To polyester or not to polyester

19 04 2016

Give our retail website, Two Sisters Ecotextiles, a look and let us know what you think.

We are pondering about whether to sell polyester fabrics – largely because people are insisting on it. And there is a lot of polyester being produced:

polyester production

But, when (or if) we sell polyester fabric or blends, we have determined that the fabric must be GRS Gold level certified polyester, because:

  1. GRS is to synthetics as GOTS is to natural fibers.  It is our assurance:
    1. that there is water treatment in place,
    2. that no toxic additives are used as process chemicals, and no finishes (such as fire retardants or stain repellants) are added to the fabric,
    3. and that workers have basic rights.
  2. GRS provides verified support for the amount of recycled content in a yarn. It provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claim a fabric is made from recycled polyester can be officially backed up. Today, the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets  – we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from.  So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the  process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.  Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true. In addition,

The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal (It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?  The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden)
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

Polyester is much (much, much, much!) cheaper than natural fibers and it wears like iron – so you can keep your sofa looking good for 30 years. The real question is, will you actually keep that sofa for 30 years?

There is still a problem with the production of synthetics. Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount. A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [1] But synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater. If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.

Also please keep in mind, that, if you choose a synthetic, then you bypass the benefits you’d get from supporting organic agriculture, which may be one of our most potent weapons in fighting climate change, because:

    1. Organic agriculture acts as a carbon sink: new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil. And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.
    2. It eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
    3. It conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
    4. It ensures sustained biodiversity

We’re not great fans of synthetics: Polyester is made from crude oil, and is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors.   The manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals produced during the manufacturing process. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

But there is a great quantity of existing polyester on this Earth, and there is only so much farmland that is available for cotton and other fiber crops, even though we have enough land to grow all the food and fiber we like, at least in theory.[2]

The biggest drawback to polyester production is that it requires a lot of energy, which means burning fuel for power and contributing to climate change. But to put that in perspective, Linda Greer, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says you actually release more carbon dioxide burning a gallon of gas than producing a polyester shirt.

However factories where polyester is produced which do not have end-of-pipe wastewater treatment systems release antimony along with a host of other potentially dangerous substances like cobalt, manganese salts, sodium bromide, and titanium dioxide into the environment.

In theory, cotton is biodegradable and polyester is not. But the thing is, the way we dispose of clothing makes that irrelevant. For cotton clothes to break down, they have to be composted, which doesn’t happen in a landfill.

The bottom line is that while the rise of polyester is not good news for the planet, a big increase in cotton production wouldn’t be any better, according to many sources: Both fabrics are created in huge factory plants, both go trough multiple chemical processes to make the final product, and both will be shipped around the globe.         (https://www.sewingpartsonline.com/blog/411-cotton-vs-polyester-pros-cons/)

But we keep returning to one point: there are already polyester bottles in existence. World demand for polyester in 2014 was a bit more than 46 million tons.[3] Only a small percentage of that is used for bottles, but that’s still a lot of bottles – in the United States, more than 42 billion bottles of water (only water!) were produced in 2010.[4] Doesn’t it make sense to re-use some of these bottles?

Mulling over the possibilities. Let us know how you feel.

[1] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[2] Atkisson, Alan, “Food, Fuel and Fiber? The Challenge of Using the Earth to Grow Energy”, December 2008, worldchanging.com

[3] Carmichael, Alasdair “Man made Fibers Continue to Grow”, Textile World, http://www.textileworld.com/Issues/2015/_2014/Fiber_World/Man-Made_Fibers_Continue_To_Grow

[4] http://www.container-recycling.org/images/stories/BUfigures/figure-pngs-new/figure4.png

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Beyond natural fibers

11 07 2012

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle. The amount of plastic used to make the bottles is so enormous that estimates of total amount of plastic used is staggering. Earth911.com says that over 2,456 million pounds of PET was available for recycling in the United States in 2009. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bottles.
Those bottles exist – they’re not going away, except perhaps to the landfill. So shouldn’t we be able to use them somehow?
We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here, and here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics. All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.
So the reality is that polyester bottles exist, and using them any way we can before sending them to the landfill will prevent the use of more crude oil, which we’re trying to wean ourselves from, right? Recycling some of them into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.
Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise, recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers. So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.
Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips, sometimes called flakes. These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester, and and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets – we have no way to verify that. Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from. So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled. Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester. Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green. So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.
Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester. But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.
What does that mean? It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things. In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.
It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true? The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden. And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case? There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions. And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow. This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
  • 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.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important. There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.

But now there is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues. The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system: Gold standard – products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;Bronze standard – products have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.





When is recycled polyester NOT recycled polyester?

23 03 2011

Fabric might be the only product I can think of which is known by its component parts, like cotton, silk, wool.  These words usually refer to the fabric rather than the fiber used to make the fabric.  We’ve all done it: talked about silk draperies, cotton sheets.  There seems to be a disassociation between the fibers used and the final product, and people don’t think about the process of turning cotton bolls or silkworm cocoons or flax plants into luxurious fabrics.

There is a very long, involved and complex process needed to turn raw fibers into finished fabrics.  Universities award degrees in textile engineering,  color chemistry or any of a number of textile related fields.  One can get a PhD in fiber and polymer science,  or study the design, synthesis and analysis of organic dyes and pigments.  Then there is the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) which has thousands of members in 60 different countries.  My point is that we need to start focusing on the process of turning raw textile fiber into a finished fabric – because therein lies all the difference!

And that brings me to recycled polyester, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.  We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year (on 4.28.10, 5.05.10 and 5.12.10) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics.  But the reality is that polyester bottles exist,  and recycling some of them  into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than landfilling them.

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from any kind of  polyester  –  we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from, because the molecules are the same.  So the yarn/fabric  could be virgin polyester or  it could be recycled.   Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester.   And unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green.   So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, there is absolutely no way to tell if that’s true.

Some companies are trying to differentiate their brands by confirming that what they say is recycled REALLY is from recycled sources.  Unifi, which supplies lots of recycled resins and yarns, has an agreement with Scientific Certification Systems to certify that their Repreve yarns are made from 100% recycled content.  Then Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain to verify that if Repreve is in a product , that it’s present in the right amounts.  But with this proprietary information there are still many questions Unifi doesn’t answer – the process is not transparent.  And it applies only to Unifi’s branded yarns.

Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers.  Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester.  But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.  That means that the chemicals used during processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things.  The processing uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden.  And there is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  They assumed that this would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring (all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap!).

But now, Ecotextile News‘ suggestion has become a reality.   There is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn. The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system with the Gold standard requiring products to contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material; the Silver standard requires products to be made of between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product; and the Bronze standard requires products to have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

And – we think this is even more important –  in addition to the certification of the recycled content, the GRS looks at the critical issues of processing and workers rights.  This new standard holds the weaver to similar standards as found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • all prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • all wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • there is an extensive section related to worker’s health and safety.





Polyester – to recycle or not to recycle?

12 01 2011

I know it’s hard to imagine that the lovely fabric you’re eyeing for that chair – so soft and supple and luxurious – is just another plastic.

But because 60% of all polyethylene terephalate (PET – commonly called polyester) manufactured globally is destined to be made into fibers to be woven into cloth,  and because  polyester absolutely dominates the market, and because the textile industry has adopted using recycled polyester as their contribution to help us fight climate change, I think it’s important that we keep up with topics in recycling plastic.

”A Tribute to PET Bottles“ by Czech Sculptor Veronika Richterová

If using recycled polyester is good, then using “post consumer” PET bottles  is deemed the highest good.  But an interesting thing is happening with PET bottles and recycling, according to a study published in August, 2010, by SRI Consulting, which is, according to their web site,  the world’s leading business research service for the global chemical industry (www.sriconsulting.com).  The study, PET’s Carbon Footprint: To Recycle or Not to Recycle, caused more than a few ripples because it concluded that in many cases recycling bottles is no better — and could be worse — than landfilling.
The study’s key finding — widely reported — is that a recycling facility needs to recover at least 50 percent of the material it takes in if it is to achieve a more environmentally favorable carbon footprint than simply disposing directly to landfill.  The key is to improve yields , especially in sorting and to a lesser extent, in reprocessing.

This study addresses two key questions:

  • should we recycle plastics?
  • what are the carbon footprints of virgin (vPET)  and recycled PET (rPET)

In order to calculate the carbon footprint of various PET products, the study  calculated the carbon footprint for PET bottles used to package drinks from “cradle to grave,” i.e., extending from production of raw materials (primarily oil and gas) through to disposal of all wastes. The study considers a base case—bottles are used by consumers in northwest Europe, collected in a curbside system and sent on for sorting and recycling—and variations on that theme, including PET-only take-back (as currently practiced in Switzerland) as well as no recycling (with scenarios of “all landfill” and “all incineration”). Sensitivities of all major variables were assessed.

The study concludes that the curbside take-back systems are no better than landfill, in terms of carbon footprint. From a carbon-emissions standpoint, it would be just as well to bury used bottles as to recycle them, and either would be a better option than burning them.  The study found that landfilling PET bottles from certain systems rather than incinerating them could reduce carbon footprint by 30%.  Call it “carbon capture and storage” on an economy budget.  The key is to have the room – and if you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded you may be hard pressed to agree that there could ever be anyplace on the planet with room!

SRI report author Eric Johnson told FoodProductionDaily.com that transportation and processing costs, as well as low yields of pure PET (of below 50 per cent) from curbside recycling collections such as Germany’s DSD ‘Green Dot’ programme,  warranted SRI’s conclusion. (read article here)

Johnson said: “In terms of resource squandering [of oil in particular], if it takes more resources to recycle bottles …  than to produce units from virgin PET then this is irresponsible. If you’re going to recycle…do it properly.”

Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the UK Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, concurred with Johnson’s point that rPET purity was a significant hindrance to worthwhile recycling, given that it affected recoverable PET levels: “Quality of recyclate is a big issue because the energy costs to separate out contaminants and clean the polymer are significant,” she said. (1)

As you might expect, there was a bit of an uproar over the study.

Casper van den Dungen,  EuPR PET working group chairman,  condemned SRI Consulting’s report:  “By applying SRI Consulting’s results we would …  lose valuable [rPET] material in landfills. The model used is intrinsically wrong, as in reality landfill should be avoided as a starting principle.”  (2)

Antonio Furfari from EuPR added: “The wrong signal is that landfill is good for environment. Landfilling is not acceptable for environmental and resources efficiency reasons, and CO2 is not the only environmental variable.” (3)

And yet, Jane Bickerstaffe had this comment: “It’s worth noting that landfilling inert materials like PET is just like putting back the sand, granite etc. that was dug out of a hole in the ground in the first place.  Inert materials are benign, whereas biodegradable materials such as cabbage leaves and potato peelings generate methane in landfill and have a negative impact on climate change.” (4)

The findings of this study hinge on how the plastics are collected.  Recycling programs using curbside collection typically displace less than 50% of new PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Community programs with plastic bottle take-back, mandated separate collection, or deposits on bottles tend to report much higher displacement rates. For regions that already have a recycling infrastructure, the aim should be to boost recycled PET (rPET) displacement of virgin PET (vPET) significantly above 50%.   The key seems to be in increasing yields rather than improving collection rates.  In countries where there is no recycling infrastructure, the best choice may well be to landfill bottles.”

It seems to me that, in consideration of “should we recycle plastics”  –  the answer is (as it almost always is): “it depends”.   Should we use only carbon footprint as a yardstick?  Sometimes you have to pull back and take in the big picture; as one blogger put it, “It’s unconscionable to pay out the nose for foreign oil so that we can produce more soda bottles to package up products that make our population fat and unhealthy.”

And how does all that trash get into the oceans?  How does that figure into this equation?

Hey, I never promised answers.

(1)  Bouckley, Ben; “Plastic recycling body slams report advising countries to landfill PET bottles”, FoodProductiondaily.com, September 2, 2010

(2)  Ibid.

(3)  Ibid.

(4)  Ibid.





Plastics – part 3: even more about why recycling is not working

12 05 2010

I was going to go on to other subjects, but just saw in the Seattle Times that the whale that washed up on a West Seattle beach last month was discovered to have 3.2 lbs. of garbage in its belly – including 20 plastic bags and 37 other  kinds of plastic (read entire article here.)

If you’ve been reading my posts for the past two weeks (On 5.5.10 and 4.28.10), it has hopefully dawned on you that we have a dilemma with regard to plastic:   Recycling presents problems, yet not recycling hardly seems an option.  Whether you see plastic as a boon or a bane, plastic is the fastest-growing portion of our waste stream and now makes up the second-largest category by volume (next to paper) of trash going into our landfills, according to a draft report prepared for the California Integrated Waste Management Board called the “Plastics White Paper.”

Eco Nature Care did a post on plastic recycling, and highlighted many of the reasons recycling isn’t catching on in this country.  I’ve copied the post below (and you can read it here):

Plastics make up 17.8 % by volume  of what’s thrown into California landfills. While consumers are increasingly snapping those Evian bottles off the shelves, they toss the empties into the trash bin more often than the recycling bin. The recycling rate for plastic bottles is only 16 percent — miserably low compared to glass and aluminum — even though consumers can redeem their used plastic bottles for the same CRV (California Refund Value) rate as other containers.

California cities and counties have an incentive to recycle as much material as possible. A 1989 law requires that municipalities reduce the trash they send to landfills by 50%  or face hefty fines.

Diversion, then, becomes the magic word. But from the point of view of recyclers, accepting some types of plastic is more trouble than it’s worth. For example, plastics coded 3 through 7 — cottage cheese, tofu, salsa and yogurt containers — are particularly difficult to recycle profitably. So why take these additional containers at all, especially when their volume is low? According to Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center, the answer is public pressure.

“I fought it. There are no domestic markets for it. At a point you get tired of being harangued by people coming in trying to quote unquote “do the right thing.’”  They don’t want to throw anything away, he said, and that’s all well and good. But a more appropriate position might be, “I shouldn’t buy it in the first place,” he suggested.

The plastics trail

The plastics collected at the Arcata sites are baled and stored for about a month until they fill a 12-ton truckload, Loughmiller said. The truck typically contains 5 tons of milk bottles (the number 2s), 7 tons of soda and water bottles (the number 1s), and about three-quarters of a ton of the so-called “mixed plastics,” the 3s through 7s, which are baled together.

They then make their way to Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento (which also takes all of the plastics from Humboldt Sanitation in McKinleyville). Kenny Luong, president of Ming’s, said his center has 40 or 50 suppliers in California and another 30 to 40 elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Almost all of the plastics that come into Ming’s are sold to brokers in Hong Kong, who pay to transport it via container ship from the Port of Oakland to China. The transport is cheap because China exports far more to the United States than we do to them; the ships traveling back to China have plenty of room.

The mixed plastics don’t make Luong very much money, he said, which explains why the cities of Arcata and Eureka get nothing for their mixed plastic bales. (A ton of milk jugs, by contrast, pays about $200; a ton of soda bottles, $160.)

“It’s enough to cover the transport to the harbor, that’s pretty much it,” Luong said of the mixed plastics. He would prefer not to take those at all. But a change to state law in 2000 expanded the list of beverages included in the California Redemption Value program. And if the bottle has a “CRV” on it — even if it’s a number 3 or 4 plastic — a certified recycling center must accept it and pay the refund to the consumer.

“It’s really a pain in the butt,” Luong said. “There aren’t a whole lot, but we are required to purchase them by law. It prompted us to find a market for it.”

That market, it turns out, consists of recyclers in Shanghai and Guangdong province. Luong said he has never seen the China facilities and knows little about them. “Once it’s loaded on the ship, it’s out of my hands.”

Recycling in Guangdong

One of his brokers has visited some of the locations in China where plastics from Humboldt end up. Doug Spitzer is the owner of Monarch Enterprises of Santa Cruz, which is affiliated with the gargantuan paper company Boise Cascade. He sells plastics to Chinese recyclers and ran a plastic film-recycling factory himself outside of Guangdong in the early 1990s.

“Most of our material goes through Hong Kong into that closest province [to Hong Kong], which is Guangdong,” Spitzer said. One factory will typically limit itself to one type of plastic, and one village might have most of its residents involved in that type of recycling, he said.

“Within this one town outside of Guangzhou [in Guangdong province], when I was there, my partners were telling me there were at least 3,000 plastic film processors there, and they’re right next door to each other. It’s a small village; they all process it.” The facilities range from a mom-and-pop operation that takes one container-load per month to very large, comparatively modern factories.

One Spitzer saw when he visited four years ago involved soda bottles: The workers would break open the bales, women would sort the bottles by color, a “guy with a machete” cut the tops off, two other men scraped labels off, then the bottles were ground into pellets and melted down. 

It was not the kind of place that would be approved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Spitzer said.

“OSHA would go nuts. The place is noisy, it’s crowded, it’s just amazing. Not that they’re killing people off. They’re safe, and all the time we were running the factory there were no major accidents,” he said. “Do people engage in unsafe practices to try to make a living? Yeah, all over the world.”

He said his current business provides a valuable service. “What I’m doing is I’m supplying a raw material that can go to a Third World country.”

There are some facilities in the United States that recycle soda bottles and milk jugs “if the material is clean enough,” said Luong of Ming’s Recycling. But the market for recycled plastic makes it difficult, if not impossible, for recyclers to make any money. The reasons are many. Since plastic is made from petroleum, virgin plastic makers have a large supply of raw material available to them. When manufacturers can buy virgin plastic pellets or flakes for about the same amount of money as recycled plastic, there is little incentive to use recycled (the italics are mine!).

There are also limits to the products that can be made from recycled plastic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow food containers to be made into new food containers because they can’t be heated at temperatures high enough to sterilize them. (The FDA has said it will allow a layer of recycled plastic sandwiched between layers of virgin plastic in soda bottles.)

A numbers game

Plastic recyclers must also face the issue of contamination. Recycling the number 1 (PET) plastics — the soda bottles — could work economically were it not for the number 3s that enter the mix, said Peter Anderson, a recycling consultant in Madison, Wis., who has worked with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. Number 3 plastics are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short.

“PVC presents enormous problems because it looks just like PET physically,” Anderson said. “A single bottle of PVC will contaminate the entire [10,000-bottle] load” aesthetically, causing the new PET bottles made with the material to be yellowed or, with more contamination, to have black streaks, he said. There are X-ray scanning machines that can detect the PVC intruders, but those are too expensive for many recyclers.

“You can’t make plastics recycling work with PVC in the mix,” Anderson said. So, he argued, taking the 3 through 7 plastics makes no economic sense. “Who the hell knows what China’s doing with them? I don’t think anyone can make a case without a smirk on their face that they’re recycling 3 through 7s.”

He called the idea of recycling all plastics “a serious mistake.”

Some recyclers take the 3 through 7 plastics because, they reason, they’ll get more of the “good stuff” — the soda bottles and milk bottles — if they advertise that they accept a wider range of recyclables. Eel River Disposal in Fortuna, for example, accepts numbers 1, 2 and 3, which they send to Smurfit Recycling in Oakland.

Eel River owner Harry Hardin said he doesn’t collect enough of the number 3s to make a separate bale with it, so he bales it with the number 2s. “I even put some 4s in there,” he said.

Asked about the PVC contamination problem, Hardin said, “It depends what market you send it into. Smurfit’s — I’m not quite sure what they do with theirs. But they will allow some number 3 and 2 together.”

Not so, said Don Kurtz, plant manager for Smurfit in Oakland. “If we identify that there are 3s in there, we reject the bale,” he said. Eel River was recently told to come and get one of their bales that was turned away for that very reason. “We really don’t want number 3s. It really doesn’t make sense for us to mess with it.” (Unlike Ming’s, Smurfit is not legally bound to take any particular recyclables because the company is classified as a “processor,” not a recycling facility.)

Another Humboldt County recycler sells his material to a middleman in a different part of the state. The man, who did not want to be identified, said he does not collect enough 3 through 7 numbered plastics to bale them separately, so he mixes them with the bales for the numbers 1 and 2. “Don’t advertise that,” he said. “It’s garbage plastic, but a lot of people like to recycle it.” His company then sells it to a broker who sends it overseas.

“If they’re putting it in with the PET [number 1s], I guarantee they’re getting thrown out,” said the broker, Patty Moore of the Sonoma-based Moore Recycling Associates.

Destination landfill

All in all, plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.

“With plastics recycling, we’re just extending the life of a material. We’re not creating a perpetual loop for that material,” like we do with glass and aluminum recycling, said Loughmiller, the Arcata recycling director.

“I think people really need to have a reality check on plastics,” said Puckett of the Basel Action Network. “The mantra has been, `divert from the landfill.’ What we’ve been saying is, divert to what? Dump it on the Chinese? Plastics recycling needs to be looked at with a jaundiced eye,” he said. “It’s not what it’s touted to be.”

If you’ve ever looked on the bottom of your plastic juice bottle,  detergent bottle or tofu tub, you’ve seen the little triangle of arrows with a number inside. That symbol — contrary to popular belief — does not indicate that a container is recyclable.

Back in 1988, “the trade groups managed to get into law the resin [type of plastic] identification,” said Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center. The numbers indicate which category of plastic the container is made from.

“The triangled arrows imply recyclability,” Loughmiller said. “The plastic industry denied it was trying to mislead the public and cause confusion.” But that’s what happened, he said. People regularly come to his center and demand to know why their plastic lawn chair with a number on the bottom can’t be recycled.

And why can’t it? Because, even in one category, such as plastics labeled with a number 2 (high density polyethylene or HDPE), there are many variations. Milk jugs and yogurt containers, for example, may both be made with HDPE, but because the recycling process requires melting of the old containers, and they melt at different temperatures, they may be incompatible.





Plastics – part 2: Why recycling is not the answer

5 05 2010

In Plastics, Part 1 (last week’s post; click here to read it) I tried to give a summary of why plastics are not such a good thing.  The Plastic Pollution coalition has a list of basic concepts about plastic.  Click here to read the expanded version:

  • Plastic is forever
  • Plastic is poisoning our food chain
  • Plastic affects human health
  • Recycling is not a sustainable solution

Yet there seems to be no end to our demand for plastics.   In one year alone, from 1995 – 96, plastic packaging increased by 1,000,000,000 lbs.  And despite recycling efforts, for every 1 ton increase in plastic recycling, there was a 14 ton increase in new plastic production.

I tried to explain some of the roadblocks to plastic recycling efforts.   We have all heard that recycling is good for the environment,  and it’s hard to argue with the intuitively correct reasoning that if we recycle we reduce our dependence on foreign oil, we conserve energy and emissions and we keep bottles out of the landfills.

And what about the lighter weight of plastic bottles?  Surely there are benefits in shipping lighter weight bottles  – giving plastic bottles a lower overall carbon footprint?  Well, here’s the thing:  there are environmental trade offs, just like in life.  Even if we accept that plastics are more carbon efficient than alternative materials (glass) in transportation, we’re still talking about vast amounts of carbon emissions.  Plastics use releases at least 100 million tons of CO2 – some say as much as 500 million tons – into the atmosphere each year.  That’s the equivalent of the annual emissions from 10 – 45% of all U.S. drivers.  Plastic manufacturing also contributes 14% of the national total of toxic (i.e., other than CO2) releases to our atmosphere; producing a 16 oz PET bottle generates more than 100 times the amount of toxic emissions than does making the same size in glass.  But the critical point is that it’s definitely cheaper to ship liquids in plastic rather than in glass.  And it’s also cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin plastic than a recycled plastic.

These rather alarming CO2 numbers could be much lower, we understand, if only Americans recycled more than the paltry 7% of plastic which is recycled today.  We could cut our usage of virgin material by one third – and that means an annual savings of 30 to 150 million tons of CO2.

So why aren’t Americans recycling more?  Although our plastic consumption has grown by a factor of 30 since the 1960s, recycling has grown by a factor of just two.  Is this just because we don’t take the time to separate recyclable plastics from general waste, or because we don’t take the time to throw the bottle into the proper recycling bin?  What about companies that use the plastic – they are not clamoring to spend more to use recycled plastic (again that bugaboo “cost”) so they continue to demand virgin plastic.

When Rhode Island enacted comprehensive recycling legislation in 1986, including bans on plastic bottles – the plastic industry responded by introducing their resin codes, in part (some say) to deflect attention from the virgin polyester production and encourage an environmental spin on the plastics.  The plastics industry’s  “chasing arrows” symbol surrounding a number (those resin codes) were “deliberately misleading” according to Daniel Knapp, director of Berkeley’s Urban Ore.  “The plastics industry has wrought intentional confusion with that symbol”, said Bill Sheehan, director of GrassRoots Recycling Network.  Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic has no system for recycling – no infrastructure to sell it, no markets to buy it, no facilities to make it.  “In short, the arrows led nowhere.”(1)

According to many, these codes just gave plastic an environmental patina, which the industry was quick to use.  “Several states have postponed or backed off from restrictive packaging legislation as a result of the voluntary coding system” – this gleeful statement from a 1988 newsletter of the Council on Plastics and Packaging in the Environment.

The industry’s critics say that it won’t do anything to support recycling.  Mel Weiss, an independent plastics broker, sees the industry focused on PR and not at all interested in recycling.  He says:  “the American Plastics Council (APC), a trade group representing virgin-resin producers, won’t do anything to support recycling. If they had a choice between selling one pound of virgin and 22 tons of recycled, they’d sell the virgin. All they’re doing is masking what they’re doing with an expensive ad campaign.”

Here’s the irony:  it was the veneer of recyclability – cultivated by the plastics industry – that led to this explosion of plastic use.

The plastics industry, spearheaded by the American Plastics Council (APC), has sponsored campaigns to convince the public that recycling is easy, economical and a big success.  They are a “responsible choice in a more environmentally conscious world”, according to the APC.  Between November 1992 and July 1993, the APC spent $18 million in a national advertising campaign to “Take Another Look at Plastics.” (Environmental Defense Fund, October 21, 1997, “Something to hide: The sorry state of plastics recycling.”)  Examples of how plastics “leave a lighter footprint on the planet” include the argument that plastic grocery bags are lighter and create less waste by volume than paper sacks, the industry said. And the fact that plastics are so lightweight and durable enables manufacturers to use less energy and generate less waste in production processes, plastic promoters said.

In addition to the American Plastics Council, the American Chemical Council (ACC) also spends millions to defend the chemicals produced by their members to make plastics. – including lobbying against any bills that would add a few cents to each bag or bottle to encourage returns and recycling efforts.    According to Lisa Kaas Boyle, Board Member of Heal the Bay, the ACC has hired the same advisors who defended the tobacco industry to formulate a strategy to promote and defend the petrochemical industry.  That strategy is based on preventing legislation to curtail single use plastics  (SUPs – i.e., soda bottles etc.) and to generate positive press on the promotion of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution.  This approach makes the industry look environmental while continuing with business as usual.

Because most manufacturers don’t take back their products, there’s often little opportunity to sell collected plastic. It is true that the West Coast  is blessed with domestic and overseas markets that have made recycling of #1 and #2 plastics – soda bottles and milk jugs – somewhat easier. But even here, metals and paper are the real money-makers.

“Plastics is the least profitable part of the business,” said Kevin McCarthy, regional recycling manager at Waste Management Inc.,  “and it may not even be fair to say that it is profitable at all.”

Like McCarthy’s operation, many recyclers will collect plastic only to meet contractual requirements from government agencies. The impetus to collect certain types of plastic comes from residents. But these plastics often have no market for reuse. Recyclers call it “junk plastic,”  – stuff that gets collected only “because residents wanted it collected because they watched the commercials on TV extolling the recyclability of plastic,” said one recycling official who insisted on anonymity.

In Europe, plastic recycling rates hover around 16.5%, largely because there are strict regulations from Europe’s “End of Life Directive”, in which manufacturers must take more responsibility for the processing of waste from their products.  In the U.S., efforts come largely from voluntary programs within companies, such as Wal Mart’s campaign to reduce the size of packages and increase their use of recycled materials.   The  U.S. government is highly unlikely to enact recycling legislation.  We in Seattle  voted last summer on a citizen sponsored plastic bag tax (we called it a fee)  of $0.20 per disposable bag coupled with a ban on Styrofoam.  The American Chemistry Council spent more than $1.4 million to defeat the bill – and they succeeded.

One aspect of recycling which is little known to consumers is the fact that almost all of the plastics we recycle, regardless of type, end up in China, where worker safety standards are virtually nonexistent and materials are sorted and processed under dirty, primitive conditions. The economics surrounding plastic recycling — unlike those for glass and aluminum — make it a dubious venture for U.S. companies.

(1)  Dan Rademacher, “Manufacturing a Myth: The plastics recycling ploy”, Terrain Magazine, Winter 1999





Plastics – part 1

28 04 2010

Philosopher George Carlin once said,   “Man is only here to give the planet something it didn’t have:   Plastic.”

And man has done well:  plastic is ubiquitous in our world today and the numbers are growing.   We produce 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.

The production and use of plastics has a range of environmental impacts. Plastics production requires significant quantities of resources:  it uses land and water, but the primary resource is fossil fuels, both as a raw material and to deliver energy for the manufacturing process. It is estimated that 8% of the world’s annual oil production is used as either feedstock or energy for production of plastics.

Plastics production also involves the use of potentially harmful chemicals, which include cadmium, lead, PVC, and other pollutants which are added as stabilizers, plasticizers or colorants. Many of these have not undergone environmental risk assessment and their impact on human health and the environment is currently uncertain.  Finally, plastics manufacture  produces waste and emissions. In the U.S., fourteen percent of airborne toxic emissions come from plastics production.  The average plastics plant can discharge as much as 500 gallons of  wastewater per minute – water contaminated with process chemicals.  (The overall environmental impact varies according to the type of plastic and the production method employed.)

Every second, 200 plastic bottles made of virgin, non-renewable resources are land-filled – and every hour another 2.5 million bottles are thrown away.  And though I can’t get a definitive answer about whether the plastics decompose (because although they don’t biodegrade they do photodegrade – when exposed to UV radiation, over time they break down into smaller and smaller bits, leaching their chemical components), most sources, if they do accept that plastic can degrade, admit that nobody knows how long it really takes because most plastics have only been around for 50 years or so  –  but estimates range into the thousands of years.   (To read how scientists make estimates for plastic decomposition rates, click here. )

How do we cope with this plastic onslaught?

Recycling is the most widely recognized concept in solid waste management – and the environmental benefits of recycling plastic are touted elsewhere.  I’ll just give you the highlights here:

  • It reduces the amount of garbage we send to landfills:  Although plastic accounts for only 8% of the waste by weight, they occupy about 20% of the volume in a landfill due to their low bulk density.
  • It conserves energy:  recycling 1 pound of PET conserves 12,000 BTUs of heat energy; and the production of recycled PET uses 1/3 less energy than is needed to produce virgin PET.
  • It reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It helps conserve natural resources.

But it should be remembered that some items are much better candidates for recycling than others.  Aluminum recycling, for example, uses 95% less energy than producing aluminum from bauxite ore, and aluminum cans can be recycled into new aluminum cans.  There is no limit to the amount of times an aluminum container can be recycled. The PET bottle, which is used for everything from water to wine,  was patented in 1973 – that’s only 27 years ago!  Prior to that most bottles were of glass.  Glass, like aluminum,  is infinitely recyclable.  As late as 1947, virtually 100% of all beverage bottles were returnable; and states with bottle deposit laws have 35 – 40% less litter by volume.  I found this image while looking for Earth Day anniversary images, and think it’s a great example of how corporations will slant anything to their purposes.  (Please note that the company in question is Coca Cola – I’ll have a lot to say about Coke’s recycling efforts in 2010 in upcoming blog posts):

There are different costs and benefits for other recyclable items: plastic, paper, electronics, motor oil… They each have their own individual problems.

With reference to the textile industry, 60% of all the virgin polyethelene terephthalate (PET) produced globally is used to make fibers, while only 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.   What I want to do is expose this choice for what it is: a self-serving attempt 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 to begin, let’s look at what plastic recycling means, since there are many misconceptions about recycling plastic – especially plastic bottles from which (some) recycled polyester yarns are made.

In 1970, at the time of the first Earth Day, Gary Anderson won a contest sponsored by Container Corporation of America to present a design which symbolizes the recycling process.  His winning design  was a three-chasing-arrows Mobius loop, with the arrows twisting and turning among themselves.   Because of the symbol’s simplicity and clarity it became widely used worldwide and is a symbol now recognized  by almost everyone.  Today almost all plastic containers have the “chasing arrows” symbol.  We’re bombarded with that symbol – any manufacturer worth his salt slaps it on their products.

But the symbol itself is meaningless.  This symbol is not a government mandated code, and does not imply any particular type or amount of recycled content.  Many people think that the “chasing arrows” symbol means the plastic can be recycled – and that too is untrue.

The only useful information in the “chasing arrows” symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. There are thousands of types of plastic used for consumer packaging today. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry devised a numbering system  to aid in sorting plastics for recycling, because in order to be recycled,  each plastic container must be separated by type before it can be used again to make a new product. Of the seven types, only two kinds, polyethelene terephthalate (PET), known as #1, and High Density Polyethelyne (HDPE) – or #2 –  are typically collected and reprocessed.   Some of these resins are not yet recyclable at all (such as #6 or 7), or they’re recyclable only rarely.

In addition, a resin code might indeed indicate #1 (PET) for example, but depending on the use (yogurt cup vs. soda bottle) it will contain different dyes, plasticizers, UV inhibitors, softeners, or other chemicals.
This mix of additives changes the properties of the plastic, so not all #1 resins can be melted together – further complicating the process.  Here’s a list of the seven resin codes and some of the concerns associated with each:

Consumers see the symbol and  – thinking it means the plastic can be recycled – drop bottles into recycling bins, feeling they’ve “done their part” and that the used bottle is now part of the infinite loop, becoming a new and valued product.  But does the bottle actually get “recycled”, returning to a high value product, staying out of the garbage dump?

Well, uh, . . .  not really.  Collecting plastic containers in a recycling bin fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers.  In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers are being made into containers again, but rather into new secondary products, like textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products.  “Recycled’ in this case merely means “collected.”

A bottle can become a fabric, but a fabric can’t become a bottle – or even another fabric, but we’ll get to that later.  There are far too few exceptions to this rule.

Plastic has what’s called a “heat history”: each time it gets recycled the polymer chains break down, weakening the plastic and making it less suitable for high end use.  PET degrades after about 5 melt cycles.  This phenomenon, known in the industry as “cascading” or “downcycling,” has a troubling consequence.    It means that all plastic – including the tiny proportion that finds its way into another bottle – “will eventually end up in the landfill,” said Jerry Powell, editor of Plastics Recycling Update.

The technology exists to recycle most kinds of plastic, but a lack of infrastructure prevents all but the most widespread kinds of plastic from being recycled.  Collection is expensive because plastic bottles are light yet bulky, making it hard to efficiently gather significant amounts of matching plastic.  For recycling to work, communities must be able to cost effectively collect and sort plastic, and businesses must be willing to accept the material for processing. So no matter whether a particular plastic is in a form which allows it to be melted and reused, something is only recyclable if there is a company out there who is willing to use it to make a new product. If there is no one who will accept the material and make a new product out of it, then it is not recyclable.

Only a few kinds of plastic have the supply and market conditions that make recycling feasible. With plastics in particular, how the plastic particles are put together (molded or extruded) changes their chemical make up and make them non recyclable in certain applications. Some bottles make it to a recycler, who must scramble to find a buyer.  The recycler  often ends up selling the bottles at a loss to an entrepreneur who makes carpeting or traffic strips – anything but new bottles.

Recycling reduces the ecological impact of plastic, but it remains more complicated, more expensive and less effective than other parts of the recycling industry. No matter how many chasing arrows are printed on plastic products, it doesn’t change the fact that plastic is largely a throwaway material.

Next week:   what is the plastic industry doing to create a stronger recycling market for its product?