Choosing a fabric for your new sofa

14 10 2013

Design decisions influence our health –so your choice of a sofa fabric could influence you and your family in ways far beyond what you imagined.  Our children start life with umbilical cords infused with chemicals that affect the essence of human life itself  –   the ability to learn, reason and reproduce.  And fabric – which cocoons us most of the time, awake and asleep – is a contributor to this chemical load.  One thing I know for sure is that the textile industry uses lots of chemicals. During manufacturing, it takes from 10% to 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce that fabric.(1) And the final fabric, if made of 100% natural fibers (such as cotton or linen), contains about 27% , by weight, chemicals(2) – let’s not even talk about synthetic fabrics.

Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has tested Americans every two years in order to build a database of what are called “body burdens,”(3) in order to help toxicologists set new standards for exposure and definitively link chemicals to illness, or else decouple them. The study attempts to assess exposure to environmental chemicals in the general U.S. population – and the more chemicals they look for, the more they find: The CDC started with 27 worrisome chemicals in 1999 and now tests for 219. Their findings have shown that no matter whether you’re rich or poor; live in the center of a city or a pristine rural community; east coast, west coast or in between; are elderly or newborn; Republican, Democrat or Socialist – you have BPA in your blood, as well as polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDE)s – which can retard a fetus’s neurological development; perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) – which impairs normal development; perchlorate – which can keep the thyroid from making necessary hormones and methyl tert-butyl ethers (now banned in most states) and mercury.

And the correlation between chemicals to illness seems to be on the rise (4) – certainly from studies done linking various chemicals to human disease and illness, but also because the spectrum of both “rare” and “common” illnesses is on the rise. The National Institutes of Health defines a rare disease as one affecting 200,000 or fewer Americans. Yet 25 – 30 million Americans suffer from one of the nearly 6,800 identifiable rare diseases. That compares to the 40 million Americans with one of the three “major” diseases: heart disease, cancer or diabetes.

Specifically with regard to fabrics: The 2010 AATCC (American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists) Buyer’s Guide  lists about 2,000 chemical specialties in over 100 categories offered for sale by about 66 companies, not including dyes. The types of products offered run the gamut from antimicrobial agents and binders to UV stabilizers and wetting agents. Included are some of the most toxic known (lead, mercury, arsenic, formaldehyde, Bisphenol A, PBDE, PFOA). There are no requirements that manufacturers disclose the chemicals used in processing – chemicals which remain in the finished fabrics. Often the chemicals are used under trade names, or are protected by legislation as “trade secrets” in food and drug articles – but fabrics don’t even have a federal code to define what can/cannot be used because fabrics are totally unregulated in the U.S., except in terms of fire retardancy or intended use. It’s pretty much a free-for-all.

Why does the industry use so many chemicals? What are they used for?

Most fabrics are finished in what is called “wet processing” where the process is accomplished by applying a liquid – which accomplishes some sort of chemical action to the textile – as opposed to “dry processing”, which is a mechanical/physical treatment, such as brushing. It is a series of innumerable steps leading to the finished textile, each one of which also has a complex number of variables, in which a special chemical product is applied, impregnated or soaked with the textile fiber of the fabric. A defined sequence of treatments can then be followed by another sequence of treatments using another chemical substance. Typically, treatments are arranged to permit a continuous mode of sequences.

The chemicals used can be subdivided into:
Textile auxiliaries – this covers a wide range of functions, from cleaning natural fibers and smoothing agents to improving easy care properties. Included are such things as:

  • Complexing agents, which form stable water-soluble complexes
  • Surfactants, which lowers the surface tension of water so grease and oil to be removed more easily
  • Wetting agents, which accelerates the penetration of finishing liquors
  • Sequestering agents
  •  Dispersing agents
  • Emulsifiers

Textile chemicals (basic chemicals such as acids, bases and salts)
      Colorants, such as:

  • Dyes
  •  Dye-protective agents
  • Fixing agents
  • Leveling agents
  • pH regulators
  • Carriers
  • UV absorbers

Finishes
The chemicals used get very specific: for example, Lankem Ltd. is one such manufacturer of a range of textile chemicals. According to their website, their Kemtex AP, for example, is an “anti-precipitant” to be used “where dyes of opposing ionicity may be present in the same bath” and their Kemtex TAL is a levelling agent for wool which is a “highly effective level dyeing assistant for acid, acid milling and prematallised dyes on wool.”

In addition to the branded products supplied by chemical companies, which are made of unknown components because they’re proprietary, we know many chemicals are necessary to achieve certain effects, such as PBDEs for fire retardants, formaldehyde resins for crease resistance or PFOA’s for stain protection.
The chemicals used in these branded products to create the effects above include chemicals which have been proven to be toxic, or to cause cancers or genetic mutations in mammals (i.e., us too). The following is by no means an all-inclusive list of these chemicals:
• Alkylphenolethoxylates (APEOs)
• Pentachlorophenols (PCP)
• Toluene and other aromatic amines
• Dichloromethane (DCM)
• Formaldehyde
• Phthalates
• Polybrominated diphenyl ethers ( PBDE’s)
• Perfluorooctane sulfonates (PFOS)
• Heavy metals – copper, cadmium, lead, antimony, mercury among others

One of the presenters at the 2011 Living Building Challenge, inspired by writer Michael Pollan’s Food Rules,  shared a list of ways to choose products that remove the worst of the chemical contamination that plagues many products.

These rules apply to all products, including fabrics, so I’ve just edited them a bit to be fabric specific:

  • If it is cheap, it probably has hidden costs.
  • If it starts as a toxic input (like ethylene glycol in the manufacture of      polyester), you probably don’t want it in your house or office.
  • Use materials made from substances you can imagine in their raw or natural state.
  • Use carbohydrate-based materials (i.e., natural fibers) when you can.
  • Just because almost anything can kill you doesn’t mean fabrics should.
  • Pay more, use less.
  • Consult your nose – if it stinks, don’t use it.
  • If they can’t tell you what’s in it, you probably don’t want to live with it. (note: his is not just the fibers used to weave the fabric – did the processing  use specific chemicals, like heavy metals in the dyestuff, or formaldehyde in the finish?)
  • Avoid materials that are pretending to be something they are not.
  • Question materials that make health claims.
  • Regard space-age materials with skepticism.

(1)    Environmental Hazards of the Textile Industry, Hazardous Substances Research Centers, South and Southwest Outreach Program, US EPA funded consortium, June 2006.

(2)     Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts; German Environmental Protection Agency, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609.

(3)    What is a “body burden”: Starting before birth, children are exposed to chemicals that impair normal growth and development. Exposures continue throughout our lives and accumulate in our bodies. These chemicals can interact within the body and cause illness. And they get passed on from parent to child for generations.

(4)    World Health Organization; http://www.who.int/healthinfo/global_burden_disease/en/index.html

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The new ecoliteracy

16 05 2013

This blog is supposed to be “textile specific”, meaning we try to keep the topics restricted to those things that apply to the growing of fibers, or the manufacture of synthetic fibers, and the processing of those fibers into cloth.

But society seems to have tunnel vision about many things, such as chemical use. Bisphenol A (BPA) is supposed to be bad for us, so it has been prohibited in baby bottles by legislation. And manufacturers of water bottles advertise that their bottles are “BPA free”. But BPA is used in many other products, from dental sealants to paper cash register receipts – and in textiles, its used in printing ink emulsions.

I had been bothered by the banning of a certain chemical in certain products, and not others (as if BPA in a cash register receipt is not as bad as in a water bottle) when I found this quote by John Muir:

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

And then I found Fritjof Capra.

Fritjof Capra, a physicist and systems theorist, is a co-founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy, which supports and advances education for sustainable living. Dr. Capra says that we are all part of an interconnected and self-organizing universe of changing patterns and flowing energy – the “web of life”. Everything is interrelated. He suggests that a full understanding of the critical issues of our time requires a new ecological understanding of life (a new “ecological literacy”) as well as a new kind of “systemic” thinking – thinking in terms of relationships, patterns, and context.

So, in order to understand why world hunger is rising again after a long and steady decline, or what food prices have to do with the price of oil, or why is it so important to grow food locally and organically, we need this new systemic thinking. Fritjof Capra wrote an essay about how to do this, based on a speech he gave at Columbia University in 2008, some of which is excerpted here:

To understand how nature sustains life, we need to move from biology to ecology, because sustained life is a property of an ecosystem rather than a single organism or species. Over billions of years of evolution, the Earth’s ecosystems have evolved certain principles of organization to sustain the web of life. Knowledge of these principles of organization, or principles of ecology, is what we mean by “ecological literacy.”

…In a nutshell: nature sustains life by creating and nurturing communities. No individual organism can exist in isolation. Animals depend on the photosynthesis of plants for their energy needs; plants depend on the carbon dioxide produced by animals, as well as on the nitrogen fixed by bacteria at their roots; and together plants, animals, and microorganisms regulate the entire biosphere and maintain the conditions conducive to life.

Sustainability, then, is not an individual property but a property of an entire web of relationships.

It always involves a whole community. This is the profound lesson we need to learn from nature. The way to sustain life is to build and nurture community. A sustainable human community interacts with other communities – human and nonhuman – in ways that enable them to live and develop according to their nature. Sustainability does not mean that things do not change. It is a dynamic process of co-evolution rather than a static state.

The fact that ecological sustainability is a property of a web of relationships means that in order to understand it properly, in order to become ecologically literate, we need to learn how to think in terms of relationships, in terms of interconnections, patterns, context. In science, this type of thinking is known as systemic thinking or “systems thinking.” It is crucial for understanding ecology, because ecology – derived from the Greek word oikos (“household”) – is the science of relationships among the various members of the Earth Household.

…systems thinking involves a shift of perspective from the parts to the whole. The early systems thinkers coined the phrase, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.”

What exactly does this mean? In what sense is the whole more than the sum of its parts? The answer is: relationships. All the essential properties of a living system depend on the relationships among the system’s components. Systems thinking means thinking in terms of relationships.

Once we become ecologically literate, once we understand the processes and patterns of relationships that enable ecosystems to sustain life, we will also understand the many ways in which our human civilization, especially since the Industrial Revolution, has ignored these ecological patterns and processes and has interfered with them. And we will realize that these interferences are the fundamental causes of many of our current world problems.

It is now becoming more and more evident that the major problems of our time cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which mean that they are all interconnected and interdependent. One of the most detailed and masterful documentations of the fundamental interconnectedness of world problems is the new book by Lester Brown, Plan B (Norton, 2008). Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, demonstrates in this book with impeccable clarity how the vicious circle of demographic pressure and poverty leads to the depletion of resources – falling water tables, wells going dry, shrinking forests, collapsing fisheries, eroding soils, grasslands turning into desert, and so on – and how this resource depletion, exacerbated by climate change, produces failing states whose governments can no longer provide security for their citizens, some of whom in sheer desperation turn to terrorism.

When you read this book, you will understand how virtually all our environmental problems are threats to our food security – falling water tables; increasing conversion of cropland to non-farm uses; more extreme climate events, such as heat waves, droughts, and floods; and, most recently, increasing diversion of grains to biofuel.

A critical factor in all this is the fact that world oil production is reaching its peak. This means that, from now on, oil production will begin to decrease worldwide, extraction of the remaining oil will be more and more costly, and hence the price of oil will continue to rise. Most affected will be the oil-intensive segments of the global economy, in particular the automobile, food, and airline industries.

The search for alternative energy sources has recently led to increased production of ethanol and other biofuels, especially in the United States, Brazil, and China. And since the fuel-value of grain is higher on the markets than its food-value, more and more grain is diverted from food to producing fuels. At the same time, the price of grain is moving up toward the oil-equivalent value. This is one of the main reasons for the recent sharp rise of food prices. Another reason, of course, is that a petrochemical, mechanized, and centralized system of agriculture is highly dependent on oil and will produce more expensive food as the price of oil increases. Indeed, industrial farming uses 10 times more energy than sustainable, organic farming.

The fact that the price of grain is now keyed to the price of oil is only possible because our global economic system has no ethical dimension. In such a system, the question, “Shall we use grain to fuel cars or to feed people?” has a clear answer. The market says, “Let’s fuel the cars.”

This is even more perverse in view of the fact that 20 percent of our grain harvest will supply less than 4 percent of automotive fuel. Indeed, the entire ethanol production in this country could easily be replaced by raising average fuel efficiency by 20 percent (i.e. from 21 mpg to 25 mpg), which is nothing, given the technologies available today.

The recent sharp increase in grain prices has wreaked havoc in the world’s grain markets, and world hunger is now on the rise again after a long steady decline. In addition, increased fuel consumption accelerates global warming, which results in crop losses in heat waves that make crops wither, and from the loss of glaciers that feed rivers essential to irrigation. When we think systemically and understand how all these processes are interrelated, we realize that the vehicles we drive, and other consumer choices we make, have a major impact on the food supply to large populations in Asia and Africa.

All these problems, ultimately, must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most people in our society, and especially our political and corporate leaders, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.

The main message of Lester Brown’s Plan B, is that there are solutions to the major problems of our time; some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values. And, indeed, we are now at the beginning of such a fundamental change of worldview, a change of paradigms as radical as the Copernican Revolution. Systems thinking and ecological literacy are two key elements of the new paradigm, and very helpful for understanding the interconnections between food, health, and the environment, but also for understanding the profound transformation that is needed globally for humanity to survive.





Bisphenol A – in fabrics?

14 02 2013

From: Center for Health Environment & Justice

From: Center for Health Environment & Justice

If you’ve bought baby bottles or water bottles recently, I’m sure you’ve seen a prominent “BPA Free” sign on the container.

BPA stands for Bisphenol A, a chemical often used to make clear, polycarbonate plastics (like water and baby bottles and also eyeglass lenses, medical devices, CDs and DVDs, cell phones and computers). And though it has been formally declared a hazard to human health in Canada and banned in baby bottles in both Canada as well as the EU, U.S. watchdog agencies have wildly differing views of BPA: The National Toxicology Program (NTP) reported “some concern” that BPA harms the brain and reproductive system, especially in babies and fetuses. The FDA declared that “at current levels of exposure” BPA is safe.

But consider this: Of the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects at levels similar to human exposure. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects. David Case made the argument in the February 1, 2009 issue of Fast Company that this is a story about protecting a multibillion-dollar market from regulation.

But that’s beside the point which is: nobody disputes the fact that people are constantly exposed to BPAs and babies are most at risk. It’s also undisputed that BPA mimics the female sex hormone estrogen, and that some synthetic estrogens can cause infertility and cancer.

From David Case: “What is in dispute is whether the tiny doses of BPA we’re exposed to are enough to trigger such hormonal effects. For decades, the assumption was that they didn’t. This was based on traditional toxicology, which holds that “the dose makes the poison.” In other words, a threshold exists below which a compound is harmless. This makes intuitive sense. Consider alcohol: The more you drink, the drunker you get; but if you drink just a little — below the threshold — you may not feel anything. In the 1970s and 1980s, government scientists used standard toxicology to test BPA. They concluded that, at doses far higher than those found in humans, it may cause organ failure, leukemia, and severe weight loss. Yet as BPA products have made their way into every part of our lives, biologists have discovered evidence that very low doses may have a completely different set of effects — on the endocrine system, which influences human development, metabolism, and behavior.” Studies showed that exposure levels 25,000 times lower than the EPA’s toxic threshold produced developmental disorders in the offspring of pregnant mice.

If you’d like to read more about this click here.

Bisphenol A is now deeply imbedded in an extraordinary range of products in our modern consumer society – so many, in fact that it’s pretty much upiquitous. This is cause for grave concern, because it is extremely potent in disrupting fetal development. BPA contamination is also widespread in the environment. For example, BPA can be measured in rivers and estuaries at concentrations that range from under 5 to over 1900 nanograms/liter.(1)

What this all means is that most of us live our lives in close proximity to bisphenol A.
Because it’s used to make plastic hard, I never thought it would have a place in the textile industry. So it was with some concern that I came across articles which explain the use of bisphenol A in the manufacturing of synthetic fibers.

Producing synthetic fibers and yarns is almost impossible without applying a processing aid to the fibers during the extrusion and spinning processes. The fibers and yarns are frequently in contact with hot surfaces, or they pass through hot ovens. In order to withstand these extreme conditions, the yarns and fibers have processing aids or finishes applied. This applied processing aid or ‘finish’, in addition to helping the yarns withstand extreme temperatures, also reduces static electricity, fiber-fiber and metal-fiber friction, provides integrity to the filaments, and altogether eases the manufacturing processes.

But because modern manufacturing equipment runs at higher speeds and subsequently at higher temperatures, the finish degrades in the high temperatures – yielding lower quality fibers – and generates unwanted decomposition products. These byproducts can be in the form of:

  1.  Toxic and nontoxic gases which have environmental and safety issues;
  2.  Liquids, which leave a sticky residue on the yarns,
  3.  Or they may form a solid varnish on hot surfaces that is very difficult to remove; the presence of the varnish interferes with continuous, efficient production leading to economic losses due to equipment shutdown and product failure.

To overcome the problems caused by the degradation of finishes, several additives are introduced to prevent or delay the reactions of oxidation and degradation. Several classes of antioxidants are typically used as these additives in these finishes.

In a study sponsored by the National Textile Center, a research consortium of eight universities, three North Carolina State University professors investigated the thermal stability of textiles, specifically with respect to the antioxidants used in the finishes. They investigated four different antioxidants – one of which is based on Bisphenol A. (2)

So I got interested, and began a bit of poking around for other mentions of Bisphenol A in the textile industry. I found two scientific references to use of Bisphenol A in the production of polyester fabrics. Both reported similar use of Bisphenol A as is found in this quote, which states: “ a woven polyester fabric was … finished with an aqueous compound containing 5% polyethylene glycol bisphenol A ether diacrylate for 30 min at 60° to give a hygroscopic, antistatic fabric with good washfastness.” (3)

I found that Bisphenol A is used in the production of flame retardants, and as an intermediate in the manufacture of polymers, fungicides, antioxidants (mentioned above), and dyes. Because it is often used as an intermediate it’s hard to pin down, and manufacturers keep their ingredients trade secrets so we often will not know – unless somebody funds a study which is published.

I have not seen any studies which report finding Bisphenol A in a finished fabric, so this may be a tempest in a teacup. But isn’t it worth noting that this chemical, which has been found in the blood of 95% of all Americans, and which some say may be the “new lead”, can exist in products in which we previously never would have thought to look?

(1) http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/newscience/oncompounds/bisphenola/bpauses.htm
(2) Grant, Christine; Hauser, Peter; Oxenham, William, “Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids”, http://www.ntcresearch.org/pdf-rpts/AnRp04/C01-NS08-A4.pdf
(3) http://www.lookchem.com/cas-644/64401-02-1.html?countryid=0





Bisphenol A in textile processing?

16 12 2011

If you’ve bought baby bottles or water bottles recently, I’m sure you’ve seen a prominent “BPA Free” sign on the container.

BPA stands for Bisphenol A, a chemical often used to make clear, polycarbonate plastics (like water and baby bottles and also eyeglass lenses, medical devices, CDs and DVDs, cell phones and computers).  And though it has been formally declared a hazard to human health in Canada and banned in baby bottles in both Canada as well as the EU,  U.S. watchdog agencies have wildly differing views of BPA:  The National Toxicology Program (NTP) reported “some concern” that BPA harms the brain and reproductive system, especially in babies and fetuses.  The Food and Drug Administration declared that “at current levels of exposure” BPA is safe.

But consider this:  Of  the more than 100 independently funded experiments on BPA, about 90% have found evidence of adverse health effects at levels similar to human exposure. On the other hand, every single industry-funded study ever conducted — 14 in all — has found no such effects.  David Case made the argument in the February 1, 2009 issue of Fast Company that this is a story about protecting a multibillion-dollar market from deregulation.  But that’s beside the point  which is:    nobody disputes the fact that people are constantly exposed to BPAs and babies are most at risk.  It’s also undisputed that BPA mimics the female sex hormone estrogen, and that some synthetic estrogens can cause infertility and cancer.  If you’d like to read more about this click here.

Bisphenol A is now deeply imbedded in the products of modern consumer society.  This is important because it’s used in so many modern products (making it pretty much ubiquitous), and because it is extremely potent in disrupting fetal development. BPA contamination is also widespread in the environment. For example, BPA can be measured in rivers and estuaries at concentrations that range from under 5 to over 1900 nanograms/liter.(1)

What this all means is that most of  us live our lives in close proximity to bisphenol A.

Because it’s used to make plastic hard, I never thought it would have a place in the textile industry.  So it was with some concern that I came across articles which explain the use of bisphenol A in the manufacturing of synthetic fibers.

Producing synthetic fibers and yarns is almost impossible without applying a processing aid to the fibers during the extrusion and spinning processes.   The fibers and yarns are frequently in contact with hot surfaces, or they pass through hot ovens.  In order to withstand these extreme conditions, the yarns and fibers have processing aids or finishes applied.    This applied processing aid or ‘finish’, in addition to helping the yarns withstand extreme temperatures, also  reduces static electricity, fiber-fiber and metal-fiber friction, provides integrity to the filaments,  and altogether eases the manufacturing processes.

But because modern manufacturing equipment runs at higher speeds and subsequently at higher temperatures, the finish degrades in the high temperatures – yielding lower quality fibers –  and generates unwanted decomposition products.  These byproducts can be in the form of:

  1. Toxic and nontoxic gases which have environmental and safety issues;
  2. Liquids, which leave a sticky residue on the yarns,
  3. Or they may form a solid varnish on hot surfaces that is very difficult to remove; the presence of the varnish interferes with continuous, efficient production leading to economic losses due to equipment shutdown and product failure.

To overcome the problems caused by the degradation of finishes, several additives are introduced to prevent or delay the reactions of oxidation and degradation.  Several classes of antioxidants are typically used as these additives in these finishes.

In a study sponsored by the National Textile Center, a research consortium of eight universities, three North Carolina State University professors investigated the thermal stability of textiles, specifically with respect to the antioxidants used in the finishes.  They investigated four different antioxidants – one of which is based on Bisphenol A. (2)

So I got interested, and began a bit of poking around for other mentions of Bisphenol A in the textile industry. I found two scientific references to use of bisphenol A in the production of  polyester fabrics.  Both reported similar use of Bisphenol A as this quote,  which states:  “ a woven polyester fabric was … finished with an aqueous compound  containing 5% polyethylene glycol bisphenol A ether diacrylate for 30 min at 60° to give a hygroscopic, antistatic fabric with good washfastness.” (3)

I found that Bisphenol A is used  in the production of flame retardants, and as an intermediate in the manufacture of polymers, fungicides, antioxidants (mentioned above), and dyes.   Because it is often used as an intermediate it’s hard to pin down, and manufacturers keep their ingredients trade secrets so we often will not know – unless somebody funds a study which is published.

I have not seen any studies which report finding Bisphenol A in a finished fabric, so this may be a tempest in a teacup.  But isn’t it worth noting that this chemical, which has been found in the blood of 95% of all Americans, and which some say may be the “new lead”, can exist in products in which we previously never would have thought to look?

(1)  http://www.ourstolenfuture.org/newscience/oncompounds/bisphenola/bpauses.htm

(2) Grant, Christine; Hauser, Peter; Oxenham, William, “Improving the Thermal Stability of Textile Processing Aids”,  www.ntcresearch.org/pdf-rpts/AnRp04/C01-NS08-A4.pdf

(3)  http://www.lookchem.com/cas-644/64401-02-1.html?countryid=0





Issues with using recycled polyester

31 03 2010

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A  and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle.   Plastic bottles (which had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post consumer recycled polyester”.  Recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market.   In textiles, most of what passes for “sustainable” claims by manufacturers have some sort of recycled polyester in the mix, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers.

The recycled market today has lots of unused capacity – as well as great potential for growth, because the recycling rates in many high consumption areas (like Europe and the USA) are low but growing.   In Europe, collection rates for bottles rose to 46% of all PET bottles on the market, while in the US the rate is 27%.   Factories are investing in technology and increasing their capacity – so the demand is huge.  According to Ecotextile News, beggars in China will literally stand watching people drink so that they can ask for the empty bottle.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important.  There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labelled products.  According to Ecotextile News, this is due (at least in part) to lack of import legislation for recycled goods.

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?  Is there a certification which assures us that the fibers really are what the manufacturer says they are?  And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case?  And what about water use – it’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?

Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips (sometimes called flakes).  These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down and (if not used at 100% rates) mixed with virgin polyester.   A fabric made of “recycled polyester” has a designated percentage of those chips in the polymer.  The technology has gotten so sophisticated that it’s now difficult to verify if something is really recycled.

First, let’s look at how the recycled polyester is used in textiles, beyond the issue of whether the recycled PET yarns actually ARE spun from recycled feedstock,  because there are several issues with using recycled PET which are unique to the textile industry:

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

And of course, the chemicals used to dye the polymers as well as the processing methods used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not – be optimized to be environmentally benign.  Water used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not –  be treated.  And the workers may – or may not – be paid a fair wage.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  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!).  There are also private standards which have begun to pop up, in an effort to differentiate their brands.  One fiber supplier which has gone the private standard route is Unifi.   Repreve is the name of Unifi’s recycled polyester – the company produces recycled polyester yarns, and (at least for the filament yarns) they have Scientific Certification Systems certify that Repreve yarns are made with 100% recycled content.  Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain  to verify that if Repreve is in a product it’s present in the right amounts.  But there are still  many unanswered questions (because they’re  considered “proprietary information” by Unifi)  so the process is not transparent.

But now there is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard, issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn.  In addition to the certification of the recycled content, 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 wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • there is an extensive section related to worker’s health and safety.

In the end, polyester – whether recycled or virgin – is plastic.

I came across the work of a photographer living in Seattle, Chris Jordan, who published photographs of albatross chicks which he made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific.   As he says, “The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.”  See more at Chris Jordan’s website here.

To make thing worse, these tiny pieces of plastic are extremely powerful chemical accumulators for organic persistent pollutants present in ambient sea water such as DDE’s and PCB’s. The whole food chain,  from invertebrates to fish, turtles and mammals … are eating plastic and /or other animals who have plastic in them.

If you’re shocked by this picture, remember that this was brought to our attention years ago by National Geographic Magazine and in reports by scientists from many organizations.  One of the things they warned us of is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has doubled in size while we have done nothing.  I am shocked that we have done nothing while the cascading effects of our disposable society continue to accumulate.