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

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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 diaperpin.com:

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.

[1] http://www.bu-eh.org/uploads/Main/Soto%20EDs%20as%20Carcinogens.pdf

[2] http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.95103608

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

(4) ) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321





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  http://www.ciesin.org/docs/004-038/004-038a.html

[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; http://resource.wur.nl/en/wetenschap/detail/what_we_dont_know_about_bioplastics

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at http://recyclablepackaging.wordpress.com/2010/05/19/bio-based-resin-report

[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]





Polyester and our health

13 10 2011

Polyester is a very popular fabric choice – it is, in fact, the most popular of all the synthetics.  Because it can often have a synthetic feel, it is often blended with natural fibers, to get the benefit of natural fibers which breathe and feel good next to the skin, coupled with polyester’s durability, water repellence and wrinkle resistance.  Most sheets sold in the United States, for instance, are cotton/poly blends.

It is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of clothing and sportswear – not to mention diapers, sanitary pads, mattresses, upholstery, curtains  and carpet. If you look at labels, you might be surprised just how many products in your life are made from polyester fibers.

So what is this polyester that we live intimately with each day?

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 diaperpin.com:

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.

Agin, this is a blog which is supposed to cover topics in textiles:   polyester is by far the most popular fabric in the United States.  Even if made of recycled yarns, the toxic monomers are still the building blocks of the fibers.  And no mention is ever made of the processing chemicals used to dye and finish the polyester fabrics, which as we know contain some of the chemicals which are most damaging to human health.

Why does a specifier make the decision to use polyester – or another synthetic –  when all the data points to this fiber as being detrimental to the health and well being of the occupants?  Why is there not a concerted cry for safe processing chemicals at the very least?


[2] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/zwa-reports-are-plastic-products-causing-breast-cancer-epidemic-76957597.html

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





Biopolymers and polylactic acid (PLA) – or rather, Ingeo

27 04 2011

Synthetic polymers have experienced almost exponential growth since 1950, and today about 5% of world oil production is used for that purpose.  In fact, we will need 25% or more of the current oil production for making polymers by the end of this century.

Some synthetic polymers are used to make fibers, and they have been around for a while:  rayon was discovered in 1924 and nylon in 1939.  But synthetic use really began to take off only since about 1953,  when polyester was discovered.  Qualities like durability and water resistance make synthetics highly desirable in many applications.  Today synthetics account for about half of all fiber usage.

This, despite the fact that synthetics are made from fossil fuel, and the contaminants from the manufacturing leach into our waterways and pollute the atmosphere, and the fact that they are not biodegradable and therefore don’t break down in landfills.  So recently there has been a spotlight on bio-plastics.

Bio plastics, or biopolymers –  in other words, synthetic plastics produced from biological sources –  are derived from cellulose. Cellulose is abundant – it’s said to make up half of all the organic carbon on the planet.   The most often-used biopolymers  include:

  • natural rubber (in use since the mid-1700s),
  • cellulosics (invented in the late-1800s),
  • and nylon 11 (polyamide – or PA 11) and 6–10 (polyamide 6/10) (mid-1900s).

A recent addition to the list is polylactic acid (PLA).  PLA is made from corn starch (in the United States), tapioca products (roots, chips or starch, mostly in Asia) or sugar cane (the rest of the world).[1]  You’ve probably heard about polylactic acid (PLA),  because Cargill, one of the largest agricultural firms on Earth, has invested heavily in it.  Cargill’s wholly owned subsidiary, NatureWorks, is the primary producer of PLA in the United States.  The brand name for NatureWorks PLA is Ingeo, which is made into a whole array of products, including fabrics.

The producers of PLA have touted the eco friendliness of PLA based on:

  1. the fact that it is made from annually renewable resources ,
  2.  that it will biodegrade in the environment all the way to carbon dioxide and water  –  at least in principle, and
  3. they also cite PLA’s lower carbon footprint.

Let’s take a look at these three claims.

Plant based biopolymers do come from renewable resources, but the feedstock used presents some interesting problems.  In the United States, corn is used to make the PLA. In the US, corn-based biopolymer producers have to compete with ethanol producers of government mandated gasoline blends, raising the cost and limiting availability for both. This problem will become worse in the future as the law requires a doubling of the percentage of ethanol used in motor fuel. Nearly a third of the US corn crop previously used for food was used to replace 5% of gasoline consumption in 2008.[2]

In a world where many people are starving, many say that it seems almost criminal to grow food crops, such as corn, to turn it into cloth. Agricultural lands are often cleared to make way for the growing of crops for the production of polymers. This leads to a continuous shrinking of the food producing lands of the world.  Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, says, “already we’re converting 12% of the US grain harvest to ethanol (anticipated to rise to 23% by 2014). How much corn do we want to convert to nonfood uses?”[3]

In addition, most of the corn used by NatureWorks to make PLA is genetically modified, which raises serious ethical issues.

Other critics point to the steep environmental toll of industrially grown corn. The cultivation of corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more herbicides and more insecticides than any other U.S. crop; those practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers.

PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in 90 days or less.  What’s that?  Not exactly your backyard compost heap!  It’s an industrial facility where microbes work at 140 degrees or more for 10 consecutive days.  In reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities needed to degrade PLA.  NatureWorks has identified 113 nationwide – some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations .  Moreover, PLA in quantity can interfere with municipal compost operations because it breaks down into lactic acid, which makes the compost wetter and more acidic.

It looks like most PLA will end up in landfills, where there is no evidence it will break down any faster than PET.  Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks, says that a PLA container dumped into a landfill will last as long as a PET bottle.[4]

In fact, manufacturers have changed their stance: PLA is now defined as “compostable” instead of biodegradable, meaning more heat and moisture is needed to degrade PLA than is found in your typical backyard compost bin.

So far, biopolymer producers have had problems demonstrating that their materials have smaller carbon footprints than fossil fuel-derived polymers.   The energy inefficiencies of planting, growing, and transporting biological feedstocks mean more total energy is likely consumed to produce a unit of biopolymer than to make a unit of an oil or gas-based polymer.

However, Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University  found that “the results for the use of fossil energy resources and GHG emissions are more favorable for most bio based polymers than for oil based. As an exception, landfilling of biodegradable polymers can result in methane emissions (unless landfill gas is captured) which may make the system unattractive in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”[5]

Dr. Narayan recommended that, relative to their conventional counterparts, green polymers  should:

  • save at least 20 MJ (non-renewable) energy per kg of polymer,
  • avoid at least 1 kg CO2 per kg polymer and
  • reduce most other environmental impacts by at least 20%.

From this point of view, he says,  green plastics  can be defined in a broad and target-oriented manner.

But  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. 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.[6]

A further problem with biopolymers (except for future PE/PP made from sugar cane) is that  they require additional sorting at commercial recycling centers to avoid contaminating other material streams, and, although segregated collection helps, it is complex and increases costs.

In the final analysis, newer biopolymers don’t yet perform as well as oil based polymers, especially in terms of lower heat and moisture resistance, so the user might feel green but gets results that are less sustainable and more limited in use.  PLA remains a boutique polymer, and some see the best value proposition for biopolymers to be where their use is based on their unique properties, such as in medical and dental implants, sutures, timed released chemotherapy, etc. , because  PLA will slowly come apart in the body over time, so it can serve as a kind of scaffold for bone or tissue regrowth or for metered drug release.  But this is a small and specialized market.

But still, the potential and need for plastic alternatives has become acute:  The SPI Bioplastic Council anticipates that the biopolymer market will exceed $1 billion by 2012 – today it is half that.   Bioplastic remains “a sector that is not yet mature but will be growing fast in the coming years,” says Frederic Scheer , CEO of Cereplast and the so-called ‘Godfather of Bioplastics.’  It has not matured because of high production costs and the restricted capacity of biomass-based polymers.

But  according to The ETC Group, there are already concerted efforts, using biotechnology,  to shift global industrial production from a dependence on fossil fuels to biomass – not only for plastics but also for power, chemicals, and more.  It sounds good – until you read their report, which I’ll cover next week.


[2] Jones, Roger, “Economics, Sustainability, and the Public Perception of Biopolymers”, Society of Plastics Engineers, http://www.4spepro.org/pdf/000060/000060.pdf

[3] Royte, Elizabeth, “Corn Plastic to the Rescue”, Smithsonian,  August 2006

[4] Ibid.

[5] Narayan, Ramani, “Review and Analysis of Bio-based Product LCA’s”, Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 48824

[6] 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.