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?


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.


[2] Carrington, Damian, “We are living on a plastic planet. What does it mean for our health?”, The Guardian,

[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,

[6] Carrington, Damian, “People may be breathing in microplastics, health expert warns”, The Guardian


[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

Paper or plastic?

29 10 2014

The use of plastic bags is still bugging me. We use 1,000,000 plastic bags on this Earth every minute.

According to The Earth Policy Institute, the plastic bag was invented in Sweden in 1962.  The single-use plastic shopping bag was first popularized by Mobil Oil in the 1970s in an attempt to increase its market for polyethylene, a fossil-fuel derived compound.

And the question is not paper vs. plastic, because they’re both bad:

• Both plastic and paper bags gobble up valuable natural resources for a single use, disposable product.

• Both have negative impacts on wildlife and pollute our environment.
• Both create significant toxic by-products during their lifecycles
• Neither is effectively recycled.

The answer is to use something that can be used again and again.   And that means remembering to bring the reusable bag with you.  You can also carry small items without a bag, especially if you’re just going to your car.  So it’s really whether you – and I – will change our single use habit and put reuseable bags in our cars, purses and homes so that they’re available to use when you need them! The following graphic appeared in The Washington Post in 2007 and helps put this all in perspective:

Paper vs. Plastic

I know the polyester fabric costs less, but what else comes with it?

19 06 2013

When plastic was introduced in 1869, it was advertised as being able to replace natural products like ivory and tortoiseshell in items such as jewelry, combs and buttons – so it would “no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer.”(1)

What a success: Plastics are versatile – they can be hard or soft, flexible or brittle, and are durable, lightweight, formable – in fact, they’re so versatile that they’ve become a vital manufacturing ingredient for nearly every existing industry. They are practically ubiquitous. And now we’re beginning to find that our relationship with plastic is not healthy. Using dwindling fossil fuels to manufacture the stuff, plastic leaches toxic chemicals into our groundwater, litters landscapes and destroys marine life. As Susan Freinkel points out in her book, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, it’s worth noting that discoveries of plastic’s toxic effects are being made in a world that is at least ten times more plastic than it was half a century ago. In the ’60s, an American might have used about 30 pounds of plastic a year – in 2011, 300 pounds. And we’re producing 300 million tons more every year.(2)

Plastics were marketed as “the material of the future”. And how true that is, because large polymers take practically forever to break down, so much of the plastic that has ever been manufactured is still with us, in landfills, in the plastic filled gyres found in our oceans (where the mass of plastic exceeds that of plankton sixfold) (3), and the stomachs of northern seabirds. And it will stay there for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Just as some chemicals can impact children’s bodies much more than adult bodies, Judith Shulevitz, writing in the New Republic, reminds us: “plastic totally dominates the world of the child. Children drink formula in baby bottles and water in sippy cups, eat food with plastic spoons on bright melamine trays, chew on bath books and rubber ducks, and, if they don’t do these things at your house, they’ll do them at someone else’s or at school, no matter how many notes you write or mad-housewife-ish you’re willing to appear.” (4)

There are many studies to support the belief that these plastics are changing us – but what has really changed is that the scientific understanding of how these chemicals are poisoning us has undergone a conceptual revolution – our grandchildren may see our current attitudes about living with these chemicals as being analogous to doctors in the 1950s who appeared in ads for cigarettes.

Old toxicological notions are being stood on their heads. Certainly, the old “dose makes the poison” notion, which was first expressed by Paracelsus in the 16th century and which means that a substance can only be toxic if it is present in a high enough concentration in the body – because all things are poisonous in the right amounts. He wrote: “All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison from a remedy”. But today scientists are finding that timing of exposure might be the critical factor – a fetus might respond to a chemical at one-hundredfold less concentration or more than in an adult, and when the chemical is taken away the body is altered for life. Another theory is known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHaD (for more about DOHaD, click here), and it paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.(5)

New methods have been developed which have taken the guesswork out of what were once theories: for example, biomonitoring now means that scientists can actually discover the degree to which people have been exposed to poisonous stuff when in the past their conclusions were largely guesswork; and microarray profiling, which means we’re beginning to understand how tiny doses of certain chemicals switch genes on or off in harmful ways during exquisitely sensitive periods of development.

Exposure to all that plastic has a cumulative effect. Now toxicologists can see that lots of tiny doses from many different estrogen-mimicking chemicals entering the body by multiple pathways can have a big impact. “If you’re being exposed to two-hundred fifty chemicals and only thirty of them have estrogenic activity, but they’re each very low, still, thirty of them might add up to be significant,” says Jerrold Heindel, of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

Judith Shulavith asks– if we live in this plastic environment – why we’re not sicker than we are? And sicker than we used to be? “The answer is, we’re healthier in some ways and sicker in others. Medical advances mean we’re likelier than ever to survive our illnesses, but all kinds of diseases are on the rise. Childhood cancers are up 20 percent since 1975. Rates of kidney, thyroid, liver, and testicular cancers in adults have been steadily increasing. A woman’s risk of getting breast cancer has gone from one in ten in 1973 to one in eight today. Asthma rates doubled between 1980 and 1995, and have stayed level since. Autism-spectrum disorders have arguably increased tenfold over the past 15 years. According to one large study of men in Boston, testosterone levels are down to a degree that can’t be accounted for by factors such as age, smoking, and obesity. Obesity, of course, has been elevated to the status of an epidemic.”(6)

There are many ways to explain upticks in rates of any particular ailment; for starters, a better-informed populace and better tools for detecting disease mean more diagnoses. Other environmental stressors include Americans’ weirdly terrible eating habits, our sedentary lifestyle, and stress itself. But why can’t we just figure this out and come to some conclusions about certain chemicals as the cause of certain diseases? John Vandenberg, a biologist, explains the difficulty : “Well, one of the problems is that we would have to take half of the kids in the kindergarten and give them BPA and the other half not. Or expose half of the pregnant women to BPA in the doctor’s office and the other half not. And then we have to wait thirty to fifty years to see what effects this has on their development, and whether they get more prostate cancer or breast cancer. You have to wait at least until puberty to see if there is an effect on sexual maturation. Ethically, you are not going to go and feed people something if you think it harmful, and, second, you have this incredible time span to deal with.”(7)

Which diseases, exactly, have fetal origins and which chemicals have the power to sidetrack development, and how, is the goal of a giant, 21-year study of 100,000 children called the National Children’s Study (NCS), under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health. However, in 2013, it was announced that the decade-old effort would undergo radical restructuring to cut costs.(8)

Meanwhile, what can you do to protect yourself and your family, since the government isn’t doing that job?  I’ll have some ideas next week.

(1) Freinkel, Susan, “Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away”, The New York Times, March 17, 2011
(2) Ibid.
(3) Moore, C.J., et al, “Density of Plastic Particles found in zooplankton trawls from coastal waters of Northern California to the North Pacific Central Gyre”, Algalita Marine Research Foundation
(4) Shulevitz, Judith, “The Toxicity Panic”, The New Republic, April 7, 2011
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Groopman, Jerome, “The Plastic Panic”, The New Yorker, May 31, 2010.
(8) Belli, Brita, “Changes to Children’s Study Threaten its value, experts say”, Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative; 7 March 2013

How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: synthetic fibers

3 10 2012

So from last week’s post, you  know that you want a durable, colorfast fabric that will be lovely to look at and wonderful to live with.  What’s the best choice?  I’m so glad you asked.

You have basically two choices in fibers:  natural (cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk)  or synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.).  Many fabrics today are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers – it has been said that most sheet sets sold in the U.S. are cotton/poly blends.

Natural fibres breathe, wicking moisture from the skin, providing even warmth and body temperature;  they are renewable, and decay at end of life.  On the other hand, synthetics do not breathe,  trapping body heat and perspiration; they are based on crude oil, definitely a non-renewable resource and they do not decompose at end of life, but rather remain in our landfills, leaching their toxic monomers into our groundwater.  They are, however, cheap and durable.

I like to think that even without the health issues involved I’d choose to live with natural fibers, since they work so well with humans!  The fibers themselves present no health issues and they’re comfortable.  But they simply don’t last as long as synthetics. But I have begun to see the durability of synthetics as their Dorian Grey aspect, in other words they last so long that they’ve become a huge problem.  By not decomposing, they just break into smaller and smaller particles which leach their toxic monomers into our groundwater.

The impact on health (ours the the planet’s) is an issue that’s often overlooked when discussing the merits of natural vs. synthetic.   And it’s a complex issue, so this week we’ll explore synthetic fibers, and next week we’ll look at natural fibers.

The most popular synthetic fiber in use today is polyester.

At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website

Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will make us more informed users.

Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.

Like this:

O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.

The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?

We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist, any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991)[1].
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).[2]
  • Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. [3]

These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women.  We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial.  After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.

Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic.  It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load.  So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.

And then there is acrylic.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(4)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [5], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. The data included women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics – those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.



[3] Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448

(4) )

(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: SEE ALSO: AND

Bioplastics – are they the answer?

16 04 2012

From Peak Energy blog; August 27, 2008

From last week’s blog post, we discussed how bio based plastics do indeed save energy during the production of the polymers, and produce fewer greenhouse gasses during the process.  Yet right off the bat, it could be argued that carbon footprints may be an irrelevant measurement,  because it has been established that plants grow more quickly and are more drought and heat resistant in a CO2 enriched atmosphere!   Many studies have shown that worldwide food production has risen, possibly by as much as 40%, due to the increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.[1] Therefore, it is both ironic and a significant potential problem for biopolymer production if the increased CO2 emissions from human activity were rolled back, causing worldwide plant growth to decline. This in turn would greatly increase the competition for biological sources of food and fuel – with biopolymers coming in last place.[2]  But that’s probably really stretching the point.

The development of bioplastics holds the potential of renewability, biodegradation, and a path away from harmful additives. They are not, however, an automatic panacea.  Although plant-based plastics appeal to green-minded consumers thanks to their renewable origins,  their production carries environmental costs that make them less green than they may seem.  It’s important to remember that bioplastics, just like regular plastics, are synthetic polymers; it’s just that plants are being used instead of oil to obtain the carbon and hydrogen needed for polymerization.

It’s good marketing, but bad honesty, as they say, because there are so many types of plastics and bioplastics that you don’t know what you’re getting in to;  bioplastics are much more complicated than biofuels.  There are about two dozen different ways to create a bioplastic, and each one has different properties and capabilities.

Actually the term “bioplastic” is pretty meaningless, because some bioplastics are actually made from oil – they’re called “bioplastics” because they are biodegradeable.  That causes much confusion because plastics made from oil can be biodegradeable whereas some plant-based  bioplastics are not. So the term bioplastics can refer either to the raw material (biomass) or, in the case of oil-based plastic, to its biodegradability.  The problem with biodegradability and compostability is that there is no agreement as to what that actually means either,  and under what circumstances

You might also see the term “oxo-degradable”.   Oxo-degradables look like plastic, but they are not. It is true that the material falls apart, but that is because it contains metal salts which cause it to disintegrate rapidly into tiny particles. Then you cannot see it anymore, but it is still there, in the ocean too. Just as with conventional plastics, these oxo-degradables release harmful substances when they are broken down.

Let’s re-visit  some of the reasons bioplastics are supposed to be an environmental benefit:

  • Because it’s made from plants, which are organic, they’re good for the planet.  Polymer bonds can be created from oil, gas or plant materials. The use of plant materials does not imply that the resulting polymer will be organic or more environmentally friendly. You could make non-biodegradable, toxic plastic out of organic corn!
  • Bioplastics are biodegradable. Although made from materials that can biodegrade, the way that material is turned into plastic  makes it difficult (if not impossible) for the materials to naturally break down.  There are bioplastics made from vegetable matter (maize or grass, for example) which are no more biodegradable than any other plastics, says Christiaan Bolck of Food & Biobased Research.[3]  Bioplastics do not universally biodegrade in normal conditions  –  some require special, rare conditions to decompose, such as high heat composting facilities, while others may simply take decades or longer to break down again, mitigating the supposed benefits of using so-called compostable plastics material. There are no independent standards for what even constitutes “biodegradable plastic.”  Sorona makes no claim to break down in the environment; Ingeo is called “compostable” (though it can only be done in industrial high heat composters). Close studies of so-called degradable plastics have shown that some only break down to plastic particles which are so small they can’t be seen  (“out of sight, out of mind”), which are more easily ingested by animals. Indeed, small plastic fragments of this type may also be better able to attract and concentrate pollutants such as DDT and PCB.[4]
  • Bioplastics are recyclable. Because bioplastics come in dozens of varieties, there’s no way to make sure you’re getting the right chemicals in the recycling vat – so although some bioplastics are recyclable, the recycling facilities won’t separate them out.  Cargill Natureworks insists that PLA  can in theory be recycled, but in reality it is likely to be confused with polyethylene terephthalate (PET).  In October 2004, a group of recyclers and recycling advocates issued a joint call for Natureworks to stop selling PLA for bottle applications until the recycling questions were addressed.[5]  But the company claims that levels of PLA in the recycling stream are too low to be considered a contaminant.  The process of recycling bioplastics is cumbersome and expensive – they present a real problem for recyclers because they cannot be handled using conventional processes. Special equipment and facilities are often needed. Moreover, if bioplastics commingle with traditional plastics, they contaminate all of the other plastics, which forces waste management companies to reject batches of otherwise recyclable materials.
  • Bioplastics are non-toxicBecause they’re not made from toxic inputs (as are oil based plastics), bioplastics have the reputation for being non toxic.  But we’re beginning to see the same old toxic chemicals produced from a different (plant-based) source of carbon. Example:  Solvay’s bio-based PVC uses phthalates,  requires chlorine during production, and produces dioxins during manufacture, recycling and disposal. As one research group commissioned by the European Bioplastics Association was forced to admit, with regard to PVC,  “The use of bio-based ethylene is …  unlikely to reduce the environmental impact of PVC with respect to its toxicity potential.[6]

The arguments against supporting bioplastics include the fact that they are corporate owned, they compete with food, they bolster industrial agriculture and lead us deeper into genetic engineering, synthetic biology and nanotechnology.  I am not with those who think we shouldn’t go there, because we sorely need scientific inquiry  and eventually we might even get it right.  But, for example, today’s industrial agriculture is not, in my opinion, sustainable, and the genetic engineering we’re doing is market driven with no altruistic motive. 

If properly designed, biodegradable plastics have the potential to become a much-preferred alternative to conventional plastics. The Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative (SBC)[7] is a coalition of organizations that advances the introduction and use of biobased products. They seek to replace dependence on materials made from harmful fossil fuels with a new generation of materials made from plants – but the shift they propose is more than simply a change of materials.  They promote (according to their website): sustainability standards, practical tools, and effective policies to drive and shape the emerging markets for these products.  They also refer to “sustainable bioplastics” rather than simply “bioplastics”.  In order to be a better choice, these sustainable bioplastics must be:

  • Derived from non-food, non-GMO source materials – like algae rather than GMO corn, or from sustainably grown and harvested cropland or forests;
  • Safe for the environment during use;
  • Truly compostable and biodegradable;
  • Free of toxic chemicals during the manufacturing and recycling process;
  • Manufactured without hazardous inputs and impacts (water, land and chemical use are considerations);
  • Recyclable in a cradle-to-cradle cycle.

Currently, manufacturers are not responsible for the end-life of their products. Once an item leaves their factories, it’s no longer the company’s problem. Therefore, we don’t have a system by which adopters of these new bioplastics would be responsible for recovering, composting, recycling, or doing whatever needs to be done with them after use. Regarding toxicity, the same broken and ineffective regulatory system is in charge of approving bioplastics for food use, and there is no reason to assume that these won’t raise just as many health concerns as conventional plastics have. Yet again, it will be an uphill battle to ban those that turn out to be dangerous.

A study published in Environmental Science & Technology traces the full impact of plastic production all the way back to its source for several types of plastics.[8]   Study author Amy Landis of the University of Pittsburgh says, “The main concern for us is that these plant-derived products have a green stamp on them just because they’re derived from biomass.  It’s not true that they should be considered sustainable. Just because they’re plants doesn’t mean they’re green.”

The researchers found that while making bioplastics requires less fossil fuel and has a lower impact on global warming, they have higher impacts for eutrophication, eco-toxicity and production of human carcinogens.  These impacts came largely from fertilizer use, pesticide use and conversion of lands to agricultural fields, along with processing the bio-feedstocks into plastics, the authors reported.

According to the study, polypropylene topped the team’s list as having the least life-cycle impact, while PVC and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) were ranked as having the highest life-cycle impact.

But as the Plastic Pollution Coalition tells us, it’s not so much changing the material itself that needs changing – it’s our uses of the stuff itself.  We are the problem:   If we continue to buy single-use disposable objects such as plastic bottles and plastic bags, with almost 7 billion people on the planet, our throwaway culture will continue to harm the environment, no matter what it’s made of.

The Surfrider Foundation

The Surfrider Foundation has a list of ten easy things you can do to keep plastics out of our environment:

  1. Choose to reuse when it comes to  shopping bags and bottled water.  Cloth bags and metal or glass reusable  bottles are available locally at great prices.
  2. Refuse single-serving packaging, excess  packaging, straws and other ‘disposable’ plastics.  Carry reusable utensils in your purse, backpack or car to use at bbq’s, potlucks or take-out  restaurants.
  3. Reduce everyday plastics such as sandwich bags and juice cartons by replacing them with a reusable lunch bag/box that includes a thermos.
  4. Bring your to-go mug with you to the coffee shop, smoothie shop or restaurants that let you use them. A great  way to reduce lids, plastic cups and/or plastic-lined cups.
  5. Go digital! No need for plastic cds,  dvds and jewel cases when you can buy your music and videos online.
  6. Seek out alternatives to the plastic  items that you rely on.
  7. Recycle. If you must use plastic, try to choose #1 (PETE) or #2 (HDPE), which are the most commonly recycled      plastics. Avoid plastic bags and polystyrene foam as both typically have very low recycling rates.
  8. Volunteer at a beach cleanup. Surfrider Foundation Chapters often hold cleanups monthly or more frequently.
  9. Support plastic bag bans, polystyrene  foam bans and bottle recycling bills.
  10. Spread the word. Talk to your family and friends about why it is important to Rise Above Plastics!

[1] See for example: Idso, Craig, “Estimates of Global Food Production in the year 2050”, Center for the Study of Carbon dioxide and Global Change, 2011  AND  Wittwer, Sylvan, “Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants”, Policy Review, 1992  AND

[2] D. B. Lobell and C. B. Field, Global scale climate-crop yield relationships and the impacts of recent warming, Env. Res. Letters 2, pp. 1–7, 2007 AND L. H. Ziska and J. A. Bunce, Predicting the impact of changing CO2 on crop yields: some thoughts on food, New Phytologist 175, pp. 607–618, 2007.

[3] Sikkema, Albert, “What we Don’t Know About Bioplastics”, Resource, December 2011;

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at

[6] L. Shen, “Product Overview and Market Projection of Emerging Bio- Based Plastics,” PRO-BIP 2009, Final Report, June 2009

Synthetic fibers and our oceans

18 02 2012

First we heard about the world’s biggest garbage dump – made up of the detritus of our time: plastic bottles, plastic bags, DVD cases  – floating in our ocean. About 44 percent of all seabirds eat plastic, apparently by mistake, sometimes with fatal effects. And many marine species are affected by plastic garbage—animals are known to swallow plastic bags, which resemble jellyfish in mid-ocean, for example—according to a 2008 study in the journal Environmental Research by oceanographer and chemist Charles Moore, of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation.[1]

Just as soon as we’ve had time to digest this news, we discover that the more improbable impact to the oceans from plastic comes from microscopic particles of plastic:   In fact, the mass of plastic the size of Texas often said to exist in the North Pacific is a myth, according to filmmaker Craig Leeson, who is producing a documentary (backed by David Attenborough and the UK-based Plastic Oceans Foundation)  on the spread of plastics in our oceans.   Instead, particles of plastic lurk in our oceans invisibly, in seemingly clear water.

“If you trawl for it with these special nets that they’ve developed, you come back with this glutinous mass — it’s microplastics that are in the water along with the plankton,” he said. “The problem is that it’s being mistaken for food and being eaten by plankton eaters, who are then eaten by bigger fish, and so it goes on, and it ends up on our dinner tables.”[2]

Charles Moore  has found that in some areas, plastic outweighs zooplankton – the ocean’s food base.[3]

It’s not just in the water:  Dr. Mark Browne, University College Dublin, and several colleagues gathered sand samples from 18 beaches on six continents for analysis. It turns out that every beach tested contained microplastics  (particles about the size of a piece of long grain of rice or smaller).  Charles Moore carries a bag of sand from a beach in Hawaii which he had analyzed – and found that it was 90% plastic.

Studies show that this contamination is getting worse – and link it with health conditions in humans including cancer, diabetes and immune disruption.

So how does this tie into our blog topic of textile issues?

It turns out that 80% of the microplastic found in the samples which the scientists collected on the beaches was fibrous:  polyester, acrylic and polyamides (nylon) fibers.  And the scientists are pretty sure the fibers come from fabric.

According to Science:  “Not a single beach was free of the colorful synthetic lint. Each cup of sand contained at least two fibers and as many as 31. The most contaminated samples came from areas with the highest population density, suggesting cities were an important source of the lint.”[4]

In order to test their idea that sewer discharges were the source of these the plastic discharges, the team worked with a local authority in New South Wales, Australia, and found that their suspicions were correct.  Sewage treatment does not remove the fibers.  But where do the fibers enter the waste stream?

Dr Browne and his colleagueProfessor Richard Thompson from the University of Plymouth carried out a number of experiments to see what fibers were contained in the water discharge from washing machines.

According to a study published in September’s Environmental Science and Technology [5], nearly 2,000 polyester fibers can shake loose from a single piece of clothing in the wash.

“It may not sound like an awful lot, but if that is from a single item from a single wash, it shows how things can build up.” [6]

“It suggests to us that a large proportion of the fibres we were finding in the environment, in the strongest evidence yet, was derived from sewerage as a consequence from washing clothes.”

On Cyber Monday last year, outdoor retailer Patagonia took out a full-page ad in The New York Times asking readers to “buy less and to reflect before you spend a dime.” Beside a photo of their iconic R2® fleece jacket, the headline read: “Don’t Buy This Jacket.”

We fully support Patagonia’s message that we should all pause before consuming anything – our consumption patterns are, after all, what got us into this mess.  “But there might be another reason to take a pass on that jacket besides Patagonia’s confession that the process of creating the R2® Jacket leaves behind “two-thirds of its weight in waste” on its way to their Reno warehouse — it turns out that tossing the jacket in the washer causes it to leave behind something else entirely — thousands of tiny plastic threads.” [7]