What is the benefit of PLA?

9 10 2018

Much of this article came from the Smithsonian Magazine written by Elizabeth Royte – to whom we owe our gratitude.

Near Blair, Nebraska is the largest lactic acid plant in the world.  Into one end goes corn, and out the other comes white pellets, which some say is the future of plastic.  The substance is PLA – Polymerized Lactic Acid, or polylactic acid.

Globally, bioplastics (of which PLA is a member) make up nearly 331,000 tons (300,000 metric tons) of the plastics market.[1]  That may sound like a lot, but it only accounts for less than 1 percent of the 200 million tons (181 million metric tons) of synthetic plastics the world produces each year. Still, the bioplastics market is growing by 20 to 30 percent each year.[2]  In the US, plastics take up 25% of landfilles by volume.[3]

Even the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that NOTHING biodegrades in a landfill because nothing is supposed to. Furthermore the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that “Uncontrolled biodegradation in a landfill can cause ground water pollution, methane gas emissions and unstable sub-soil conditions.”

The benefit of PLA is that is that it’s made from Midwestern corn, not Middle East oil[4]. It’s a renewable resource, but more than 93% of the corn produced in the USA is genetically modified in some way.  NatureWorks (owned by Cargill, the world’s largest corn merchant) insists that you don’t have to worry about consuming genetically modified proteins because these are destroyed in the transformation from plant to PLA plastic.[5]  NatureWorks, acknowledging some of those criticisms, points out that the corn it uses is low-grade animal feed not intended for human use. And it processes a small amount of non-genetically engineered corn for customers who request it.[6]

Producing PLA uses 65% less energy than producing conventional plastics, according to an independent analysis commissioned by NatureWorks. It also generates 68% fewer greenhouse gases.  And, if incinerated, bioplastics don’t emit toxic fumes like their oil-based counterparts.

PLA does releases toxicfumes known as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Not all VOCs are actually toxic, but some may be, especially for younger users. Before this becomes a serious health issue, a new study has analysed the exact quantities of toxic VOCs – as well as potentially dangerous nanoparticles – in order to assess the potential health risks. The new study, presented by Dr. Fabrizio Merlo and Dr. Eng. Stefano Mazzoni, starts off from other previous research conducted in the early 90’s, which demonstrated that during the fusion and processing of plastic materials, several toxic particles are released as gases, including ammonia, cyanidric acid, phenol, and benzene, among others.  PLA is a corn-based polymer and is not exempt from dangerous emissions, especially if extruded at temperatures higher than 200°C.  Among the effects that the absorption of toxic VOC’s and nanoparticles can cause to humans, the most common are pulmonary pathologies, such as bronchitis, tracheitis, asthma. In some cases, these substances can also cause certain types of cancers, so this is not something to be taken lightly. [7]

Another problem with PLA is that , as one of the producers, Joe Selzer a vice president at Wilkinson Industries, puts it:  “I had my takeout box in my car in the sun and it melted into a pancake!” So PLA  can’t be used for such things as containers made for holding hot liquids.   He continues: “Our number-one concern is PLA’s competitive price, and then its applications. After that comes the feel-good.”  In the beginning, it cost $200 to make a pound of PLA, now it’s less than $1.[8]

PLA produces the greenhouse gas methane when it decomposes so composting isn’t a perfect disposal method.

But the biggest problem with PLA is it’s biodegradability:  PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? Not your backyard bin.   It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen. NatureWorks has identified 113 such facilities nationwide—some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations—but only about a quarter of them accept residential foodscraps collected by municipalities.

Moreover, PLA by the truckload may potentially pose a problem for some large-scale composters. Chris Choate, a composting expert at Norcal Waste Systems, headquartered in San Francisco, says large amounts of PLA can interfere with conventional composting because the polymer reverts into lactic acid, making the compost wetter and more acidic. “Microbes will consume the lactic acid, but they demand a lot of oxygen, and we’re having trouble providing enough,” he says. “Right now, PLA isn’t a problem,” because there’s so little of it, Choate says.  (NatureWorks disputes that idea, saying that PLA has no such effect on the composting processes.)

To plastic processors, PLA in tiny amounts is merely a nuisance. But in large amounts it can be an expensive hassle. In the recycling business, soda bottles, milk jugs and the like are collected and baled by materials recovery facilities, or MRFs (pronounced “murfs”). The MRFs sell the material to processors, which break down the plastic into pellets or flakes, which are, in turn, made into new products, such as carpeting, fiberfill, or containers for detergent or motor oil. Because PLA and PET mix about as well as oil and water, recyclers consider PLA a contaminant. They have to pay to sort it out and pay again to dispose of it.

Wild Oats accepts used PLA containers in half of its 80 stores. “We mix the PLA with produce and scraps from our juice bars and deliver it to an industrial composting facility,” says the company spokesman Sonja Tuitele. But at the Wild Oats stores that don’t take back PLA, customers are on their own, and they can’t be blamed if they feel deceived by PLA containers stamped “compostable.” Brinton, who has done extensive testing of PLA,says such containers are “unchanged” after six months in a home composting operation. For that reason, he considers the Wild Oats stamp, and their in-store signage touting PLA’s compostability, to be false advertising.[9]

Despite PLA’s potential as an environmentally friendly material, it seems clear that a great deal of corn packaging, probably the majority of it, will end up in landfills. And there’s no evidence it will break down there any faster or more thoroughly than PET or any other form of plastic. Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks, says that a PLA container dumped in a landfill will last “as long as a PET bottle.” No one knows for sure how long that is, but estimates range from 100 to 1,000 years.

Environmentalists have other objections to PLA. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, questions the morality of turning a foodstuff into packaging when so many people in the world are hungry. “Already we’re converting 12 percent of the U.S. grain harvest to ethanol,” he says. The USDA projects that figure will rise to 23 percent by 2014. “How much corn do we want to convert to nonfood products?” In addition, most of the corn that NatureWorks uses to make PLA resin is genetically modified to resist pests, and some environmentalists oppose the use of such crops, claiming they will contaminate conventional crops or disrupt local ecosystems. Other critics point to the steep environmental toll of industrially grown corn. The cultivation of corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more herbicides and more insecticides than any other U.S. crop; those practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers.

Eric Lombardi, president of the Grassroots Recycling Network and a leader in the international Zero Waste movement, takes a nuanced view of PLA’s progress. He says it’s “visionary” even to think about biologically based plastic instead of a petroleum-based one. True, he says, there are problems with PLA, “but let’s not kill the good in pursuit of the perfect.”

So in the end, what have we learned?

  • It produces no toxic compounds when burned, unlike many plastics.
  • Like conventional plastic, it’s not likely to break down in a landfill.
  • It produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Also like conventional plastic, it doesn’t break down quickly on land or in the ocean.
  • And finally, it only can be composted in commercial-grade composting plants, while failing to break down in a backyard compost pile.

Until the kinks are worked out on the disposal and reprocessing end, PLA may not be much better than the plain old plastic it’s designed to make obsolete.

 

[1]”Bioplastics Frequently Asked Questions.” European Bioplastics. June 2008. (Nov. 6, 2008)http://www.european-bioplastics.org/index.php?id=191

[2]https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm

[3] Royte, Elizabeth; Smithsonian Magazine, August 2006

[4] Wood, Shelby,  The Oregonian; posted October 27, 2008   https://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2008/10/pla_corn_plastic_problems.html

https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://3dprintingindustry.com; accessed on 9.28.18

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

 

 

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Plastics recycling: you’re doing it wrong. And so is everybody else.

6 02 2018

In August 2014, Russell Klein wrote an article which was published in TriplePundit; much of the information in this post was taken from that article. 

For the past 25 years, our modest national efforts to do-the-right-thing by recycling plastic products have suffered from widespread misunderstanding and even marketing disinformation.

Don’t want to be part of the problem?  Consider this an intervention.

To start off, this:    type 7 recyle logo    is not an indication of recyclability.

Nor are any of these:

Other types of plastic

In fact, just to be clear, these emblems are not indicative of:

  • Recyclability
  • Recycled content
  • Compatibility with other products of the same Sustainable Greeny Goodness

In the 1980s, the American plastics industry was feeling a squeeze. Environmentalists were concerned over the abandonment of refillable glass and metal vessels by an increased use of disposable, litter-ready plastic bottles. Scrap businesses were finding it hard to sort look-alike plastics, and state legislatures were pushing for a national, codified system to help recyclers identify all of these plastic bottles.

As a result of these pressures, in 1988 the Society of the Plastics Industry (an American trade association) introduced the Resin Identification Codes (RICs), pictured above.  This was a once-in-a-generation, sector-wide initiative, intended to address the concerns of environmentalists, industrialists and state governments seeking a way to tame and organize the matter of plastics recovery.  Placed on the bottom of plastic bottles,  markings depicting numbers inside a triangle of chasing arrows identified the six most commonly used plastics (also known as resins), with a seventh class as a catchall for everything else.

Borrowing the “chasing arrows” from the internationally-recognized recycling Möbius Strip quickly proved controversial, and to this day this system conveys far less than self-appointed recycling gurus assume.

At the time of their launch, these marks were solely intended to help waste sorters identify the plastics used in bottles. The markings were placed on the bottom of the bottles so they would not affect consumer purchasing decisions. Indeed, they were never meant to be used by the general public at all!  Bottles were the original target of the Resin Identification Codes as they were the most readily collected, sorted and remarketed plastic scrap available.  Nonetheless, it was only a year after the RICs’ introduction that manufacturers of other forms, so-called “rigid plastics” (e.g. buckets, baskets, wide-mouthed jars), were invited to participate in this marking system as well.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the system to outgrow its cradle.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, states all over the country rushed to adopt language to drive public recycling in the wake of a famous national garbage scandal which occurred in 1987: That year a barge named the Mobro 4000 wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo of Long Islanders’ trash, and its journey had a strange effect on America. The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste. As a result, community messaging and commercial product marketing aimed at the general public began to reference the RICs to define plastic recycling opportunities and to guide consumer behaviors. Unfortunately, this simultaneously created two major, national misperceptions:  Forever after the public would a) look for the chasing arrows for reassurance of end-of-life product options, and b) rely upon RIC numbers as the end-all be-all arbiter of which plastic container should go where.  Thus, even communities who in the early days may have known enough to ask exclusively for bottles marked with 1s or 2s nonetheless eventually found their recycling containers filled with all kinds of dissimilar — and ultimately useless – packaging forms.

Why is it useless?  What is it that thwarts recyclability when plastics of a single number are lumped together?  There are two things; the first is chemistry.  Think of it this way: Every major product shape represents a different manufacturing process.  A bottle, a laundry basket and a trash bin may all contain the same ingredient – high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or No. 2), nonetheless, their chemical recipes are as different as their forms because each was manufactured for a different purpose, in a different manner, by a different machine.  The recipe that works for a machine that air-inflates bottles all day is not the same as that which is required for a machine injecting plastics into molded cups.  Nonetheless, because each manufacturer began with high-density polyethylene, both objects are marked on the bottom with the No. 2 triangle.  However, melt these products together for recycling purposes and you get … a smelly, chunky mess that’s useless to either manufacturer.

So when does recycling actually work?

Consumer product recycling is only possible when you have three things going for you: consistent, post-consumer collections; economical remanufacturing; and consistent consumer demand.  If you cannot efficiently collect similar products to send to a manufacturer, you lose economy of scale.  If the used materials are too contaminated, too expensive to process (clean or sort) or too costly to ship across country, you may lose customers to your competitor in the next region or to companies selling only virgin materials. Bear in mind, clean post-consumer goods are hard to guarantee.  Sometimes what seems like a little bit of contamination in your plastic, paper or glass may produce discolored newsprint, bottles with cracks or jars with bubbles.  Nonetheless, consumers expect recycled products to be just as good as the original material … but less expensive. In reality, this is very hard to do in the absence of a well-trained, committed community that properly sorts its recyclables.

So, now the resin codes (RICs) are applied across products of all shapes and chemical variations, occasionally for the misguided, commercial advantage of ‘green credentials.’  So how does one know when a number in a recycling triangle is a legitimate indication of something?  The answer is: By and large, you don’t. Assuming a single recycling program would attempt to recover only all No. 1s, or only all No. 2s, thereby including bottles, cups, buckets, wall trim, action figures, etc., as we said before, manufacturers downstream would quickly find that melting such products together produces only a colorful, chunky, contaminated mess. To reiterate: Within the RICs, there are too many chemical variants distributed among too few categories.

At this point, as a concerned consumer, you’re beginning to recognize two major problems: a meaningless number and a misleading recycling sign.  If you’re still determined to use these marks to understand what is recyclable in your home or office collection, ask yourself a question: How could a bottling company 400 miles away possibly know what’s acceptable in this particular neighborhood or office building?  Alternatively, was the product imported from manufacturers abroad?  In that case, a meaningful indication of recyclability is even less likely.

Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.

The obvious temptation is to blame journalists, who did a remarkable job of creating the garbage crisis, often at considerable expense to their own employers. Newspaper and magazine publishers, whose products are a major component of municipal landfills, nobly led the crusade against trash, and they’re paying for it now through regulations that force them to buy recycled paper — a costly handicap in their struggle against electronic rivals.  It’s the first time that an industry has conducted a mass-media campaign informing customers that its own product is a menace to society. But the press isn’t solely responsible for recycling fervor; the public’s obsession wouldn’t have lasted this long unless recycling met some emotional need. Just as  third graders believe that their litter run was helping the planet, Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing ourgarbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.

The bottom line is: this numbered system so beloved – or hated – by consumers everywhere wasn’t meant for you, the consumer, and fell apart early on.  It’s time to let it go in favor of something better.  And to those of you who continually argue with your spouse – or your local recycling office – over the recyclability of a strawberry container “because it has a number one!” … Cut it out.  Let it go.  It’s over.

Epilogue. Where does this leave a conscientious recycler?

Ask your local government recycling office what products are mandated for recycling in your community. If you receive collection from a private company (at your office, school or apartment building), ask the property manager for a clear description of acceptable materials. Although most recyclers sort based upon shape (e.g. bottles, trays, tubs, etc.), it is possible your collection representative will offer you literature that remains mired in Resin Identification Code numbers. While you might offer to assist their future efforts to clarify this information (via the recycling center relevant to your community), until then you should follow the rules as given. Your local recycling opportunities always depend upon what materials are mandated for recycling by your local government. What else is consistently accepted by your school, home or office recycling collection service?

In 1996, John Tierney wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful.  And not much has happened since then.  Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.  Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas.  The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies.

While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years.  Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx or Houston don’t have the save fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.  Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.

“If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions.

So what is a socially conscious, sensible person to do?

It would be much simpler and more effective to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on garbage, as Thomas C. Kinnaman has proposed after conducting what is probably the most thorough comparison of the social costs of recycling, landfilling and incineration. Dr. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, considered everything from environmental damage to the pleasure that some people take in recycling (the “warm glow” that makes them willing to pay extra to do it). He concludes that the social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill. That tax would offset the environmental costs, chiefly the greenhouse impact, and allow each municipality to make a guilt-free choice based on local economics and its citizens’ wishes. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.

Then why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it?

Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins. Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly.  Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.

But cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?





Politically motivated

3 01 2018

Happy 2018!  I wish you all the best in the coming year.

I have tried to keep politics out of our blog posts, but I couldn’t resist Nicholas Kristof recent op-ed piece in the New York Times of October 28, 2017.  It strikes a cord, since we founded Two Sisters Ecotextiles and O Ecotextiles to give people options for safe fabrics.  We shouldn’t have to worry about what fabrics are doing to you! But neither should we worry about what Kristof calls Dow Chemical Company’s Nerve Gas Pesticide.

By Nicholas Kristof 10.28.17:

A pesticide, which belongs to a class of chemicals developed as a nerve gas made by Nazi Germany, is now found in food, air and drinking water. Human and animal studies show that it damages the brain and reduces I.Q.s while causing tremors among children. It has also been linked to lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease in adults.  This chemical, chlorpyrifos,  is hard to pronounce, so let’s just call it Dow Chemical Company’s Nerve Gas Pesticide. Even if you haven’t heard of it, it may be inside you: One 2012 study[1] found that it was in the umbilical cord blood of 87 percent of newborn babies tested.

And now the Trump administration is embracing it, overturning a planned ban that had been in the works for many years.

The Environmental Protection Agency actually banned Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide for most indoor residential use 17 years ago — so it’s no longer found in the Raid you spray at cockroaches (it’s very effective, which is why it’s so widely used; then again, don’t suggest this to Dow, but sarin nerve gas might be even more effective!). The E.P.A. was preparing to ban it for agricultural and outdoor use this spring, but then the Trump administration rejected the ban on March 29, 2017.[2]

That was a triumph for Dow, but the decision stirred outrage among public health experts. They noted that Dow had donated $1 million for President Trump’s inauguration.

So Dow’s Nerve Gas Pesticide will still be used on golf courses, road medians and crops that end up on our plate. Kids are told to eat fruits and vegetables, but E.P.A. scientists found levels of this pesticide on such foods at up to 140 times the limits deemed safe.[3]

“This was a chemical developed to attack the nervous system,” notes Virginia Rauh, a Columbia professor who has conducted groundbreaking research on it. “It should not be a surprise that it’s not good for people.”

Remember the brain-damaging lead that was ignored in drinking water in Flint, Michigan? What’s happening under the Trump administration is a nationwide echo of what was permitted in Flint: Officials are turning a blind eye to the spread of a number of toxic substances, including those linked to cancer and brain damage.

“We are all Flint,” Professor Rauh says. “We will look back on it as something shameful.”

Here’s the big picture: The $800 billion chemical industry lavishes money on politicians and lobbies its way out of effective regulation. This has always been a problem, but now the Trump administration has gone so far as to choose chemical industry lobbyists to oversee environmental protections. The American Academy of Pediatrics protested the administration’s decision on the nerve gas pesticide, but officials sided with industry over doctors. The swamp won.

The chemical industry lobby, the American Chemistry Council, is today’s version of Big Tobacco. One vignette: Chemical companies secretly set up a now-defunct front organization called Citizens for Fire Safey that purported to be a coalition of firefighters, doctors and others alarmed about house fires. The group called for requiring flame retardant chemicals in couches, to save lives, of course. A photo was posted on the Facebook page of Citizens for Fire Safety. Despite its name, the organization represented chemical companies, not concerned members of the public.

In fact, this was an industry hoax, part of a grand strategy to increase sales of flame retardants — whose principal effect seems to be to cause cancer. The American Chemistry Council was caught lying about its involvement in this hoax.

Yet these days, Trump is handing over the keys of our regulatory apparatus to the council and its industry allies. An excellent New York Times article by Eric Lipton (click here) noted that to oversee toxic chemicals, Trump appointed a council veteran along with toxicologist with a history of taking council money to defend carcinogens. In effect, Trump appointed two foxes to be Special Assistant for Guarding the Henhouse.

Some day we will look back and wonder: What were we thinking?! I’ve written about the evidence that toxic chemicals are lowering men’s sperm counts[4], and new research suggests by extrapolation that by 2060[5], a majority of American and European men could even be infertile. These days we spew fewer toxins into our air and rivers, and instead we dump poisons directly into our own bodies.

A Dow spokeswoman, Rachelle Schikorra, told me that “Dow stands by the safety of chlorpyrifos”.   Given Dow’s confidence, I suggest that the company spray it daily in its executive dining rooms.

Look, it’s easy to get diverted by the daily White House fireworks. But long after the quotidian craziness is forgotten, Americans will be caring for victims of the chemical industry’s takeover of safety regulation.

Democrats sometimes gloat that Trump hasn’t managed to pass significant legislation so far, which is true. But he has been tragically effective at dismantling environmental and health regulations — so that Trump’s most enduring legacy may be cancer, infertility and diminished I.Q.s for decades to come.

[1] Huen, et al; “Organophosphate pesticide levels in blood and urine of women and newborns living in an agricultural community”, Environ Res., 2012 Aug; 117-8-16.

[2] Scott Pruitt, head of the EPA, said the agency needed to study the science more, and the matter will not likely be revisited until 2022.

[3] According to EarthJustice, there is no safe level of chlorpyrifos in drinking water; pesticide drift reaches unsafe levels at 300 feet from the field’s edge; chlorpyrifos is found at unsafe levels in the air at schools, homes and communities in agricultural areas.

[4] Kristof, Nicholas, “Are Your Sperm in Trouble?, New York Times, March 11, 2017

[5] Sifferlin, Alexandra; “Men’s Sperm Counts are Down Worldwide: Study”, Time, 7.25.17





Tips on how to avoid chemicals

25 10 2017

We are always being asked about how to avoid chemicals which can harm you, so we thought it would be good to put together a list of how to go about it. Considering all the potential sources of toxic chemicals, it’s virtually impossible to avoid all of them. However, you CAN limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.

  • Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh, and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it’s not organically grown.
  • Choose grass-pastured, sustainably raised meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
  • Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity, such as wild caught Alaskan salmon.
  • Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware that even “BPA-free” plastics typically leach other endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad for you as BPA.
  • Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
  • Use glass baby bottles.
  • Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
  • Filter your tap water for both drinking AND bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants. To remove the endocrine disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure your filter is certified to remove it. According to the EWG, perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
  • Look for products made by companies that are Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic, and GMO-free. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses, and others.
  • Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame retardant chemicals.
  • When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, consider buying flame retardant free varieties, containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk, and Kevlar.
  • Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
  • Make sure your baby’s toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It’s advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.
  • Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.
  • Switch over to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. EWG’s Skin Deep (click here) database can help you find personal care products that are free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.
  • Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or glass doors.
  • Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.
  • Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners  and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.

 

 





Microplastics found in tap water

21 09 2017

The Guardian, in early September 2017, released a report that microplastic contamination has been found in tap water in countries around the world. What this means for the seven billion people on earth, no one yet knows. All the experts can agree on is that, given the warning signs being given by life in the oceans, the need to find out is urgent.

Scores of tap water samples from more than a dozen nations were analysed by scientists for an investigation by Orb Media .[1] Overall, 83% of the samples were contaminated with plastic fibres. Bottled water may not provide a microplastic-free alternative to tapwater, as the as it was also found in a few samples of commercial bottled water tested in the United States for Orb.

The US had the highest contamination rate, at 94%, with plastic fibres found in tap water sampled at sites including Congress buildings, the US Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, and Trump Tower in New York. Lebanon and India had the next highest rates.

Why should you care? Microplastics have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals. If fibers are in your water, experts say they’re surely in your food as well – baby formula, pasta, soups and sauces whether from the kitchen or the grocery. It gets worse. Plastic is all but indestructible, meaning plastic waste doesn’t biodegrade; rather it only breaks down into smaller pieces of itself, even down to particles in nanometer scale. Studies show that particles of that size can migrate through the intestinal wall and travel to the lymph nodes and other bodily organs.

The new analyses indicate the ubiquitous extent of  microplastic contamination in the global environment. Previous work has been largely focused on plastic pollution in the oceans, which suggests people are eating microplastics via contaminated seafood. But the wholesale pollution of the land was hidden. Tap water is gathered from hills, rivers, lakes and wells, sampling the environment as it goes. It turns out that tiny fibres of plastic are everywhere.

Orb Media

“We have enough data from looking at wildlife, and the impacts that it’s having on wildlife, to be concerned,” said Dr Sherri Mason, a microplastic expert at the State University of New York in Fredonia, who supervised the analyses for Orb. “If it’s impacting [wildlife], then how do we think that it’s not going to somehow impact us?”

Plastics often contain a wide range of chemicals to change their properties or color and many are toxic or are hormone disruptors. Plastics can attract other pollutants too, including dioxins, metals and some pesticides. Microplastics have also been shown to attract microbial pathogens. Research on wild animals shows conditions in animal guts are also known to enhance the release of pollutants from plastics. “Further,” as the review puts is, “there is evidence that particles may even cross the gut wall and be translocated to other body tissues, with unknown consequences”. Prof Richard Thompson, at Plymouth University, UK, told Orb: “It became clear very early on that the plastic would release those chemicals and that actually, the conditions in the gut would facilitate really quite rapid release.” His research has shown microplastics are found in a third of fish caught in the UK.

This planktonic arrow worm, Sagitta setosa, has eaten a blue plastic fibre about 3mm long. Plankton support the entire marine food chain. Photograph: Richard Kirby/Courtesy of Orb Media

Does any of this affect people? The only land animals in which the consumption of microplastic has been closely studied are two species of earthworm and a nematode.[2]

The scale of global microplastic contamination is only starting to become clear, with studies in Germany finding fibers in all of 24 beer brands tested[3] , as well as in honey and sugar .[4] A study revealed a rain of microplastics falling on Paris from the air, dumping between 3 and 10 tons a year on the city.[5] The same team found microplastics in an apartment and hotel room. “We really think that the lakes [and other water bodies] can be contaminated by cumulative atmospheric inputs,” said Johnny Gasperi, at the University Paris-Est Créteil, who did the Paris studies. “What we observed in Paris tends to demonstrate that a huge amount of fibres are present in atmospheric fallout.”

This research led Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at King’s College London, to tell a UK parliamentary inquiry in 2016: “If we breathe them in they could potentially deliver chemicals to the lower parts of our lungs and maybe even across into our circulation.” Having seen the Orb data, Kelly told the Guardian that research is urgently needed to determine whether ingesting plastic particles is a health risk.[6]

Another huge unanswered question is how microplastics get into our water and food. A report from the UK’s Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management[7] says the biggest proportion are fibers shed by synthetic textiles and tire dust from roads, with more from the breakdown of waste plastics. It suggests the plastic being dumped on land in Europe alone each year is between four and 23 times the amount dumped into all the world’s oceans.

A lot of the microplastic debris is washed into wastewater treatment plants, where the filtering process does capture many of the plastic fragments. But about half the resulting sludge is ploughed back on to farmland across Europe and the US, according to recent research published in the Journal Environmental Science & Technology[8]. That study estimates that up to 430,000 tons of microplastics could be being added to European fields each year, and 300,000 tons in North America. “It is striking that transfers of microplastics – and the hazardous substances bound to them – from urban wastewater to farmland has not previously been considered by scientists and regulators,” the scientists concluded. “This calls for urgent investigation if we are to safeguard food production,” they say in a related publication.

Plastic fibres may also be flushed into water systems, with a recent study finding that each cycle of a washing machine could release 700,000 fibers into the environment. Tumble dryers are another potential source, with almost 80% of US households having dryers that usually vent to the open air. Rains could also sweep up microplastic pollution, which could explain why the household wells used in Indonesia were found to be contaminated.

A magnified image of clothing microfibres from washing machine effluent. One study found that a fleece jacket can shed as many as 250,000 fibres per wash. Photograph: Courtesy of Rozalia Project

In Beirut, Lebanon, the water supply comes from natural springs but 94% of the samples were contaminated. “This research only scratches the surface, but it seems to be a very itchy one,” said Hussam Hawwa, at the environmental consultancy Difaf,  which collected samples for Orb.

Like so many environmental problems – climate change, pesticides, air pollution – the impacts only become clear years after damage has been done. If we are lucky, the plastic planet we have created will not turn out to be too toxic to life. If not, cleaning it up will be a mighty task. Dealing properly with all waste plastic will be tricky: stopping the unintentional loss of microplastics from clothes and roads even more so.

But above all we need to know if we are all drinking, eating and breathing microplastic every day and what that is doing to us, and we need to know urgently.

[1] https://orbmedia.org/stories/Invisibles_plastics

[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/sep/06/we-are-living-on-a-plastic-planet-what-does-it-mean-for-our-health

[3] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Synthetic particles as contaminants in German beers”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol 31, 2014, Issue 9

[4] Liebezeit, Gerd; “Non-pollen particulates in honey and sugar”, Journal of Food Additives & Contaminants: Part A, Vol. 30, 2013, Issue 12

[5] Dris, Rachid, et al., “Microplastic contamination in an urban area: case of greater Paris”, Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 2015, https://hal-enpc.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-01150549v1

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/may/09/people-may-be-breathing-in-microplastics-health-expert-warns

[7] http://www.ciwem.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Addicted-to-plastic-microplastic-pollution-and-prevention.pdf

[8] Nizzetto, Luca; Futter, Martyn and Langaas, Sindre; “Are agricultural soils dumps for microplastics of urban origin?”; Journal of Envornmental Science & Technology, Sept. 29, 2016, 50 (20), pp 10777-10779





Why do we offer safe fabrics?

3 10 2016

Why do we say we want to change the textile industry?  Why do we say we want to produce fabrics in ways that are non-toxic, ethical and sustainable?  What could be so bad about the fabrics we live with?

The textile industry is enormous, and because of its size its impacts are profound.  It uses a lot of three ingredients:

  • Water
  • Chemicals
  • Energy

Water was not included in the 1947 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights because at the time it wasn’t perceived as having a human rights dimension. Yet today, corporate interests are controlling water, and what is known as the global water justice movement is working hard to ensure the right to water as a basic human right.(1) Our global supply of fresh water is diminishing – 2/3 of the world’s population is projected to face water scarcity by 2025, according to the UN. Our global water consumption rose six fold 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 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, and bleaching use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used before moving on to the next step.  The water 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.

With no controls in place to speak of to date, there are now 405 dead zones in our oceans.  Drinking water even in industrialized countries, with treatment in place, nevertheless yields a list of toxins when tested – many of them with no toxicological roadmap.  The textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet – the 9 trillion liters of water used annually in textile processing is usually expelled into our rivers without treatment and is a major source of groundwater pollution.  Now that virtual or “embedded” water tracking is becoming necessary in evaluating products, people are beginning to understand when we say it takes 500 gallons of water to make the fabric to cover one sofa.  We want people to become aware that when they buy anything, and fabric especially, they reinforce the manufacturing processes used to produce it.  Just Google “Greenpeace and the textile industry” to find out what Greenpeace is doing to make people aware of this issue.

Over 8,000 chemicals are used in textile processing, some so hazardous that OSHA requires textile scraps be handled as hazardous waste.   The final product is, by weight, about 23% synthetic chemicals – often the same chemicals that are outlawed in other products.  The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:

  • Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs), which are endocrine disruptors;
    • o Endocrine disruptors are a wide range of chemicals which interfere with the body’s endocrine system to produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological and immune effects in both humans and wildlife; exposure us suspected to be associated with altered reproductive function in both males and females, increased incidence of breast cancer, abnormal growth patterns and neurodevelopmental delays in children.(2)
  • Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
    • o Long-term exposure to low levels can cause damage to the liver, kidneys, blood, and nervous system. Studies in animals also suggest that the endocrine system and immune system can also be damaged following long-term exposure to low levels of pentachlorophenol. All of these effects get worse as the level of exposure increases.(3)
  • Toluene and other aromatic amines
    • carcinogens (4)
  • Dichloromethane (DCM)
    • Exposure leads to decreased motor activity, impaired memory and other neurobehavioral deficits; brain and liver cancer.(5)
  • Formaldehyde
    • The National Toxicology Program named formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen in its 12th Report on Carcinogens.(6)
  • Phthalates –
    • Associated with a range of effects from liver and kidney diseases to developmental and reproductive effects, reduced fetal weight.(7)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE’s)
    • A growing body of research in laboratory animals has linked PBDE exposure to an array of adverse health effects including thyroid hormone disruption, permanent learning and memory impairment, behavioral changes, hearing deficits, delayed puberty onset, decreased sperm count, fetal malformations and, possibly, cancer.(8)
  • Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
    • To date, associations have been found between PFOS or PFOA levels in the general population and reduced female fertility and sperm quality, reduced birth weight, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), increased total and non-HDL (bad) cholesterol levels, and changes in thyroid hormone levels.(9)
  • Heavy metals – cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others
    • Lead is a neurotoxin (affects the brain and cognitive development) and affects the reproductive system; mercury is a neurotoxin and possibly carcinogenic; cadmium damages the kidneys, bones and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified it as a human carcinogen; exposure to antimony can cause reproductive disorders and chromosome damage.

The textile industry uses huge quantities of fossil fuels  –  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.  For example, steam used in the textile manufacturing process is often generated in inefficient and polluting coal-fired boilers.  Based on estimated annual global textile production of 60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric, the estimated energy needed to produce that fabric boggles the mind:  1,074 billion KWh of electricity (or 132 million metric tons of coal).  It takes 3886 MJ of energy to produce 25 yards of nylon fabric (about the amount needed to cover one sofa).  To put that into perspective, 1 gallon of gasoline equals 131 MJ of energy; driving a Lamborghini from New York to Washington D.C. uses approximately 2266 MJ of energy.(10)

Today’s textile industry is also one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses on the planet: in the USA alone, it accounts for 5% of the country’s CO2 production annually; China’s textile sector alone would rank as the 24th– largest country in the world.(11)

We succeeded in producing the world’s first collection of organic fabrics that were gorgeous and green – and safe.    In 2007, those fabrics won “Best Merchandise” at Decorex (www.decorex.com).    In 2008, our collection was named one of the Top Green Products of 2008 by BuiltGreen/Environmental Building News. As BuiltGreen/EBN takes no advertising dollars, their extensive research is prized by the green building industry (www.buildinggreen.com).

We are a tiny company with an oversized mission.  We are challenged to be a triple bottom line company, and we want to make an outsized difference through education for change  – so that a sufficiently large number of consumers will know which questions to ask that will force change in an industry.  We believe that a sufficiently large number of people will respond to our message to force profound positive change: by demanding safe fabric, produced safely, our environment and our health will be improved.

The issues that distinguish us from other fabric distributors, in addition to offering fabrics whose green pedigree is second to none:

    1. We manage each step of the production process from fiber to finished fabric, unlike other companies, which buy mill product and choose only the color palette of the production run.    Those production process steps include fiber preparation, spinning, weaving, dyeing, printing and finishing; with many sub-steps such as sizing and de-sizing, bleaching, slashing, etc.
    2. We educate consumers and designers on the issues that are important to them – and to all of us. Our blog on the topic of sustainability in the textile industry has grown from about 2 hits a day to 2,000, and is our largest source of new customers.
    3. We are completely transparent in all aspects of our production and products.    We want our brand to be known not only as the “the greenest”, but for honesty and authenticity in all claims.  This alignment between our values, our claims and our products fuels our passion for the business.
    4. We are the only collection we know of which sells only “safe” fabrics.

We serve multiple communities, but we see ourselves as being especially important to two communities:  those who work to produce our fabric and those who use it, especially children and their parents.

    • By insisting on the use of safe chemicals exclusively, we improve the working conditions for textile workers.  And by insisting on water treatment, we mitigate the effects of even benign chemicals on the environment – and the workers’ homes and agricultural land.  Even salt, used in copious amounts in textile processing, will ruin farmland and destroy local flora and fauna if not neutralized before being returned to the local waters.
    • For those who use our fabric, chemicals retained in the finished fibers do not add to our “body burden “, which is especially important for children, part of our second special community.  A finished fabric is, by weight, approximately 23% synthetic chemicals. Those chemicals are not benign.  Textile processing routinely uses chemicals with known toxic profiles such as lead, mercury, formaldehyde, arsenic and benzene – and many other chemicals, many of which have never been tested for safety.

Another thing we’d like you to know about this business is the increasing number of people who contact us who have been harmed by fabric (of all things!) because we represent what they believe is an honest attempt at throwing light on the subject of fabric processing.   Many are individuals who suffer from what is now being called “Idiopathic Environmental Intolerance” or IEI (formerly called Multiple Chemical Sensitivity), who are looking for safe fabrics.  We’ve also been contacted on behalf of groups, for example,   flight attendants, who were given new uniforms in 2011, which caused allergic reactions in a large number of union members.

These incidences of fabric-induced reactions are on the rise.   As we become more aware of the factors that influence our health, such as we’re seeing currently with increased awareness of the effects of interior air quality, designers and others will begin to see their way to specifying “safe” fabrics  just as their code of ethics demands.(12)  We feel certain that the trajectory for such an important consumer product as fabric, which surrounds us most of every hour of the day, will mimic that of organic food.

We say our fabrics are luxurious – because luxury has become more about your state of mind than the size of your wallet. These days, people define luxury by such things as a long lunch with old friends, the good health to run a 5K, or waking up in the morning and doing exactly what you want all day long.  In the past luxury was often about things.  Today, we think it’s not so much about having as it is about being knowledgeable about what you’re buying – knowing that you’re buying the best and that it’s also good for the world.  It’s also about responsibility: it just doesn’t feel OK to buy unnecessary things when people are starving and the world is becoming overheated.  It’s about products being defined by how they make you feel –  “conscious consumption” – and giving you ways to find personal meaning and satisfaction.

 

(1) Barlow, Maude, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the coming Battle for the Right to Water, October 2007

(2)World Health Organization, http://www.who.int/ceh/risks/cehemerging2/en/

(3)Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry 2001, https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=400&tid=70

(4)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Publication # 90-101; https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/90-101/

(5)Cooper GS, Scott CS, Bale AS. 2011. Insights from epidemiology into dichloromethane and cancer risk. Int J Environ Res Public Health 8:3380–3398.

(6)National Toxicology Program (June 2011). Report on Carcinogens, Twelfth Edition. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, National Toxicology Program. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from: http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/go/roc12.

(7)Hauser, R and Calafat, AM, “Phthalates and Human Health”, Occup Environ Med 2005;62:806–818. doi: 10.1136/oem.2004.017590

(8)Environmental Working Group, http://www.ewg.org/research/mothers-milk/health-risks-pbdes

(9)School of Environmental Health, University of British Columbia; http://www.ncceh.ca/sites/default/files/Health_effects_PFCs_Oct_2010.pdf

(10) Annika Carlsson-Kanyama and Mireille Faist, 2001, Stockholm University Dept of Systems Ecology, htp://organic.kysu.edu/EnergySmartFood(2009).pdf

(11)Based on China carbon emissions reporting for 2010 from Energy Information Administration (EIA); see U.S. Department of Energy, Carbon Emissions from Energy Generation by Country, http://www.eia.gov/ cfapps/ipdbproject/IEDIndex3.cfm?tid=90&pid=44&aid=8 (accessed September 28, 2012). Estimate for China textile sector based on industrial emissions at 74% of total emissions, and textile industry
as 4.3% of total industrial emissions; see EIA, International Energy Outlook 2011, U.S. Department of Energy.

(12)Nussbaumer, L.L, “Multiple Chemical Sensitivity: The Controversy and Relation to Interior Design”, Abstract, South Dakota State University





Hemp vs. Linen

31 08 2016

We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.

Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.

But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is a far inferior choice to any Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a certified fabric versus one that is not certified, because certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or other dred diseases which can affect you in ways ranging from subtle to profound. The choice of GOTS also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!

Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:

First, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.

Retting (or, really, rotting) is the microbial decomposition of the pectins which bind the fibers to the woody inner core of the plant stem. The old system of water or snow retting has given way to chemical retting, which in turn often shortens – which means weakens – the fibers. These short fibers are said to have been “cottonized” since cotton fibers are only about 1.5 inches long.

It’s important to note that there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers – they both have similar properties. Hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.

In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax.   So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Long fibers translate into inherently more resilient and therefore durable yarns. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is generally 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:

  • The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
  • Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water. Linen on the other hand is non-allergenic and insect-repellent.
  • Hemp is the most highly resistant natural fiber to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight. Linen too has excellent resistance to UV rays.
  • Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.

The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena.

Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated.  Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp!  But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.   This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.

Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition.   Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.

The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields.   We have no idea why this is so. And finding organic hemp is becoming almost impossible, because hemp is usually grown by subsistence farmers who are loath to pay certification fees.

Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’.   The number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn.   In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with a double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together into cloth. Or not.

But in general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:

  • Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
  • Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times stronger) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk!), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric.   The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
  • Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
  • Both hemp and linen breathe – they release moisture back into the atmosphere and do not retain water.
  • Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
  • Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
  • Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
  • Both hemp and linen biodegrade.

The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants. The certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.