Antimony in fabrics

6 02 2013

antimonySynthetic fibers are the most popular fibers in the world – 65% of the world’s production of fibers are synthetic, and 35% are natural fibers. (1) Fully 70% of those synthetic fibers are 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, which is the 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. Think about that for a moment – bet you didn’t realize that those bottles that we’re all being told to recycle make up just 30% of PET production! 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. 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 although your PET fabric contains antimony, it isn’t available to your living system. (3)

So what’s the concern? 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, (4) 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. (5) )

Antimony is just not a nice thing to be eating or drinking, and wearing it probably won’t hurt you, but during the production process it’s 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)

So the continued use of polyester exposes our environment (and remember, the “environment” means you and me) to more antimony, which is a heavy metal and not good for us. So if we care about leaving a liveable planet for our children, we should pay attention to the types of fibers we’re supporting.

(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





Cradle to Cradle

26 08 2011

Cradle to Cradle (often written as C2C) is the certification managed by the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute (C2CPII) – previously managed byMcDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).  William McDonough and Michael Braungart, Time magazine’s anointed “Heroes of the Environment”, are both internationally renowned in their fields.  Known for idealism, vision, and consulting for high-profile corporate clients like Ford Motor Company and Nike, McDonough and Braungart have envisioned “a new industrial revolution,” calling for “remaking the way we make things,” the subtitle of their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle. In that book and elsewhere, McDonough and Braungart disparage “cradle-to-grave” products that aren’t designed to be lasting parts of the manufacturing cycle and that poison the environment through pollution and disposal. MBDC’s Cradle to Cradle™ (often written as C2C) protocol envisions every resource used to make products as a safe nutrient in an endless cycle.[1]  On paper Cradle to Cradle is a dream:   Their goal is to have  “a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power- economically,  equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”

Credit: MBDC

It is a brilliant concept – how can anybody not love it?   Well, this may be a case of something sorta like the Emperor’s new clothes – two highly esteemed people, with overreaching, altruistic goals, seducing us all with ideas we can fall in love with.   But, as Lloyd Alter explains in a Treehugger article this year ( click here to read the article )  after looking deeper, we find out that it might not be  quite as wonderfully “green” as we  thought.  MBDC says that “Consumers can rely on the C2C certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products” when in fact, at least at the Basic and Silver levels, you cannot.  According to Environmental Building News, one realizes that, at the lower levels of certification (Basic and Silver), Cradle to Cradle Certification isn’t really a product certification at all.[2]  And that creates a problem, because designers – even relatively sophisticated “green” designers – perceive that any level of C2C certification means a truly sustainable product.

So let’s back up a bit to understand why the Basic and Silver “certification” is not, as Environmental Building News claims, a product certification at all.    To be clear, C2C has not claimed to be a third party certification, because MBDC consults with manufacturers to help them gain a thorough understanding of their products (since many manufacturers depend on components from other manufacturers).  They then help the manufacturers make changes necessary to achieve certification -  so some perceive a bias.   In 2010, perhaps to avoid this perception, MBDC transferred the C2C system to the C2CPII, a California-based nonprofit, which will allow the separation of the certification body from the consultation body.

The C2C certification program works to express the C2C design philosophy through five categories.  A product’s final score is the lowest of its five individual scores in each of these five areas:

  1. Material Health  – i.e., chemicals contained in a product.  Materials chemistry is  MBDC’s greatest strength and, according to MBDC’s Jay Bolus, executive vice president for certification, “the heart and soul of the program”. To achieve any C2C certification requires that all ingredients be identified down to the 100 parts per million (ppm) or 0.01% level and assessed according to 19 human and environmental health criteria. MBDC uses these criteria to categorize chemicals as red, yellow, or green. Chemicals with incomplete environmental data are rated gray and are, according to Bolus, treated as if they were red. For a product to achieve any C2C certification other than Basic or Silver, it cannot contain any ingredients classified as red;  if it does the manufacturer must have a plan for eliminating them — unless red ingredients have no existing substitutes and the manufacturer contains those ingredients in a controlled, closed-loop technical cycle.[3]  Published C2C guidelines don’t detail what the certification requires of those strategies to eliminate the toxic elements. ”We will help them develop the strategy and develop some measurable milestones,” Bolus explained. “Let’s say it’s a textile—we might know of some dyes that don’t have hazardous characteristics.” MBDC would share that information and help the manufacturer reformulate its product.
  2. Material Reutilization:  this category concerns recycled or renewable materials.
  3. Renewable Energy Use  in manufacturing.
  4. Water Stewardship (water use in manufacturing) – both energy and water use standards focus on manufacturing and do not address the energy and water consumption that results from use of the product.  In addition, there is no assessment of air emissions or product longevity.
  5. Social Responsibility (corporate)

Based on ratings in each of these categories, a product can be certified by MBDC as C2C Basic, Silver, Gold, or Platinum.

However, according to Environmental Building News (click here to read the full article ) , there are a number of areas where the concept and the reality of certification—at least at the levels that are being achieved today—don’t match.

  1. A C2C Basic or Silver certification, for example, doesn’t guarantee that a product is free of all red ingredients as mentioned above — the only “knockout” chemical at those levels is PVC, for example.  Although C2C identifies red ingredients at the Basic and Silver level, and companies are asked to develop plans to phase them out or optimize them, there is no C2C report card for consumers that details what a certified product does or does not include – because the list used is proprietary.  An example of what this means is exemplified by Owens Corning Propink fiberglass, which is currently certified C2C Silver.  One can wonder how a product  that some consider “the asbestos of the 21st  Century” and is a possible carcinogen can be awarded Cradle to Cradle Silver. But the fact is, they don’t list the ingredients and publish the spreadsheet or the formula for figuring out the nutrient calculations.  It’s considered proprietary.
  2. MBDC  certifies just the product,  without looking at how it is installed or used. For example, Hycrete  is an additive designed to waterproof concrete[4].  However, when used as intended it is not biodegradable and cannot be recycled by any established process. In practice, then, C2C’s certification of Hycrete as a biological nutrient means that “if you accidentally spill a five-gallon bucket into a local stream, it’s going to degrade and isn’t going to do any harm,” said Bolus.
  3. Also a concern to some industry peers is that C2C is not a true third-party certification program. Third-party certifications are respected by consumers in part because the certifier doesn’t have a financial relationship with manufacturers that could influence the program’s standards or the certification results. The standards community is moving toward a separation between the organizations which develop the standard from the ones which do the actual certification.  In contrast to this model,  MBDC developed the C2C standard and certifies products with it, while its primary business is consulting with manufacturers.

For many of the C2C criteria, Basic, Silver and Gold certifications are based on plans and intentions. “Platinum is where the rubber meets the road and they’re actually recovering product,” said Kirsten Ritchie, director of sustainable design for Gensler and an expert on product certification. Tom Lent, policy director of the nonprofit Healthy Building Network, said, “It is pretty important to understand that C2C certification is, at least before Platinum, more about [the manufacturer’s] process with MBDC than actual final accomplishments in the product.” Explaining MBDC’s rationale for the tiered certifications, McDonough said, “People need the opportunity to improve products. We’ve got to give everybody a chance to get into the game, and then we need to test them on their promises.”  As of today, no product of any kind has achieved Platinum.

These distinctions between levels, however, may not be readily apparent to consumers and design professionals, who see the C2C logo stamped on a product as a validation that it is “green”, and who believe they’re supporting the lofty ideals exemplified by the MBDC protocol, without realizing that those ideals are reflected only at the unattained Platinum level.

The editors of Environmental Building News have called for MBDC to fix this by continuing to refer to Gold and Platinum levels as product certifications; while the Basic and Silver levels should be referred to in language which “clearly conveys that such a product is being reviewed by the Cradle to Cradle program and that the company has committed to work with MBDC to make it better. That’s important and a huge step for a manufacturer—so it deserves to be recognized—but to call it “certification” is misleading.”[5]

As Lloyd Alter, in a Treehugger post in February, 2011, says:

” There is so much to love about Cradle to Cradle. As a design philosophy, it is brilliant and a  model for everyone. I admire William McDonough as an architect and as a thinker. As a certification system there are issues, and I hope that the new, truly Third Party assessment system and the next generation protocol will address them.  But again it is a cautionary tale, that one can fall in love with an idea, and after looking deeper, find out that it is not quite as wonderful as one thought. MBDC says that “Consumers can rely on the certification mark to identify and specify sustainable products” when in fact, at least at the basic and silver levels, you cannot.”[6]

According to the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute website,  as of June, 2011, the new Version 3 of the C2C product certification protocol has been completed and was about to be released to stakeholders for review.





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








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