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]

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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.





When is recycled polyester NOT recycled polyester?

23 03 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Polyester – to recycle or not to recycle?

12 01 2011

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

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

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

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

This study addresses two key questions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, I never promised answers.

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

(2)  Ibid.

(3)  Ibid.

(4)  Ibid.





Do we need a national plastics control law?

20 10 2010

John Wargo wears at least three hats:  he is a professor of environmental policy, risk analysis, and political science at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, he chairs the Environmental Studies Major at Yale College, and is an advisor to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  He published this opinion on plastics in the United States last year – and I couldn’t have said it better myself:

Since 1950, plastics have quickly and quietly entered the lives and bodies of most people and ecosystems on the planet. In the United States alone, more than 100 billion pounds of resins are formed each year into food and beverage packaging, electronics, building products, furnishings, vehicles, toys, and medical devices. In 2007, the average American purchased more than 220 pounds of plastic, creating nearly $400 billion in sales.

It is now impossible to avoid exposure to plastics. They surround and pervade our homes, bodies, foods, and water supplies, from the plastic diapers and polyester pajamas worn by our children as well as our own sheets, clothing and upholstery,  to the cars we drive and the frying pans in which we cook our food.

The ubiquitous nature of plastics is a significant factor in an unexpected side effect of 20th century prosperity — a change in the chemistry of the human body. Today, most individuals carry in their bodies a mixture of metals, pesticides, solvents, fire retardants, waterproofing agents, and by-products of fuel combustion, according to studies of human tissues conducted across the U.S. by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children often carry higher concentrations than adults, with the amounts also varying according to gender and ethnicity. Many of these substances are recognized by the governments of the United States and the European Union to be carcinogens, neurotoxins, reproductive and developmental toxins, or endocrine disruptors that mimic or block human hormones.

Significantly, these chemicals were once thought to be safe at doses now known to be hazardous; as with other substances, the perception of danger grew as governments tested chemicals more thoroughly. Such is the case with Bisphenol-A (BPA), the primary component of hard and clear polycarbonate plastics, which people are exposed to daily through water bottles, baby bottles, and the linings of canned foods.

Given the proven health threat posed by some plastics, the scatter shot and weak regulation of the plastics industry, and the enormous environmental costs of plastics — the plastics industry accounts for 5 percent of the nation’s consumption of petroleum and natural gas, and more than 1 trillion pounds of plastic wastes now sit in U.S. garbage dumps — the time has come to pass a comprehensive national plastics control law.

One might assume the United States already has such a law. Indeed, Congress adopted the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976 intending to manage chemicals such as those polymers used to form plastics. Yet TSCA was and is fundamentally flawed for several reasons that have long been obvious. Nearly 80,000 chemicals are now traded in global markets, and Congress exempted nearly 60,000 of them from TSCA testing requirements. Among 20,000 new compounds introduced since the law’s passage, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued permits for all except five, but has required intensive reviews for only 200. This means that nearly all chemicals in commerce have been poorly tested to determine their environmental behavior or effects on human health. The statute’s ineffectiveness has been recognized for decades, yet Congress, the EPA, and manufacturers all share blame for the failure to do anything about it.

In contrast, the European Union in 2007 adopted a new directive known as “REACH” that requires the testing of both older and newly introduced chemicals. Importantly the new regulations create a burden on manufacturers to prove safety; under TSCA the burden rests on EPA to prove danger, and the agency has never taken up the challenge. Unless the U.S. chooses to adopt similar restrictions, U.S. chemical manufacturers will face barriers to their untested exports intended for European markets. Thus the chemical industry itself recognizes the need to harmonize U.S. and EU chemical safety law.

The most promising proposal for reform in the U.S. is the “Kid-Safe Chemical Act,” a bill first introduced in 2008 that would require industry to show that chemicals are safe for children before they are added to consumer products. Such a law is needed because there is little doubt that the growing burden of synthetic chemicals has been accompanied by an increase in the prevalence of many illnesses during the past half-century. These include respiratory diseases (such as childhood asthma), neurological impairments, declining sperm counts, fertility failure, immune dysfunction, breast and prostate cancers, and developmental disorders among the young. Some of these illnesses are now known to be caused or exacerbated by exposure to commercial chemicals and pollutants.

Few people realize how pervasive plastics have become. Most homes constructed since 1985 are wrapped in plastic film such as Tyvek, and many exterior shells are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) siding. Some modern buildings receive water and transport wastes via PVC pipes. Wooden floors are coated with polyurethane finishes and polyvinyl chloride tiles.

Foods and beverages are normally packaged in plastic, including milk bottles made from high-density polyethylene. Most families have at least one “non-stick” pan, often made from Teflon, a soft polymer that can scratch and hitchhike on foods to the dinner table. Between 1997 and 2005, annual sales of small bottles of water — those holding less than one liter — increased from 4 billion to nearly 30 billion bottles.

The billions of video games, computers, MP3 players, cameras, and cell phones purchased each year in the United States use a wide variety of plastic resins. And the almost 7.5 million new vehicles sold in the United States each year contain 2.5 billion pounds of plastic components, which have little hope of being recycled, especially if made from polyvinyl chloride or polycarbonate.  The American Plastics Council now estimates that only about 5 percent of all plastics manufactured are recycled; 95 billion pounds are discarded on average yearly.

The chemical contents of plastics have always been a mystery to consumers. Under federal law, ingredients need not be labeled, and most manufacturers are unwilling or unable to disclose these contents or their sources. Indeed, often the only clue consumers have to the chemical identity of the plastics they use is the voluntary resin code designed to identify products that should and should not be recycled — but it offers little usable information.

The true costs of plastics — including the energy required to manufacture them, the environmental contamination caused by their disposal, their health impacts, and the recycling and eventual disposal costs — are not reflected in product prices.  Adding to the environmental toll, most plastic is produced from natural gas and petroleum products, exacerbating global warming.

Plastics and Human Health

The controversy over BPA — the primary component of hard and clear plastics — and its potential role in human hormone disruption provides the most recent example of the need for a national plastics control law.

Normal growth and development among fetuses, infants, children, and adolescents is regulated in the body by a diverse set of hormones that promote or inhibit cell division. More than a thousand chemicals are now suspected of affecting normal human hormonal activity. These include many pharmaceuticals, pesticides, plasticizers, solvents, metals, and flame retardants.

Scientists’ growing interest in hormone disruption coincided with a consensus within the National Academy of Sciences that children are often at greater risk of health effects than adults because of their rapidly growing but immature organ systems, hormone pathways, and metabolic systems. And many forms of human illness associated with abnormal hormonal activity have become more commonplace during the past several decades, including infertility, breast and prostate cancer, and various neurological problems.

BPA illustrates well the endocrine disruption problem. Each year several billion pounds of BPA are produced in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found, in results consistent with those found in other countries, that 95 percent of human urine samples tested have measurable BPA levels. BPA has also been detected in human serum, breast milk, and maternal and fetal plasma. BPA travels easily across the placenta, and levels in many pregnant women and their fetuses were similar to those found in animal studies to be toxic to the reproductive organs of the animals’ male and female offspring.

Government scientists believe that the primary source of human BPA exposure is foods, especially those that are canned, as BPA-based epoxy resins can migrate from the resins into the foods. In 1997, the FDA found that BPA migrated from polycarbonate water containers — such as the five-gallon water jugs found in offices — into water at room temperature and that concentrations increased over time. Another study reported that boiling water in polycarbonate bottles increased the rate of migration by up to 55-fold, suggesting that it would be wise to avoid filling polycarbonate baby bottles with boiling water to make infant formula from powders.

Scientists have reported BPA detected in nonstick-coated cookware, PVC stretch film used for food packaging, recycled paperboard food boxes, and clothing treated with fire retardants.

Since 1995 numerous scientists have reported that BPA caused health effects in animals that were similar to diseases becoming more prevalent in humans, abnormal penile or urethra development in males, obesity and type 2 diabetes, and immune system disorders. BPA can bind with estrogen receptors in cell membranes following part-per-trillion doses — exposures nearly 1,000 times lower than the EPA’s recommended acceptable limit.

In 2007, the National Institutes of Health convened a panel of 38 scientists to review the state of research on BPA-induced health effects. The panel, selected for its independence from the plastics industry, issued a strong warning about the chemical’s hazards:

“There is chronic, low level exposure of virtually everyone in developed countries to BPA… The wide range of adverse effects of low doses of BPA in laboratory animals exposed both during development and in adulthood is a great cause for concern with regard to the potential for similar adverse effects in humans.”

The American Chemistry Council, which advocates for the plastics industry, has criticized most scientific research that has reported an association between BPA and adverse health effects. The council’s complaints have included claims that sample sizes are too small, that animals are poor models for understanding hazards to humans, that doses administered in animal studies are normally far higher than those experienced by humans, that the mechanism of chemical action is poorly understood, and that health effects among those exposed are not necessarily “adverse.”

Research on plastics, however, now comprises a large and robust literature reporting adverse health effects in laboratory animals and wildlife at even low doses. Claims of associations between BPA and hormonal activity in humans are strengthened by consensus that everyone is routinely exposed and by the rising incidence of many human diseases similar to those induced in animals dosed with the chemical. Two competing narratives — one forwarded by independent scientists and the other promoted by industry representatives — have delayed government action to protect the health of citizens through bans or restrictions.

Action Needed

How has the plastics industry escaped serious regulation by the federal government, especially since other federally regulated sectors that create environmental or health risks such as pharmaceuticals, pesticides, motor vehicles, and tobacco have their own statutes? In the case of plastics, Congress instead has been content with limited federal regulatory responsibility, now fractured among at least four agencies: the EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. None of these agencies has demanded pre-market testing of plastic ingredients, none has required ingredient labeling or warnings on plastic products, and none has limited production, environmental release, or human exposure. As a result, the entire U.S. population continues to be exposed to hormonally active chemicals from plastics without their knowledge or consent.

What should be done? The Kids Safe Chemical Act represents a comprehensive solution that would apply to all commercial chemicals including plastic ingredients. Yet the nation’s chemical companies, with their enormous political power, are not likely to agree to assume the testing costs, nor are they likely to accept a health protective standard. Rather than pass another weak statute, Congress should consider a stronger alternative.

The nation needs a comprehensive plastics control law, just as we have national laws to control firms that produce other risky products, such as pesticides. Key elements of a national plastics policy should include:

  • tough  government regulations that demand pre-market testing and prohibit chemicals that do not quickly degrade into harmless compounds. Exempting previously permitted ingredients from this evaluation makes little sense, as older chemicals have often been proven more dangerous than newer ones.
  • The chemical industry itself needs to replace persistent and hazardous chemicals with those that are proven to be safe.  Plastics ingredients found to pose a significant threat to the environment or human health should be quickly phased out of production. Congress chose this approach to manage pesticide hazards, and it has proven to be reasonably effective since the passage of the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996.
  • Federal redemption fees for products containing plastics should be set at levels tied to chemical persistence, toxicity, and production volume. These fees should be high enough that consumers have a strong incentive to recycle.
  • We need mandatory labeling of plastic ingredients, in order to allow consumers to make responsible choices in the marketplace.
  • Finally, manufacturers should take responsibility for cleaning up environmental contamination from the more than one trillion pounds of plastic wastes they have produced over the past 50 years.




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

19 05 2010

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

Well, the chance is that most of the fabrics you buy are either 100% synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.) or they’re blended with natural fibers – such as the very popular cotton/polyester blends.  Synthetic fabrics account for the lion’s share of the global textile market, and most of the rest of the market is scooped up by cotton.  Most synthetic fabrics are made of polyester, or polyethelene terephthalate (PET)  – the same stuff used as containers for soda and water.  Of the total virgin PET produced globally,   60%  is used to make fibers, while 30% goes into bottle production.

As I explained in a previous blog,  the textile industry has adopted recycled polyester as the fiber of choice to promote its green agenda.  As one company puts it, “It’s one of the most earth-friendly fabric ingredients in the world.”  Another company says of its recycled polyester fabrics that “after years of enjoyable use, these fabrics are recyclable.”

What I want to do is expose these statements (and others like them) for what they are:  self-serving attempts to convince the public that a choice of a recycled polyester fabric is actually a good eco choice – when the reality is that this is another case of expediency and greed over any authentic attempts to find a sustainable solution.  My biggest complaint with the industry’s position is that there is no attempt made to address the question of water treatment or of chemical use during dyeing and processing of the fibers.

So let’s look at the reasons why the textile industry wants us to think that recycled polyester fabric is a “green” choice:

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

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

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

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow.  This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch.  There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives.  If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns,  such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

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

So when you buy a fabric that claims it’s made of 100% post consumer polyester – how do you know that the fibers are 100% post consumer?  Indeed, how do you know the fibers are even recycled?   Unless you have access to the supply chain, there is no way to tell what constitutes the polymer.  There is no system of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.  Even the Global Recycling Standard just certifies that the polymers are recycled material rather than virgin – but not whether post consumer or post industrial.

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

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