastics are much more complicated than biofuels.  There are about two dozen different ways to create a bioplastic, and each one has different properties and capabilities.

Actually the term “bioplastic” is pretty meaningless, because some bioplastics are actually made from oil – they’re called “bioplastics” because they are biodegradeable.  That causes much confusion because plastics made from oil can be biodegradeable whereas some plant-based  bioplastics are not. So the term bioplastics can refer either to the raw material (biomass) or, in the case of oil-based plastic, to its biodegradability.  The problem with biodegradability and compostability is that there is no agreement as to what that actually means either,  and under what circumstances

You might also see the term “oxo-degradable”.   Oxo-degradables look like plastic, but they are not. It is true that the material falls apart, but that is because it contains metal salts which cause it to disintegrate rapidly into tiny particles. Then you cannot see it anymore, but it is still there, in the ocean too. Just as with conventional plastics, these oxo-degradables release harmful substances when they are broken down.

Let’s re-visit  some of the reasons bioplastics are supposed to be an environmental benefit:

  • Because it’s made from plants, which are organic, they’re good for the planet.  Polymer bonds can be created from oil, gas or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be organic or more environmentally friendly. You could make non-biodegradable, toxic plastic out of organic corn!
  • Bioplastics are biodegradable. Although made from materials that can biodegrade, the way that material is turned into plastic  makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the materials to naturally break down.  There are bioplastics made from vegetable matter (maize or grass, for example) which are no more biodegradable than any other plastics, says Christiaan Bolck of Food & Biobased Research.[3]  Bioplastics do not universally biodegrade in normal conditions  –  some require special, rare conditions to decompose, such as high heat composting facilities, while others may simply take decades or longer to break down again, mitigating the supposed benefits of using so-called compostable plastics material. There are no independent standards for what even constitutes “biodegradable plastic.”  Sorona makes no claim to break down in the environment; Ingeo is called “compostable” (though it can only be done in industrial high heat composters). Close studies of so-called degradable plastics have shown that some only break down to plastic particles which are so small they can’t be seen  (“out of sight, out of mind”), which are more easily ingested by animals. Indeed, small plastic fragments of this type may also be better able to attract and concentrate pollutants such as DDT and PCB.[4]
  • Bioplastics are recyclable. Because bioplastics come in dozens of varieties, there’s no way to make sure you’re getting the right chemicals in the recycling vat – so although some bioplastics are recyclable, the recycling facilities won’t separate them out.  Cargill Natureworks insists that PLA  can in theory be recycled, but in reality it is likely to be confused with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  In October 2004, a group of recyclers and recycling advocates issued a joint call for Natureworks to stop selling PLA for bottle applications until the recycling questions were addressed.[5]  But the company claims that levels of PLA in the recycling stream are too low to be considered a contaminant.  The process of recycling bioplastics is cumbersome and expensive – they present a real problem for recyclers because they cannot be handled using conventional processes. Special equipment and facilities are often needed. Moreover, if bioplastics commingle with traditional plastics, they contaminate all of the other plastics, which forces waste management companies to reject batches of otherwise recyclable materials.
  • Bioplastics are non-toxicBecause they’re not made from toxic inputs (as are oil based plastics), bioplastics have the reputation for being non toxic.  But we’re beginning to see the same old toxic chemicals produced from a different (plant-based) source of carbon. Example:  Solvay’s bio-based PVC uses phthalates,  requires chlorine during production, and produces dioxins during manufacture, recycling and disposal. As one research group commissioned by the European Bioplastics Association was forced to admit, with regard to PVC,  “The use of bio-based ethylene is …  unlikely to reduce the environmental impact of PVC with respect to its toxicity potential.[6]

The arguments against supporting bioplastics include the fact that they are corporate owned, they compete with food, they bolster industrial agriculture and lead us deeper into genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.  I am not with those who think we shouldn’t go there, because we sorely need scientific inquiry  and eventually we might even get it right.  But, for example, today’s industrial agriculture is not, in my opinion, sustainable, and the genetic engineering we’re doing is market driven with no altruistic motive. 

If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the potential to become a much-preferred alternative to conventional plastics. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC)[7] is a coalition of organizations that advances the introduction and use of biobased products. They seek to replace dependence on materials made from harmful fossil fuels with a new generation of materials made from plants – but the shift they propose is more than simply a change of materials.  They promote (according to their website): sustainability standards, practical tools, and effective policies to drive and shape the emerging markets for these products.  They also refer to “sustainable bioplastics” rather than simply “bioplastics”.  In order to be a better choice, these sustainable bioplastics must be:

  • Derived from non-food, non-GMO source materials – like algae rather than GMO corn, or from sustainably grown and harvested cropland or forests;
  • Safe for the environment during use;
  • Truly compostable and biodegradable;
  • Free of toxic chemicals during the manufacturing and recycling process;
  • Manufactured without hazardous inputs and impacts (water, land and chemical use are considerations);
  • Recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle.

Currently, manufacturers are not responsible for the end-life of their products. Once an item leaves their factories, it’s no longer the company’s problem. Therefore, we don’t have a system by which adopters of these new bioplastics would be responsible for recovering, composting, recycling, or doing whatever needs to be done with them after use. Regarding toxicity, the same broken and ineffective regulatory system is in charge of approving bioplastics for food use, and there is no reason to assume that these won’t raise just as many health concerns as conventional plastics have. Yet again, it will be an uphill battle to ban those that turn out to be dangerous.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology traces the full impact of plastic production all the way back to its source for several types of plastics.[8]   Study author Amy Landis of the University of Pittsburgh says, “The main concern for us is that these plant-derived products have a green stamp on them just because they’re derived from biomass.  It’s not true that they should be considered sustainable. Just because they’re plants doesn’t mean they’re green.”

The researchers found that while making bioplastics requires less fossil fuel and has a lower impact on global warming, they have higher impacts for eutrophication, eco-toxicity and production of human carcinogens.  These impacts came largely from fertilizer use, pesticide use and conversion of lands to agricultural fields, along with processing the bio-feedstocks into plastics, the authors reported.

According to the study, polypropylene topped the team’s list as having the least life-cycle impact, while PVC and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) were ranked as having the highest life-cycle impact.

But as the Plastic Pollution Coalition tells us, it’s not so much changing the material itself that needs changing – it’s our uses of the stuff itself.  We are the problem:   If we continue to buy single-use disposable objects such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, with almost 7 billion people on the planet, our throwaway culture will continue to harm the environment, no matter what it’s made of.

The Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation has a list of ten easy things you can do to keep plastics out of our environment:

  1. Choose to reuse when it comes to  shopping bags and bottled water.  Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable  bottles are available locally at great prices.
  2. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess  packaging, straws and other ‘disposable’ plastics.  Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq’s, potlucks or take-out  restaurants.
  3. Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.
  4. Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them. A great  way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.
  5. Go digital! No need for plastic cds,  dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.
  6. Seek out alternatives to the plastic  items that you rely on.
  7. Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled      plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
  8. Volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently.
  9. Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene  foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
  10. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to Rise Above Plastics!

[1] See for example: Idso, Craig, “Estimates of Global Food Production in the year 2050”, Center for the Study of Carbon dioxide and Global Change, 2011  AND  Wittwer, Sylvan, “Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants”, Policy Review, 1992  AND  http://www.ciesin.org/docs/004-038/004-038a.html

[2] D. B. Lobell and C. B. Field, Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming, Env. Res. Letters 2, pp. 1–7, 2007 AND L. H. Ziska and J. A. Bunce, Predicting the impact of changing CO2 on crop yields: some thoughts on food, New Phytologist 175, pp. 607–618, 2007.

[3] Sikkema, Albert, “What we Don’t Know About Bioplastics”, Resource, December 2011; http://resource.wur.nl/en/wetenschap/detail/what_we_dont_know_about_bioplastics

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at http://recyclablepackaging.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/bio-based-resin-report

[6] L. Shen, “Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bio- Based Plastics,” PRO-BIP 2009, Final Report, June 2009





Polyester and our health

13 10 2011

Polyester is a very popular fabric choice – it is, in fact, the most popular of all the synthetics.  Because it can often have a synthetic feel, it is often blended with natural fibers, to get the benefit of natural fibers which breathe and feel good next to the skin, coupled with polyester’s durability, water repellence and wrinkle resistance.  Most sheets sold in the United States, for instance, are cotton/poly blends.

It is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of clothing and sportswear – not to mention diapers, sanitary pads, mattresses, upholstery, curtains  and carpet. If you look at labels, you might be surprised just how many products in your life are made from polyester fibers.

So what is this polyester that we live intimately with each day?

At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website diaperpin.com:

Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will
make us more informed users.

Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.

Like this:

O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.

The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?

We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist,
any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden
that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by
    research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991)[1].
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).[2]
  • Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. [3]

These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women.  We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial.  After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.

Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic.  It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load.  So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load - and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.

Agin, this is a blog which is supposed to cover topics in textiles:   polyester is by far the most popular fabric in the United States.  Even if made of recycled yarns, the toxic monomers are still the building blocks of the fibers.  And no mention is ever made of the processing chemicals used to dye and finish the polyester fabrics, which as we know contain some of the chemicals which are most damaging to human health.

Why does a specifier make the decision to use polyester – or another synthetic –  when all the data points to this fiber as being detrimental to the health and well being of the occupants?  Why is there not a concerted cry for safe processing chemicals at the very least?


[3]  Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448





Global Recycle Standard

9 09 2011

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A  and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle.   Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise,  recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers.   So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.

We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here or here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics.  All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.  Even though the mantra has been “divert from the landfill”, what do they mean?  Divert to where?

But the reality is that polyester bottles exist,  and recycling some of them  into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.

Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips (sometimes called flakes).

PET resin chips


These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester,  and  and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.

Polyester yarn

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets  - we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from.  So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or  it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the  process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.  Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.

Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers.  Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester.  But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.

What does that mean?    It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things.  In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.

It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?  The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden.

And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case?

There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions.

And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow.  This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch.  There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives.  If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post-consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns,  such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important.  There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.  According to Ecotextile News, this is due (at least in part) to lack of import legislation for recycled goods.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  This would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring, all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap, so those manufacturer’s wouldn’t be expected to increase costs.

There are also private standards which have begun to pop up, in an effort to differentiate their brands.  One fiber supplier which has gone the private standard route is Unifi.   Repreve™ is the name of Unifi’s recycled polyester – the company produces recycled polyester yarns, and (at least for the filament yarns) they have Scientific Certification Systems certify that Repreve™ yarns are made with 100% recycled content.  Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain  to verify that if Repreve is in a product it’s present in the amounts claimed.  But there are still  many unanswered questions (because they’re  considered “proprietary information” by Unifi)  so the process is not transparent.

But now, Ecotextile News’s  suggestion has become a reality.   There is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange),  is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  •  There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system:

  • Gold standard -  products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;
  • Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;
  • Bronze standard -  products  have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice  when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.





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.




Plastics – part 3: even more about why recycling is not working

12 05 2010

I was going to go on to other subjects, but just saw in the Seattle Times that the whale that washed up on a West Seattle beach last month was discovered to have 3.2 lbs. of garbage in its belly – including 20 plastic bags and 37 other  kinds of plastic (read entire article here.)

If you’ve been reading my posts for the past two weeks (On 5.5.10 and 4.28.10), it has hopefully dawned on you that we have a dilemma with regard to plastic:   Recycling presents problems, yet not recycling hardly seems an option.  Whether you see plastic as a boon or a bane, plastic is the fastest-growing portion of our waste stream and now makes up the second-largest category by volume (next to paper) of trash going into our landfills, according to a draft report prepared for the California Integrated Waste Management Board called the “Plastics White Paper.”

Eco Nature Care did a post on plastic recycling, and highlighted many of the reasons recycling isn’t catching on in this country.  I’ve copied the post below (and you can read it here):

Plastics make up 17.8 % by volume  of what’s thrown into California landfills. While consumers are increasingly snapping those Evian bottles off the shelves, they toss the empties into the trash bin more often than the recycling bin. The recycling rate for plastic bottles is only 16 percent — miserably low compared to glass and aluminum — even though consumers can redeem their used plastic bottles for the same CRV (California Refund Value) rate as other containers.

California cities and counties have an incentive to recycle as much material as possible. A 1989 law requires that municipalities reduce the trash they send to landfills by 50%  or face hefty fines.

Diversion, then, becomes the magic word. But from the point of view of recyclers, accepting some types of plastic is more trouble than it’s worth. For example, plastics coded 3 through 7 — cottage cheese, tofu, salsa and yogurt containers — are particularly difficult to recycle profitably. So why take these additional containers at all, especially when their volume is low? According to Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center, the answer is public pressure.

“I fought it. There are no domestic markets for it. At a point you get tired of being harangued by people coming in trying to quote unquote “do the right thing.’”  They don’t want to throw anything away, he said, and that’s all well and good. But a more appropriate position might be, “I shouldn’t buy it in the first place,” he suggested.

The plastics trail

The plastics collected at the Arcata sites are baled and stored for about a month until they fill a 12-ton truckload, Loughmiller said. The truck typically contains 5 tons of milk bottles (the number 2s), 7 tons of soda and water bottles (the number 1s), and about three-quarters of a ton of the so-called “mixed plastics,” the 3s through 7s, which are baled together.

They then make their way to Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento (which also takes all of the plastics from Humboldt Sanitation in McKinleyville). Kenny Luong, president of Ming’s, said his center has 40 or 50 suppliers in California and another 30 to 40 elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Almost all of the plastics that come into Ming’s are sold to brokers in Hong Kong, who pay to transport it via container ship from the Port of Oakland to China. The transport is cheap because China exports far more to the United States than we do to them; the ships traveling back to China have plenty of room.

The mixed plastics don’t make Luong very much money, he said, which explains why the cities of Arcata and Eureka get nothing for their mixed plastic bales. (A ton of milk jugs, by contrast, pays about $200; a ton of soda bottles, $160.)

“It’s enough to cover the transport to the harbor, that’s pretty much it,” Luong said of the mixed plastics. He would prefer not to take those at all. But a change to state law in 2000 expanded the list of beverages included in the California Redemption Value program. And if the bottle has a “CRV” on it — even if it’s a number 3 or 4 plastic — a certified recycling center must accept it and pay the refund to the consumer.

“It’s really a pain in the butt,” Luong said. “There aren’t a whole lot, but we are required to purchase them by law. It prompted us to find a market for it.”

That market, it turns out, consists of recyclers in Shanghai and Guangdong province. Luong said he has never seen the China facilities and knows little about them. “Once it’s loaded on the ship, it’s out of my hands.”

Recycling in Guangdong

One of his brokers has visited some of the locations in China where plastics from Humboldt end up. Doug Spitzer is the owner of Monarch Enterprises of Santa Cruz, which is affiliated with the gargantuan paper company Boise Cascade. He sells plastics to Chinese recyclers and ran a plastic film-recycling factory himself outside of Guangdong in the early 1990s.

“Most of our material goes through Hong Kong into that closest province [to Hong Kong], which is Guangdong,” Spitzer said. One factory will typically limit itself to one type of plastic, and one village might have most of its residents involved in that type of recycling, he said.

“Within this one town outside of Guangzhou [in Guangdong province], when I was there, my partners were telling me there were at least 3,000 plastic film processors there, and they’re right next door to each other. It’s a small village; they all process it.” The facilities range from a mom-and-pop operation that takes one container-load per month to very large, comparatively modern factories.

One Spitzer saw when he visited four years ago involved soda bottles: The workers would break open the bales, women would sort the bottles by color, a “guy with a machete” cut the tops off, two other men scraped labels off, then the bottles were ground into pellets and melted down. 

It was not the kind of place that would be approved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Spitzer said.

“OSHA would go nuts. The place is noisy, it’s crowded, it’s just amazing. Not that they’re killing people off. They’re safe, and all the time we were running the factory there were no major accidents,” he said. “Do people engage in unsafe practices to try to make a living? Yeah, all over the world.”

He said his current business provides a valuable service. “What I’m doing is I’m supplying a raw material that can go to a Third World country.”

There are some facilities in the United States that recycle soda bottles and milk jugs “if the material is clean enough,” said Luong of Ming’s Recycling. But the market for recycled plastic makes it difficult, if not impossible, for recyclers to make any money. The reasons are many. Since plastic is made from petroleum, virgin plastic makers have a large supply of raw material available to them. When manufacturers can buy virgin plastic pellets or flakes for about the same amount of money as recycled plastic, there is little incentive to use recycled (the italics are mine!).

There are also limits to the products that can be made from recycled plastic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow food containers to be made into new food containers because they can’t be heated at temperatures high enough to sterilize them. (The FDA has said it will allow a layer of recycled plastic sandwiched between layers of virgin plastic in soda bottles.)

A numbers game

Plastic recyclers must also face the issue of contamination. Recycling the number 1 (PET) plastics — the soda bottles — could work economically were it not for the number 3s that enter the mix, said Peter Anderson, a recycling consultant in Madison, Wis., who has worked with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. Number 3 plastics are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short.

“PVC presents enormous problems because it looks just like PET physically,” Anderson said. “A single bottle of PVC will contaminate the entire [10,000-bottle] load” aesthetically, causing the new PET bottles made with the material to be yellowed or, with more contamination, to have black streaks, he said. There are X-ray scanning machines that can detect the PVC intruders, but those are too expensive for many recyclers.

“You can’t make plastics recycling work with PVC in the mix,” Anderson said. So, he argued, taking the 3 through 7 plastics makes no economic sense. “Who the hell knows what China’s doing with them? I don’t think anyone can make a case without a smirk on their face that they’re recycling 3 through 7s.”

He called the idea of recycling all plastics “a serious mistake.”

Some recyclers take the 3 through 7 plastics because, they reason, they’ll get more of the “good stuff” — the soda bottles and milk bottles — if they advertise that they accept a wider range of recyclables. Eel River Disposal in Fortuna, for example, accepts numbers 1, 2 and 3, which they send to Smurfit Recycling in Oakland.

Eel River owner Harry Hardin said he doesn’t collect enough of the number 3s to make a separate bale with it, so he bales it with the number 2s. “I even put some 4s in there,” he said.

Asked about the PVC contamination problem, Hardin said, “It depends what market you send it into. Smurfit’s — I’m not quite sure what they do with theirs. But they will allow some number 3 and 2 together.”

Not so, said Don Kurtz, plant manager for Smurfit in Oakland. “If we identify that there are 3s in there, we reject the bale,” he said. Eel River was recently told to come and get one of their bales that was turned away for that very reason. “We really don’t want number 3s. It really doesn’t make sense for us to mess with it.” (Unlike Ming’s, Smurfit is not legally bound to take any particular recyclables because the company is classified as a “processor,” not a recycling facility.)

Another Humboldt County recycler sells his material to a middleman in a different part of the state. The man, who did not want to be identified, said he does not collect enough 3 through 7 numbered plastics to bale them separately, so he mixes them with the bales for the numbers 1 and 2. “Don’t advertise that,” he said. “It’s garbage plastic, but a lot of people like to recycle it.” His company then sells it to a broker who sends it overseas.

“If they’re putting it in with the PET [number 1s], I guarantee they’re getting thrown out,” said the broker, Patty Moore of the Sonoma-based Moore Recycling Associates.

Destination landfill

All in all, plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.

“With plastics recycling, we’re just extending the life of a material. We’re not creating a perpetual loop for that material,” like we do with glass and aluminum recycling, said Loughmiller, the Arcata recycling director.

“I think people really need to have a reality check on plastics,” said Puckett of the Basel Action Network. “The mantra has been, `divert from the landfill.’ What we’ve been saying is, divert to what? Dump it on the Chinese? Plastics recycling needs to be looked at with a jaundiced eye,” he said. “It’s not what it’s touted to be.”

If you’ve ever looked on the bottom of your plastic juice bottle,  detergent bottle or tofu tub, you’ve seen the little triangle of arrows with a number inside. That symbol — contrary to popular belief — does not indicate that a container is recyclable.

Back in 1988, “the trade groups managed to get into law the resin [type of plastic] identification,” said Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center. The numbers indicate which category of plastic the container is made from.

“The triangled arrows imply recyclability,” Loughmiller said. “The plastic industry denied it was trying to mislead the public and cause confusion.” But that’s what happened, he said. People regularly come to his center and demand to know why their plastic lawn chair with a number on the bottom can’t be recycled.

And why can’t it? Because, even in one category, such as plastics labeled with a number 2 (high density polyethylene or HDPE), there are many variations. Milk jugs and yogurt containers, for example, may both be made with HDPE, but because the recycling process requires melting of the old containers, and they melt at different temperatures, they may be incompatible.





Plastics – part 2: Why recycling is not the answer

5 05 2010

In Plastics, Part 1 (last week’s post; click here to read it) I tried to give a summary of why plastics are not such a good thing.  The Plastic Pollution coalition has a list of basic concepts about plastic.  Click here to read the expanded version:

  • Plastic is forever
  • Plastic is poisoning our food chain
  • Plastic affects human health
  • Recycling is not a sustainable solution

Yet there seems to be no end to our demand for plastics.   In one year alone, from 1995 – 96, plastic packaging increased by 1,000,000,000 lbs.  And despite recycling efforts, for every 1 ton increase in plastic recycling, there was a 14 ton increase in new plastic production.

I tried to explain some of the roadblocks to plastic recycling efforts.   We have all heard that recycling is good for the environment,  and it’s hard to argue with the intuitively correct reasoning that if we recycle we reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we conserve energy and emissions and we keep bottles out of the landfills.

And what about the lighter weight of plastic bottles?  Surely there are benefits in shipping lighter weight bottles  – giving plastic bottles a lower overall carbon footprint?  Well, here’s the thing:  there are environmental trade offs, just like in life.  Even if we accept that plastics are more carbon efficient than alternative materials (glass) in transportation, we’re still talking about vast amounts of carbon emissions.  Plastics use releases at least 100 million tons of CO2 – some say as much as 500 million tons – into the atmosphere each year.  That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from 10 – 45% of all U.S. drivers.  Plastic manufacturing also contributes 14% of the national total of toxic (i.e., other than CO2) releases to our atmosphere; producing a 16 oz PET bottle generates more than 100 times the amount of toxic emissions than does making the same size in glass.  But the critical point is that it’s definitely cheaper to ship liquids in plastic rather than in glass.  And it’s also cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin plastic than a recycled plastic.

These rather alarming CO2 numbers could be much lower, we understand, if only Americans recycled more than the paltry 7% of plastic which is recycled today.  We could cut our usage of virgin material by one third – and that means an annual savings of 30 to 150 million tons of CO2.

So why aren’t Americans recycling more?  Although our plastic consumption has grown by a factor of 30 since the 1960s, recycling has grown by a factor of just two.  Is this just because we don’t take the time to separate recyclable plastics from general waste, or because we don’t take the time to throw the bottle into the proper recycling bin?  What about companies that use the plastic – they are not clamoring to spend more to use recycled plastic (again that bugaboo “cost”) so they continue to demand virgin plastic.

When Rhode Island enacted comprehensive recycling legislation in 1986, including bans on plastic bottles – the plastic industry responded by introducing their resin codes, in part (some say) to deflect attention from the virgin polyester production and encourage an environmental spin on the plastics.  The plastics industry’s  “chasing arrows” symbol surrounding a number (those resin codes) were “deliberately misleading” according to Daniel Knapp, director of Berkeley’s Urban Ore.  “The plastics industry has wrought intentional confusion with that symbol”, said Bill Sheehan, director of GrassRoots Recycling Network.  Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic has no system for recycling – no infrastructure to sell it, no markets to buy it, no facilities to make it.  “In short, the arrows led nowhere.”(1)

According to many, these codes just gave plastic an environmental patina, which the industry was quick to use.  “Several states have postponed or backed off from restrictive packaging legislation as a result of the voluntary coding system” – this gleeful statement from a 1988 newsletter of the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment.

The industry’s critics say that it won’t do anything to support recycling.  Mel Weiss, an independent plastics broker, sees the industry focused on PR and not at all interested in recycling.  He says:  “the American Plastics Council (APC), a trade group representing virgin-resin producers, won’t do anything to support recycling. If they had a choice between selling one pound of virgin and 22 tons of recycled, they’d sell the virgin. All they’re doing is masking what they’re doing with an expensive ad campaign.”

Here’s the irony:  it was the veneer of recyclability – cultivated by the plastics industry – that led to this explosion of plastic use.

The plastics industry, spearheaded by the American Plastics Council (APC), has sponsored campaigns to convince the public that recycling is easy, economical and a big success.  They are a “responsible choice in a more environmentally conscious world”, according to the APC.  Between November 1992 and July 1993, the APC spent $18 million in a national advertising campaign to “Take Another Look at Plastics.” (Environmental Defense Fund, October 21, 1997, “Something to hide: The sorry state of plastics recycling.”)  Examples of how plastics “leave a lighter footprint on the planet” include the argument that plastic grocery bags are lighter and create less waste by volume than paper sacks, the industry said. And the fact that plastics are so lightweight and durable enables manufacturers to use less energy and generate less waste in production processes, plastic promoters said.

In addition to the American Plastics Council, the American Chemical Council (ACC) also spends millions to defend the chemicals produced by their members to make plastics. – including lobbying against any bills that would add a few cents to each bag or bottle to encourage returns and recycling efforts.    According to Lisa Kaas Boyle, Board Member of Heal the Bay, the ACC has hired the same advisors who defended the tobacco industry to formulate a strategy to promote and defend the petrochemical industry.  That strategy is based on preventing legislation to curtail single use plastics  (SUPs – i.e., soda bottles etc.) and to generate positive press on the promotion of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution.  This approach makes the industry look environmental while continuing with business as usual.

Because most manufacturers don’t take back their products, there’s often little opportunity to sell collected plastic. It is true that the West Coast  is blessed with domestic and overseas markets that have made recycling of #1 and #2 plastics – soda bottles and milk jugs – somewhat easier. But even here, metals and paper are the real money-makers.

“Plastics is the least profitable part of the business,” said Kevin McCarthy, regional recycling manager at Waste Management Inc.,  “and it may not even be fair to say that it is profitable at all.”

Like McCarthy’s operation, many recyclers will collect plastic only to meet contractual requirements from government agencies. The impetus to collect certain types of plastic comes from residents. But these plastics often have no market for reuse. Recyclers call it “junk plastic,”  – stuff that gets collected only “because residents wanted it collected because they watched the commercials on TV extolling the recyclability of plastic,” said one recycling official who insisted on anonymity.

In Europe, plastic recycling rates hover around 16.5%, largely because there are strict regulations from Europe’s “End of Life Directive”, in which manufacturers must take more responsibility for the processing of waste from their products.  In the U.S., efforts come largely from voluntary programs within companies, such as Wal Mart’s campaign to reduce the size of packages and increase their use of recycled materials.   The  U.S. government is highly unlikely to enact recycling legislation.  We in Seattle  voted last summer on a citizen sponsored plastic bag tax (we called it a fee)  of $0.20 per disposable bag coupled with a ban on Styrofoam.  The American Chemistry Council spent more than $1.4 million to defeat the bill – and they succeeded.

One aspect of recycling which is little known to consumers is the fact that almost all of the plastics we recycle, regardless of type, end up in China, where worker safety standards are virtually nonexistent and materials are sorted and processed under dirty, primitive conditions. The economics surrounding plastic recycling — unlike those for glass and aluminum — make it a dubious venture for U.S. companies.

(1)  Dan Rademacher, “Manufacturing a Myth: The plastics recycling ploy”, Terrain Magazine, Winter 1999





Plastics – part 1

28 04 2010

Philosopher George Carlin once said,   “Man is only here to give the planet something it didn’t have:   Plastic.”

And man has done well:  plastic is ubiquitous in our world today and the numbers are growing.   We produce 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.

The production and use of plastics has a range of environmental impacts. Plastics production requires significant quantities of resources:  it uses land and water, but the primary resource is fossil fuels, both as a raw material and to deliver energy for the manufacturing process. It is estimated that 8% of the world’s annual oil production is used as either feedstock or energy for production of plastics.

Plastics production also involves the use of potentially harmful chemicals, which include cadmium, lead, PVC, and other pollutants which are added as stabilizers, plasticizers or colorants. Many of these have not undergone environmental risk assessment and their impact on human health and the environment is currently uncertain.  Finally, plastics manufacture  produces waste and emissions. In the U.S., fourteen percent of airborne toxic emissions come from plastics production.  The average plastics plant can discharge as much as 500 gallons of  wastewater per minute – water contaminated with process chemicals.  (The overall environmental impact varies according to the type of plastic and the production method employed.)

Every second, 200 plastic bottles made of virgin, non-renewable resources are land-filled – and every hour another 2.5 million bottles are thrown away.  And though I can’t get a definitive answer about whether the plastics decompose (because although they don’t biodegrade they do photodegrade – when exposed to UV radiation, over time they break down into smaller and smaller bits, leaching their chemical components), most sources, if they do accept that plastic can degrade, admit that nobody knows how long it really takes because most plastics have only been around for 50 years or so  -  but estimates range into the thousands of years.   (To read how scientists make estimates for plastic decomposition rates, click here. )

How do we cope with this plastic onslaught?

Recycling is the most widely recognized concept in solid waste management – and the environmental benefits of recycling plastic are touted elsewhere.  I’ll just give you the highlights here:

  • It reduces the amount of garbage we send to landfills:  Although plastic accounts for only 8% of the waste by weight, they occupy about 20% of the volume in a landfill due to their low bulk density.
  • It conserves energy:  recycling 1 pound of PET conserves 12,000 BTUs of heat energy; and the production of recycled PET uses 1/3 less energy than is needed to produce virgin PET.
  • It reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It helps conserve natural resources.

But it should be remembered that some items are much better candidates for recycling than others.  Aluminum recycling, for example, uses 95% less energy than producing aluminum from bauxite ore, and aluminum cans can be recycled into new aluminum cans.  There is no limit to the amount of times an aluminum container can be recycled. The PET bottle, which is used for everything from water to wine,  was patented in 1973 – that’s only 27 years ago!  Prior to that most bottles were of glass.  Glass, like aluminum,  is infinitely recyclable.  As late as 1947, virtually 100% of all beverage bottles were returnable; and states with bottle deposit laws have 35 – 40% less litter by volume.  I found this image while looking for Earth Day anniversary images, and think it’s a great example of how corporations will slant anything to their purposes.  (Please note that the company in question is Coca Cola – I’ll have a lot to say about Coke’s recycling efforts in 2010 in upcoming blog posts):

There are different costs and benefits for other recyclable items: plastic, paper, electronics, motor oil… They each have their own individual problems.

With reference to the textile industry, 60% of all the virgin polyethelene terephthalate (PET) produced globally is used to make fibers, while only 30% goes into bottle production.  As I explained in a previous blog,  the textile industry has adopted recycled polyester as the fiber of choice to promote its green agenda.   What I want to do is expose this choice for what it is: a self-serving attempt to convince the public that a choice of a recycled polyester fabric is actually a good eco choice – when the reality is that this is another case of expediency and greed over any authentic attempts to find a sustainable solution.  My biggest complaint with the industry’s position is that there is no attempt made to address the question of water treatment or of chemical use during dyeing and processing of the fibers.

So to begin, let’s look at what plastic recycling means, since there are many misconceptions about recycling plastic – especially plastic bottles from which (some) recycled polyester yarns are made.

In 1970, at the time of the first Earth Day, Gary Anderson won a contest sponsored by Container Corporation of America to present a design which symbolizes the recycling process.  His winning design  was a three-chasing-arrows Mobius loop, with the arrows twisting and turning among themselves.   Because of the symbol’s simplicity and clarity it became widely used worldwide and is a symbol now recognized  by almost everyone.  Today almost all plastic containers have the “chasing arrows” symbol.  We’re bombarded with that symbol – any manufacturer worth his salt slaps it on their products.

But the symbol itself is meaningless.  This symbol is not a government mandated code, and does not imply any particular type or amount of recycled content.  Many people think that the “chasing arrows” symbol means the plastic can be recycled – and that too is untrue.

The only useful information in the “chasing arrows” symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. There are thousands of types of plastic used for consumer packaging today. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry devised a numbering system  to aid in sorting plastics for recycling, because in order to be recycled,  each plastic container must be separated by type before it can be used again to make a new product. Of the seven types, only two kinds, polyethelene terephthalate (PET), known as #1, and High Density Polyethelyne (HDPE) – or #2 -  are typically collected and reprocessed.   Some of these resins are not yet recyclable at all (such as #6 or 7), or they’re recyclable only rarely.

In addition, a resin code might indeed indicate #1 (PET) for example, but depending on the use (yogurt cup vs. soda bottle) it will contain different dyes, plasticizers, UV inhibitors, softeners, or other chemicals.
This mix of additives changes the properties of the plastic, so not all #1 resins can be melted together – further complicating the process.  Here’s a list of the seven resin codes and some of the concerns associated with each:

Consumers see the symbol and  - thinking it means the plastic can be recycled – drop bottles into recycling bins, feeling they’ve “done their part” and that the used bottle is now part of the infinite loop, becoming a new and valued product.  But does the bottle actually get “recycled”, returning to a high value product, staying out of the garbage dump?

Well, uh, . . .  not really.  Collecting plastic containers in a recycling bin fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers.  In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers are being made into containers again, but rather into new secondary products, like textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products.  “Recycled’ in this case merely means “collected.”

A bottle can become a fabric, but a fabric can’t become a bottle – or even another fabric, but we’ll get to that later.  There are far too few exceptions to this rule.

Plastic has what’s called a “heat history”: each time it gets recycled the polymer chains break down, weakening the plastic and making it less suitable for high end use.  PET degrades after about 5 melt cycles.  This phenomenon, known in the industry as “cascading” or “downcycling,” has a troubling consequence.    It means that all plastic – including the tiny proportion that finds its way into another bottle – “will eventually end up in the landfill,” said Jerry Powell, editor of Plastics Recycling Update.

The technology exists to recycle most kinds of plastic, but a lack of infrastructure prevents all but the most widespread kinds of plastic from being recycled.  Collection is expensive because plastic bottles are light yet bulky, making it hard to efficiently gather significant amounts of matching plastic.  For recycling to work, communities must be able to cost effectively collect and sort plastic, and businesses must be willing to accept the material for processing. So no matter whether a particular plastic is in a form which allows it to be melted and reused, something is only recyclable if there is a company out there who is willing to use it to make a new product. If there is no one who will accept the material and make a new product out of it, then it is not recyclable.

Only a few kinds of plastic have the supply and market conditions that make recycling feasible. With plastics in particular, how the plastic particles are put together (molded or extruded) changes their chemical make up and make them non recyclable in certain applications. Some bottles make it to a recycler, who must scramble to find a buyer.  The recycler  often ends up selling the bottles at a loss to an entrepreneur who makes carpeting or traffic strips – anything but new bottles.

Recycling reduces the ecological impact of plastic, but it remains more complicated, more expensive and less effective than other parts of the recycling industry. No matter how many chasing arrows are printed on plastic products, it doesn’t change the fact that plastic is largely a throwaway material.

Next week:   what is the plastic industry doing to create a stronger recycling market for its product?








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