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.





Our finite pool of worry

14 04 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.





Issues with using recycled polyester

31 03 2010

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 (which had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post consumer recycled polyester”.  Recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market.   In textiles, most of what passes for “sustainable” claims by manufacturers have some sort of recycled polyester in the mix, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers.

The recycled market today has lots of unused capacity – as well as great potential for growth, because the recycling rates in many high consumption areas (like Europe and the USA) are low but growing.   In Europe, collection rates for bottles rose to 46% of all PET bottles on the market, while in the US the rate is 27%.   Factories are investing in technology and increasing their capacity – so the demand is huge.  According to Ecotextile News, beggars in China will literally stand watching people drink so that they can ask for the empty bottle.

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 labelled products.  According to Ecotextile News, this is due (at least in part) to lack of import legislation for recycled goods.

When you buy a fabric that claims it’s made of 100% post consumer polyester – how do you know that the fibers are 100% post consumer?  Is there a certification which assures us that the fibers really are what the manufacturer says they are?  And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case?  And what about water use – it’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?

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 and (if not used at 100% rates) mixed with virgin polyester.   A fabric made of “recycled polyester” has a designated percentage of those chips in the polymer.  The technology has gotten so sophisticated that it’s now difficult to verify if something is really recycled.

First, let’s look at how the recycled polyester is used in textiles, beyond the issue of whether the recycled PET yarns actually ARE spun from recycled feedstock,  because there are several issues with using recycled PET which are unique 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.
  • 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.

And of course, the chemicals used to dye the polymers as well as the processing methods used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not – be optimized to be environmentally benign.  Water used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not –  be treated.  And the workers may – or may not – be paid a fair wage.

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!).  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 right amounts.  But there are still  many unanswered questions (because they’re  considered “proprietary information” by Unifi)  so the process is not transparent.

But now there is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard, issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn.  In addition to the certification of the recycled content, this new standard holds the weaver to similar standards as 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 wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • there is an extensive section related to worker’s health and safety.

In the end, polyester – whether recycled or virgin – is plastic.

I came across the work of a photographer living in Seattle, Chris Jordan, who published photographs of albatross chicks which he made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific.   As he says, “The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.”  See more at Chris Jordan’s website here.

To make thing worse, these tiny pieces of plastic are extremely powerful chemical accumulators for organic persistent pollutants present in ambient sea water such as DDE’s and PCB’s. The whole food chain,  from invertebrates to fish, turtles and mammals … are eating plastic and /or other animals who have plastic in them.

If you’re shocked by this picture, remember that this was brought to our attention years ago by National Geographic Magazine and in reports by scientists from many organizations.  One of the things they warned us of is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has doubled in size while we have done nothing.  I am shocked that we have done nothing while the cascading effects of our disposable society continue to accumulate.





Textiles and water use

24 02 2010

Water.  Our lives depend on it.  It’s so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet – but freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed everywhere or to everyone.  The number of people on our planet is growing fast, and our water use is growing even faster.  About 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortage[1] – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe.[2] And the blues singers got it right: you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.

I just discovered that the word “rival” comes from the Latin (rivalis) meaning those who share a common stream.  The original meaning, apparently, was closer to our present word for companion, but as words have a way of doing, the meaning became skewed to mean competition between those seeking a common goal.

This concept – competition between those seeking a common goal – will soon turn again to water, since water, as they say, is becoming the “next oil”;  there’s also talk of “water futures” and “water footprints”  – and both governments and big business are looking at water (to either control it or profit from it).  Our global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.  The pressure is on.

Note: There are many websites and books which talk about the current water situation in the world, please see our bibliography which is at the bottom of this post.

What does all this have to do with fabrics you buy?

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step.  The water used is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater which is returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

When we say the textile industry uses a lot of water, just how much is a lot?  One example we found:  the Indian textile industry uses 425,000,000 gallons of water every day [3] to process the fabrics it produces.  Put another way, it takes about 20 gallons of water to produce one yard of upholstery weight fabric.  If we assume one sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, then the water necessary to produce the fabric to cover that one sofa is 500 gallons.  Those figures vary widely, however, and often the water footprint is deemed higher.  The graphic here is from the Wall Street Journal, which assigns 505 gallons to one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans [4]:

The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion.  What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem.  The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs,  phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated.  And we are all downstream.

The process chemicals used by the mills are used on organic fibers just as they’re used on polyesters and conventionally produced natural fibers.  Unless the manufacturer treats their wastewater – and if they do they will most assuredly let you know it, because it costs them money – then we have to assume the worst.  And the worst is plenty bad.  So just because you buy something made of “organic X”, there is no assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet.

You might hear from plastic manufacturers that polyester has virtually NO water footprint, because the manufacturing of the polyester polymer uses very little water – compared to the water needed to grow or produce any natural fiber.  That is correct.  However, we try to remind everyone that the production of a fabric involves two parts:

  • The production of the fiber
  • The weaving of the fiber into cloth

The weaving portion uses the same types of process chemicals – same dyestuffs, solubalisers and dispersents, leveling agents, soaping, and dyeing agents, the same finishing chemicals,  cationic and nonionic softeners, the same FR, soil and stain, anti wrinkling or other finishes – and the same amount of water and energy.  And recycled polyesters have specific issues:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades.  Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
  • Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process.  Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
  • Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.[5]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.

So water treatment of polyester manufacturing should be in place also.  In fact there is a new standard called the Global Recycle Standard, which was issued by Control Union Certifications.   The standard has strict environmental processing criteria in place in addition to percentage content of recycled  product – it includes wastewater treatment as well as chemical use that is based on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Oeko-Tex 100.

And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (see bibliography below) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust.  These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right?  If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state?  Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water a a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The World’s Water:  http://www.worldwater.org/

Water.org:    http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/facts/

Ground water and drinking water:  http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/faq/faq.html

New York Times series, Toxic Waters:  http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters

Barlow, Maude, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008

Water Footprint Network:  http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home


[1]Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation), David J. Tenenbaum, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.

[2] Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online

[3] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.

[4] Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to worry about: Water”, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009

[5] “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008





Will the antimony in polyester fabric hurt me?

17 02 2010

Synthetic fibers are the most popular fibers in the world with 65% of world production of fibers being synthetic and  35%  natural fibers. (1)  Fully  70% of that synthetic fiber production is polyester. There are many different types of polyester, but the type most often produced for use in textiles is polyethylene terephthalate, abbreviated PET.   Used in a fabric, it’s most often referred to as “polyester” or “poly”.  It is very cheap to produce, and that’s a primary driver for its use in the textile industry.

The majority of the world’s PET production – about 60% – is used to make fibers for textiles; and about  30% is used to make bottles.   Annual PET production requires 104 million barrels of oil  – that’s 70 million barrels just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics.(2)  That means most polyester – 70 million barrels worth –  is manufactured specifically to be made into fibers, NOT bottles, as many people think.  Of the 30% of PET which is used to make bottles, only a tiny fraction is recycled into fibers.  But the idea of using recycled bottles – “diverting waste from landfills” – and turning it into fibers has caught the public’s imagination.  There are many reasons why using recycled polyester (often called rPET) is not a good choice given our climate crisis, but today’s post is concentrating on only one aspect of polyester: the fact that antimony is used as a catalyst to create PET.  We will explore what that means.

Antimony is present in 80 – 85% of all virgin PET.  Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.  Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  The industry will say that  although antimony is used as a catalyst in the production process, it  is “locked” into the finished polymer, and not a concern to human health.  And that’s correct:   antimony used in the production of  PET fibers becomes chemically bound to the PET polymer  so your PET fabric does contain antimony but it isn’t available to your living system. (2)

But wait!  Antimony is leached from the fibers during the high temperature dyeing process.  The antimony that leaches from the fibers  is expelled with the wastewater into our rivers (unless the fabric is woven at a mill which treats its wastewater).  In fact, as much as 175ppm of antimony can be leached from the fiber during the dyeing process. This seemingly insignificant amount translates into a burden on water treatment facilities when multiplied by 19 million lbs each year –  and it’s still a hazardous waste when precipitated out during treatment. Countries that can afford technologies that precipitate the metals out of the solution are left with a hazardous sludge that must then be disposed of in a properly managed landfill or incinerator operations. Countries who cannot or who are unwilling to employ these end-of-pipe treatments release antimony along with a host of other dangerous substances to open waters.

But what about the antimony that remains in the PET fabric?  We do know that antimony leaches from PET bottles into the water or soda inside the bottles.  The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says that the antimony in fabric is very tightly bound and does not expose people to antimony, (3) as I mentioned earlier.    So if you want to take the government’s word for it,  antimony in  PET  is not a problem for human health  –  at least directly in terms of exposure from fabrics which contain antimony.  (Toxics crusader William McDonough has been on antimony’s case for years, however, and takes a much less sanguine view of antimony. (4) )

Antimony is just not a nice thing to be eating or drinking, and wearing it probably won’t hurt you, but the problem comes up during the production process  – is it released into our environment?  Recycling PET is a high temperature process, which creates wastewater tainted with antimony trioxide – and  the dyeing process for recycled PET is problematic as I mentioned in an earlier post.   Another problem occurs when the PET (recycled or virgin) is finally incinerated at the landfill – because then the antimony is released as a gas (antimony trioxide).  Antimony trioxide  has been classified as a carcinogen in the state of California since 1990, by various agencies in the U.S. (such as OSHA, ACGIH and IARC)  and in the European Union.  And the sludge produced during PET production (40 million pounds in the U.S. alone) when incinerated creates 800,000 lbs of fly ash which contains antimony, arsenic and other metals used during production.(5)

Designers are in love with polyesters because they’re so durable – and cheap (don’t forget cheap!).  So they’re used a lot for public spaces.  Abrasion results are a function not only of the fiber but also the construction of the fabric, and cotton and hemp can be designed to be very durable, but they will never achieve the same abrasion results that some polyesters have achieved – like 1,000,000 rubs.  In the residential market, I would think most people wouldn’t want a fabric to last that long – I’ve noticed sofas which people leave on the streets with “free” signs on them, and never once did I notice that the sofa was suffering from fabric degredation!  The “free” sofa just had to go because it was out of style, or stained, or something – I mean, have you even replaced a piece of furniture because the fabric had actually worn out?  Hemp linens have been known to last for generations.

But I digress.   Synthetic fibers can do many things that make our lives easier, and in many ways they’re the true miracle fibers.  I think there will always be a place for (organic) natural fibers, which are comfortable and soothing next to human skin.  And they certainly have that cachet: doesn’t  silk damask sound better than Ultrasuede? The versatile synthetics have a place in our textile set – but I think the current crop of synthetics must be changed so the toxic inputs are removed and the nonsustainable feedstock (oil) is replaced.  I have great hope for the biobased polymer research going on, because the next generation of miracle fibers just might come from sustainable sources.

(1) “New Approach of Synthetic Fibers Industry”, Textile Exchange,  http://www.teonline.com/articles/2009/01/new-approach-of-synthetic-fibe.html

(2) Polyester, Absolute Astronomy.com: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Polyester and Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water, Gleick and Cooley, Feb 2009, http://www.pacinst.org/reports/bottled_water/index.htm)

(3)  Shotyk, William, et al, “Contamination of Canadian and European Bottled waters with antimony from PET containers”, Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 2006.   http://www.rsc.org/delivery/_ArticleLinking/DisplayHTMLArticleforfree.cfm?JournalCode=EM&Year=2006&ManuscriptID=b517844b&Iss=2

(4)   http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/phs23.html

(5)  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

(3) http://www.greenatworkmag.com/gwsubaccess/02mayjun/eco.html





Embodied energy needed to make one sofa

6 01 2010

I just read the article by Team Treehugger on Planet Green on what to look for if you’re interested in green furniture. And sure enough, they talked about the wood (certified sustainable – but without any  explanation about why Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood should be a conscientious consumers only choice), reclaimed materials, design for disassembly, something they call “low toxicity furniture”, buying vintage…the usual suspects.  Not once did they mention your fabric choice.

Of course, all these are important considerations and like most green choices, there are tradeoffs and degrees of green.  But if we look at the carbon footprint of an average upholstered sofa and see what kind of energy requirements are needed to produce that sofa, we can show you how your fabric choice is the most important choice you can make in terms of embodied energy.  Later on (next week’s post) we’ll take a look at what your choices mean in terms of toxicity and environmental degredation.

These are the components of a typical sofa:

  • Wood
  • Foam (most commonly) or other cushion filling
  • Fabric
  • Miscellaneous:
    • Glue
    • Varnish/paint
    • Metal springs
    • Thread
    • Jute webbing
    • Twine
  1. WOOD: A 6 foot sofa uses about 32 board feet of lumber (1) .  For kiln dried maple, the embodied energy for 32 board feet is 278 MJ.  But if we’re looking at a less expensive sofa which uses glulam (a laminated lumber product), the embodied energy goes up to 403 MJ.
  2. FOAM:  Assume 12 cubic feet of foam is used, with a density of 4 lbs. per cubic foot (this is considered a good weight for foam);  the total weight of the foam used is 48 lbs. The new buzz word for companies making upholstered furniture is “soy based foam” (an oxymoron which we’ll expose in next week’s post), which is touted to be “green” because (among other things)  it uses less energy to produce.  Based on Cargill Dow’s own web site for the BiOH polyol which is the basis for this new product, soy based foam uses up to 60% less energy than does conventional polyurethane foams.   Companies which advertise foam made with 20% soy based polyols  use 1888 MJ of energy to create 12 cubic feet of foam, versus 2027 MJ if conventional polyurethane was used.  For our purposes of comparison, we’ll use the lower energy amount of 1888 MJ and give the manufacturers the benefit of the doubt.
  3. FABRIC:  Did you know that the decorative fabric you choose to upholster your couch is not the only fabric used in the construction?  Here’s the breakdown for fabric needed for one sofa:
    1. 25 yards of decorative fabric
    2. 20 yards of lining fabric
    3. 15 yards of burlap
    4. 10 yards of muslin

TOTAL amount of fabric needed for one sofa:  70 yards!

Using data from various sources (see footnotes below), the amount of energy needed to produce the fabric varies between 291 MJ (if all components were made of hemp, which has the lowest embodied energy) and 7598 MJ (if all components were made of  nylon, which has the highest embodied energy requirements).  If we choose the most commonly used fibers for each fabric component, the total energy used is 2712 MJ:

fiber Embodied energy in MJ
25 yards decorative fabric/ 22 oz lin. yd = 34.0 lbs polyester 1953
20 yards lining fabric / 15 oz linear yard = 19 lbs cotton 469
15 yards burlap / 10 oz linear yard = 9.4 lbs hemp 41
10 yards muslin / 7 oz linear yard = 4.4 lbs polyester 249
TOTAL: 2712

I could not find any LCA studies which included the various items under “Miscellaneous” so for this example we are discounting that category.  It might very well impact results, so if anyone knows of a study which addresses these items please let us know!

So  we’re looking at three components (wood, foam and fabric), only two of which most people seem to think are important in terms of upholstered furniture manufacture.  But if we put the results in a table, it’s suddenly very clear that fabric is the most important consideration – at least in terms of embodied energy:

Embodied energy in MJ
WOOD: 32 board feet, kiln dried maple 278
FOAM: 12 cubic feet, 20% bio-based polyol 1888
SUBTOTAL wood and foam: 2166
FABRIC: FIBER:
25 yards uphl  fabric/ 22 oz lin. yd = 34.0 lbs polyester 1953
20 yards lining fabric / 15 oz linear yard = 19 lbs cotton 469
15 yards burlap / 10 oz linear yard = 9.4 lbs hemp 41
10 yards muslin / 7 oz linear yard = 4.4 lbs polyester 249
SUBTOTAL, fabric: 2712

If we were to use the most egregious fabric choices (nylon), the subtotal  for the energy used to create just the fabric would be 7598 MJ – more than three times the energy needed to produce the wood and foam!  This is just another instance where  fabric, a forgotten component,  makes a profound impact.

(1)  From: “Life Cycle Analysis of Wood Products: Cradle to Gate LCIof residential wood building material”, Wood and Fiber Science, 37 Corrim Special Issue, 2005, pp. 18 – 29.

(2)  Data for embodied energy in fabrics:

“Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, Stockholm Environment Institute, 2005

Composites Design and Manufacture, School of Engineering, University of Plymouth UK, 2008, http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm

Study: “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow.





Greenwashing and textiles

29 12 2009

I have been saying for years that fabric is the forgotten product.  People just don’t seem to care about what their fabric choices do to them or to the environment.  (Quick, what fiber is your shirt/blouse made of?  What kinds of fibers do you sleep on?)   They are too busy to do research, or they’re gullible – either way they decide to believe claims made by many product manufacturers.  And I can’t really blame them, because the issues are complex.

Green products are proliferating so quickly (the average number of “green” products per store almost doubled between 2007 and 2008, according to TerraChoice’s Greenwashing Report 2009) and adding so many new consumer claims that the term “greenwash” (verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service) has become part of most people’s vocabulary.    In the area of fabrics, the greenwashing going on has led the FTC to make the publication of its new Green Guide on textiles a priority.

Incidences of greenwashing are going up, and that means increased risk:

  • Consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise.
  • Illigetimate environmental claims will take market share away from products that offer legitimate benefits, thereby slowing the spread of real environmental innovation.
  • Greenwashing will lead to cynicism and doubt about all environmental claims.  Consumers may just give up.
  • And perhaps worst of all – the sustainability movement will lose the power of the market to accelerate real progress towards sustainability.

The first step to cleaning up greenwashing is to identify it, and Kevin Tuerff (co-founder of the marketing consultancy EnviroMedia) and his partners have hit on an innovative way to spotlight particularly egregious examples. They’ve launched the Greenwashing Index,  a website that allows consumers to post ads that might be examples of greenwashing and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5–1 is a little green lie; 5 is an outright falsehood.  This hopefully teaches people to be a bit more cautious about the claims they hear.  Read more about greenwashing here.

TerraChoice published its six sins of greenwashing in 2007 but added a seventh sin in 2009.  Let’s look at these sins:

1)      The Sin of Worshiping False Labels:  a product that (through words or images) gives the impression of third-party endorsement or certification where none really exists; basically fake labels.  Examples:

  1. Using the company’s own in-house environmental program without further explanation.
  2. Using certification-like images with green jargon including “eco-safe”, “eco-preferred”.

I’ve begun to see examples of products which claim to be certified to the GOTS standard  (Global Organic Textile Standard) – but the reality is that the fiber is certified to the GOTS standard while the final fabric is not.  There is a big difference between the two.  And the GOTS-certifying agencies have begun to require retailers to be certified – to keep the supply chain transparent because there have been so many incidences of companies substituting non- GOTS products for those that actually received the certification.

2)      Sin of the Hidden Trade-off:  a claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.  The most overused example of this is with recycled content of fabrics – a textile is advertised as “green” because it is made of x% recycled polyester.  Other important environmental issues such as heavy metal dyes used, whether the polyester is woven with other synthetics or even natural fibers  (thereby contributing to other environmental degredation), the fact that plastic is not biodegradeable and contains antimony or bisphenol A  may be equally important.  Cargill Dow introduced it’s new Ingeo fiber with much fanfare, saying that it is based on a renewable resource (rather than oil).  Missing entirely from Cargill Dow’s press materials is any acknowledgement of the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill Dow’s corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic engineering.  (See our blog postings on genetic engineering dated 9.23 and 9.29.09) That’s a potentially huge problem, since millions of consumers around the world and several governments have rejected the use of genetically engineered (GE) products, because of the unforeseen consequences of unleashing genetically altered organisms into nature.

3)      Sin of No Proof:  An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.  Google organic fabric and you can find any number of companies offering “organic and natural fabrics” with no supporting documentation.   And the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals really took exception to this claim:

4)      Sin of Vagueness:  a claim so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic,  mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, used widely in textile processing,  and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. Hemp is a fabric that has been expertly greenwashed, as most people have been led to focus on the fact that it grows in a manner that it is environmentally friendly. Few realize that hemp is naturally made into rope and that it requires a great deal of chemical softening to be suitable for clothing or bed linen.  Or this ad from Cotton Inc.:

5)      Sin of Irrelevance:  An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.  The term “organic” is the most often used word in textile marketing – and what does it really mean?  Organic, by definition, means carbon-based, so unless the word “organic” is coupled with “certified” the term is meaningless.  But even “certified organic” fiber can cause untold harm during the processing and finishing of the fabric – think of turning organic apples into applesauce (adding Red Dye #2, stabalizers, preservatives, emulsifiers) where the final result cannot be considered organic APPLESAUCE even though the apples started out as organic. It is said that the amount of “organic cotton” supposedly coming out of India far outweighs the amount of organic cotton actually being grown. It is common practice for vendors to call a batch of cotton “organic”, if minimal or no chemicals have been used, even if no certification has been obtained for the fiber. It’s also generally understood that certification can be “acquired”, even if not earned.

6)      Sin of Lesser of Two Evils:  A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.  Again, the use of recycled polyester as a green claim distracts from the greater environmental impact that plastics have on the environment,  the much greater carbon footprint that any synthetic has compared to any natural fiber,  the antimony used in polyester production, the fact that polyesters are dependent on non renewable resources for feedstock…the list goes on.

7)      Sin of Fibbing:  just what it says – environmental claims that are simply false.

I’d like to add an additional sin which I think is specific to the textile industry: that of a large fabric company touting it’s green credentials because it has a “green” collection  (sometimes that “green” collection is anything but) – but if you look at the size of the green collection and compare it to conventional offerings, you’ll find that maybe only 10% of the company’s fabrics have any possible claim to “green”.  Is that company seriously trying to make a difference?








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