What does plastic have to do with the fabrics you buy?

19 05 2010

I’ve been ranting about plastics for the past three weeks, and you might be wondering why, especially since we’re in the fabric business.

Well, the chance is that most of the fabrics you buy are either 100% synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.) or they’re blended with natural fibers – such as the very popular cotton/polyester blends.  Synthetic fabrics account for the lion’s share of the global textile market, and most of the rest of the market is scooped up by cotton.  Most synthetic fabrics are made of polyester, or polyethelene terephthalate (PET)  – the same stuff used as containers for soda and water.  Of the total virgin PET produced globally,   60%  is used to make fibers, while 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.  As one company puts it, “It’s one of the most earth-friendly fabric ingredients in the world.”  Another company says of its recycled polyester fabrics that “after years of enjoyable use, these fabrics are recyclable.”

What I want to do is expose these statements (and others like them) for what they are:  self-serving attempts 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 let’s look at the reasons why the textile industry wants us to think that recycled polyester fabric is a “green” choice:

  • It saves energy – the industry itself says using recycled polyester saves between 30 – 50% of the energy needed to produce virgin polyester.
    • Yes, but:    even if we give them the benefit of the doubt and assume energy savings of 50%, the embodied energy needed to produce that recycled polyester yarn is STILL higher than the embodied energy needed to produce any natural fiber – and is  about 6 times higher than using organic fibers.
    • And you overlook the emissions!  Recycling a 16 oz. PET bottle generates toxic emissions of nickel, ethyl oxide and benzene; it creates more than 100 times the toxic emissions of an equivalent size glass bottle.
    • And let’s not forget the chemical components of the feedstock: Among the  chemicals used in the production of PET are antimony oxide, a suspected carcinogen,  lead oxide and lead chromate. Lead is extremely toxic and is listed as a hazardous waste. PET may also include cadmium compounds which are a suspected human carcinogen and have been found to cause birth defects in laboratory animals. It is also listed as a hazardous waste and can cause extreme reactions in workers that inhale as little as 1/1000 of an ounce during production. Ethylene Oxide is another carcinogen used in the production of PET.  The components of acrylic and PVC are even more scary.
    • And finally, what about the byproducts of the recycling process – the wastewater and sludge?  Often polyester proponents will tell you that the production of polyester fiber uses very little water – and that’s true.  But those fibers, as yarns, are subjected to the same process treatments to weave them into fabric as their natural fiber cousins.  So the chemical cocktail created by the weaving mill’s wastewater and sludge is just as potent whether we’re talking about cotton or recycled polyester.
  • It diverts bottles from the landfill.
    • I’ve spent weeks writing about why this is misleading  – because there can be no doubt that if a bottle is turned into fiber then it is diverted from the landfill. (Please see our blog posts on this subject – you can read them here and here.)  The reality is that recycling seems to only encourage more plastic use – the veneer of environmentalism encourages more plastic use, and business as usual:  plastic use has increased by a factor of 30 since the 1960s, while recycling has only increased by a factor of 2.
  • It implies that the fabric you buy can be recycled.
    • Almost guaranteed it won’t happen – beside the fact that there is no collection infrastructure, and most things are not designed for disassembly,  the blended yarns, coupled with backings of a different polymer, means that most fabrics couldn’t be recycled even if they were disassembled and collected.
    • You can make fibers from bottles, but you can’t make bottles from fibers.  Or other fabrics.  (To understand why, see our blog post Plastics Part 1, or  Issues with using recycled polyester) So this recycled PET fabric (IF it is 100% polyester and IF it is un-backed with a different polymer and IF somebody separated the fabric from the piece of furniture it came in on)  is destined for maybe one more use (as a park bench, speed bump or plastic lumber) before it eventually ends up in the landfill – where those process chemicals discussed above slowly leach into our groundwater.

What the textile industry does not tell us is that polyester – even recycled polyester – is extremely cheap.  The fabric you buy may not be cheap, but you’ve heard of margins, right?  Polyester is ubiquitous in the market and there is no great rush to find good alternatives. Third party certification programs, the watch dogs of the industry, are not being promoted by stakeholders, and companies are slow (or reluctant) to certify their fabrics.  Please note that there are many certified FIBER products on the market, largely because fiber crops come under many food certification programs since these fiber crops are also food (such as cotton and flax, both of which are grown for the seed and used in food products for both animals and humans).  The manufacturing of the fabric is largely ignored, so low cost synthetic (often toxic) chemicals are still being used and water and sludge is still being released untreated into our environment.

And there are also issues with using recycled polyester, specific to the textile industry, which increases energy and chemical use:

  • 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.

Not all fabrics made of recycled polyester is made from bottles.  Most of it is made from industrial scrap, which is called “post industrial” polyester – if it were made from bottles it would be called “post consumer” polyester.  There is no difference, chemically, from post consumer or post industrial polyester.  Polyester is polyester.  Once it’s all melted together there is no way to tell what percentage is made from what source.

So 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?  Indeed, how do you know the fibers are even recycled?   Unless you have access to the supply chain, there is no way to tell what constitutes the polymer.  There is no system of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.  Even the Global Recycling Standard just certifies that the polymers are recycled material rather than virgin – but not whether post consumer or post industrial.

In summary, the textile industry wants us to use more synthetic fabrics because they’re cheap and easily available.  I’m not categorically against the use of synthetics.   For one thing, natural fibers cannot by themselves meet total textile demand.   They have many attributes which make them preferable for certain situations – one that comes immediately to mind is healthcare, where the launderability of the fabric is very important.  But nobody is pointing out that even if synthetics are preferable in healthcare, the way those fabrics were produced can vary from toxic to benign:  dyestuffs and finishes can be used which have been tested to avoid chemicals which give us cancer, birth defects or change our genetic profile, and water treatment can prevent those same chemicals from entering our groundwater.

But there is no effort being made by the industry to find new alternatives  – certainly there are research institutions looking into the problem but very little industry supported research.  And we need alternatives, because even if it does take less energy to recycle  polyester than to create new polyester and even if recycling reduces the amount of oil needed to fill synthetic demand, less bad  ≠  good.


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4 responses

20 05 2010
Tracy Davis

Thank you for another excellent article. I’ve really appreciated your factual approach to the marketing hype we’re seeing too much of nowadays. I detest the practice of using half-truths (and untruths) to sell a product and try to be very careful not to do that myself.

2 07 2010
Molly de vries

I love your site and this artical about plastics is so great. Thank you

11 07 2010
16 08 2011
Pam Wheelock

I so very much appreciate your information. Thank you!
I own a company which crafts pet toys using only dye free or colorgrown natural fibers– Purrfectplay. There are many pet toy manufacturers who boast about their eco-fleece toys and bedding. Dogs and cats have TEETH and they CHEW on their toys. I get so discouraged by their marketing and how readily green pet parents swallow their green washing. Even if the fabrics and filler were earth friendly they are NOT pet friendly. I am not nearly as well informed as I would like to be and I can figure that one out. Monomers, lead, cadmium, agrimony, gassing off of who knows what. Yikes!
Using eco-fleece would cut our production costs by 70%. Colorgrown organic cottons, hemp canvas, organic cotton denims– these all cost well over 10.00 yard wholesale–ecofleece can be bought for less than 2.00 a yard. Sigh.

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