More reasons to find a replacement for polyester.

22 06 2009

plastic trap The mass of  debris in the photo is, apparently, a tiny part of what the Wall Street Journal reports is afloat in the Pacific.   Nobody really knows how big it is:   “Some say it is about the size of Quebec, or 600,000 square miles — also described as twice the size of Texas. Others say this expanse of junk swept together by currents is the size of the U.S. — 3.8 million square miles. Or, it could be twice that size.”

Called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s a mass of floating plastic.  Nobody seems to be able to agree on the size, or even whether the plastic is dangerous or serving a function.   Plastics can harm ocean birds and mammals who eat it, because they carry toxins, can pierce internal organs and can trick animals into thinking they are full. But hard numbers are tough to come by. “It’s so hard to say a bird died due to plastic in its stomach,” says Holly Bamford, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine-debris program. “We have seen birds mature and live out their whole life, and necropsies show plastic in their stomach.”  On the other hand, David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, says that the plastics have a high concentration of microorganisims clinging to them which are producing oxygen.

Polyester, or PET, is  a major component of this trash because PET is the major component of beverage containers (like bottled water).  But most PET (60% of global production) is used to make fibers and textiles.  In addition to the fact that this polyester remains in our oceans and landfills for around 1,000 years, it’s a very expensive way to spend our energy resources:

Polyester production, running at around 50 million tons  per year, consumes about 104 million barrels of oil for production (and that doesn’t include the energy needed for transportation).

We have called for research into substitutes for polyester fabrics and still insist that we  (a people which have sent men to the moon, after all) should be able to find a substitute for our plastic obsession.  Recycled polyester seems to have been crowned the Queen of Green by decorative fabrics distributors because it is claimed that by recycling the polyester we can have a lighter footprint.  I’ve outlined our arguments against that in other posts, not least of which is the fact that there are no workable takeback programs in place.

The argument in favor of recycling is that if consumers have an “easy” way to recycle their plastic, and are educated and reminded on the need to do so, most will, resulting in a cleaner environment.   However, Americans recycle only about 20% of their plastic bottles – and this in a nation where it’s relatively easy to throw a used bottle into a recycling container.   What percentage of fabrics do you think will be torn off sofas or delivered to a recycling facility?  How many project managers will tear out banquettes and order the separation of the fabric from the wooden frame?

Add to those arguments the fact that there has been a history of corporations collecting plastics and sending them overseas to be processed, such as the famous case of Pepsi Cola exporting tons of PET bottles to India in the 1990s.  This case amounts to an indictment of much of what passes for recycling in the United States and elsewhere – putting the plastic waste out of sight, out of mind.  The plastics industry is exporting their waste to less industrialized countries, avoiding domestic regulations, avoiding community opposition to waste handling facilities, paying their workers pennies a day, and maintaining a “green” image at home.  People in developed countries can lower their ecological guilt by depending on environmental injustice in Asia.  This is not recycling; this is, at best, a type of reprocessing that delays the eventual dumping of the plastic.  And at worst it encourages consumers to buy more plastic because their environmental concerns are lessened by the promise that the goods are being recycled.


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4 responses

30 06 2009
amyleelud

Thank you for your amazing articles. You need to get them published.🙂 Every time I tell a fabric line that I do not want to have any of their recycled polyester fabrics in my studio they look at me as if I am nuts. They are always so sweet too when they find out I only work with organics, and they are so excited to tell me about their recycled line. I work with a lot of clients that have health concerns so recycled polyester is not only not as environmentally friendly as it might seem, but it is also not a healthy option. Toxins bind to synthetic fibers more readily and polyester, being a synthetic substance, creates positive ions which does not make for a very positive or healthy environment.

8 12 2010
Timothy Chavey

I’m a floor covering inspector, I see PET Polyester carpet all of the time and find the consumer really feels that they are “helping”, the environment by using what tey are told/sold as a green ways to carpet their home. Polyester is without a doubt one of the worst preforming fibers, (second only to Olefin), and disapoints consumer on a level that is just disheartning. I would rather that consumers purchase hard surface flooring and cover with a wool rug hand made or improrted from a country that does not use children to make/knot.
Tim Chavey
Sacramento, CA.

9 12 2010
oecotextiles

Thanks for the information Tim. I’m surprised that polyester doesn’t work well in a carpet, because it makes a very durable fabric. Anybody else have an idea of why this is so?

9 12 2010
Tim Chavey

It’s an easy sale due to the fact Polyester has more bulk, (feels like your getting more bang/buck), the fiber however does not contain a mamory in it’s twisted form as nylon does. If a carpet for instance becomes inadvertently crushed during prolonged shipment or storage the crush marks seldom/never come out whereas nylon eventualy regains the heat refinement that is was molded to. Simply, Polyester gets crushed, stays crushed, nylon gets crushed and is able to be vacuumed up resulting in a more appealing apperance. But,,,, the homeowner when purchasing, buys the carpet by the pound and Polyester carpet, (side by side), feels thicker than a compareable priced nylon carpet. The moral to our story, (like your car), don’t buy carpet by the pound. Buy it by it’s construction, the top component being fiber type,,, all commercial installation for federal jobs,,,, type 6,6, nylon. Polyster is not even an also-ran

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