What kind of filling for your sofa cushions?

12 05 2015

 

One thing that most people care about is how the cushions feel to them – do you like to sink down into the cushions or you like a denser, more supportive cushion? Either way, the cushions are important.

Before plastics, our grandparents filled cushions with feathers, horsehair, wool or cotton batting – even straw (one of the earliest stuffing materials). This stuff often shifted, meaning that you’d have to plump up the feathers, horsehair or batting to make the sofa look, and feel, good.  But with the advent of plastics, our lives changed.  Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 55 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP and it behaved!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.  Today, Eisenberg Upholstery’s website says that “easily 25% of all furniture repairs I see deal with bad foam or padding. The point is: start with good foam and you won’t be sorry.”

Polyurethane foam for cushions are generally measured by two values:

  1. The density or weight per cubic foot. The higher the number, the more it weighs.   Foam that has a density of 1.8, for example, contains 1.8 lbs. of foam per cubic foot and foam that has a density of 2.5 would have 2.5 lbs of foam per cubic foot.  Density for sofa cushions ranges between 1.6 and 5 or even 6.
  2. The second measurement tells you the firmness of the foam  (called the IFD  – the Indentation Force Deflection). The IFD is the feel of the cushion, and tells you how much weight it takes to compress the foam by one third. The lower IFD will sit softer. The higher IFD will sit firmer.  IFD numbers range between 15 to 35.

What many people don’t realize is that the density and firmness numbers go hand in hand – you can’t look at one without the other.  They are expressed as density/firmness, for example: 15/30 or 29/52.  The first, 15/30 means that 1.5 pounds of foam per cubic foot will take 30 pounds of weight to compress the foam 33%.  The second example means that 2.9 pounds per cubic foot of foam will take 52 pounds of weight to compress the block 33%.

After choosing which foam to use, it is then wrapped with something to soften the edges – for example,  Dacron or polyester batting, cotton or wool batting or down/feathers.

Lowest quality sofas will not even wrap the (low quality) foam; higher quality sofas have cushions that are made from very high quality foam and wrapped in wool or down.  But as you will see, the foam is itself very problematic.

You will now commonly find in the market polyurethane foam, synthetic or natural latex rubber and the new, highly touted soy based foam.  We’ll look at these individually:

The most popular type of cushion filler today is polyurethane foam. Also known as “Polyfoam”, it has been the standard fill in most furniture since its wide scale introduction in the 1960’s because of its low cost (really cheap!).  A staggering 2.1 billion pounds of flexible polyurethane foam is produced every year in the US alone.[1]

Polyurethane foam is a by-product of the same process used to make petroleum from crude oil. It involves two main ingredients: polyols and diisocyanates:

  • A polyol is a substance created through a chemical reaction using methyloxirane (also called propylene oxide).
  • Toluene diisocyanate (TDI) is the most common isocyanate employed in polyurethane manufacturing, and is considered the ‘workhorse’ of flexible foam production.
  • Both methyloxirane and TDI have been formally identified as carcinogens by the State of California
  • Both are on the List of  Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
  • Propylene oxide and TDI are also among 216 chemicals that have been proven to cause mammary tumors.  However, none of these chemicals have ever been regulated for their potential to induce breast cancer.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers polyurethane foam fabrication facilities potential major sources of several hazardous air pollutants including methylene chloride, toluene diisocyanate (TDI), and hydrogen cyanide.   There have been many cases of occupational exposure in factories (resulting in isocyanate-induced asthma, respiratory disease and death), but exposure isn’t limited to factories: The State of North Carolina forced the closure of a polyurethane manufacturing plant after local residents tested positive for TDI exposure and isocyanate exposure has been found at such places as public schools.

The United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has yet to establish exposure limits on carcinogenicity for polyurethane foam. This does not mean, as Len Laycock explains in his series “Killing You Softly”, “that consumers are not exposed to hazardous air pollutants when using materials that contain polyurethane. Once upon a time, household dust was just a nuisance. Today, however, house dust represents a time capsule of all the chemicals that enter people’s homes. This includes particles created from the break down of polyurethane foam. From sofas and chairs, to shoes and carpet underlay, sources of polyurethane dust are plentiful. Organotin compounds are one of the chemical groups found in household dust that have been linked to polyurethane foam. Highly poisonous, even in small amounts, these compounds can disrupt hormonal and reproductive systems, and are toxic to the immune system. Early life exposure has been shown to disrupt brain development.”

“Since most people spend a majority of their time indoors, there is ample opportunity for frequent and prolonged exposure to the dust and its load of contaminants. And if the dust doesn’t get you, research also indicates that toluene, a known neurotoxin, off gases from polyurethane foam products.”

I found this on the Sovn blog:

“the average queen-sized polyurethane foam mattress covered in polyester fabric loses HALF its weight over ten years of use. Where does the weight go? Polyurethane oxidizes, and it creates “fluff” (dust) which is released into the air and eventually settles in and around your home and yes, you breathe in this dust. Some of the chemicals in use in these types of mattresses include formaldehyde, styrene, toluene di-isocyanate (TDI), antimony…the list goes on and on.”

Polyurethane foams are advertised as being recyclable, and most manufacturing scraps (i.e., post industrial) are virtually all recycled – yet the products from this waste have limited applications (such as carpet backing).  Post consumer, the product is difficult to recycle, and the sheer volume of scrap foam that is generated (mainly due to old cushions) is greater than the rate at which it can be recycled – so it  mostly ends up at the landfill.  This recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous and carcinogenic chemicals.

Polyfoam has some hidden costs (other than the chemical “witch’s brew” described above):  besides its relatively innocuous tendency to break down rapidly, resulting in lumpy cushions, and its poor porosity (giving it a tendency to trap moisture which results in mold), it is also extremely flammable, and therein lies another rub!

Polyurethane foam is so flammable that it’s often referred to by fire marshals as “solid gasoline.” When untreated foam is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly are the toxic gasses produced by burning polyurethane foam –  such as hydrogen cyanide. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Therefore, flame-retardant chemicals are added to its production when it is used in mattresses and upholstered furniture.   This application of chemicals does not alleviate all concerns associated with its flammability, since polyurethane foam releases a number of toxic substances at different temperature stages. For example, at temperatures of about 800 degrees, polyurethane foam begins to rapidly decompose, releasing gases and compounds such as hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide, acetronitrile, acrylonitrile, pyridine, ethylene, ethane, propane, butadine, propinitrile, acetaldehyde, methylacrylonitrile, benzene, pyrrole, toluene, methyl pyridine, methyl cyanobenzene, naphthalene, quinoline, indene, and carbon dioxide.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

In conclusion, the benefits of polyfoam (low cost) is far outweighed by the disadvantages:  being made from a non-renewable resource (oil),  and the toxicity of main chemical components as well as the toxicity of the flame retardants added to the foam – not to mention the fact that even the best foams begin to break down after around 10 – 12 years of “normal use”.[2] The fact that California has amended the old law that required fire retardants in polyurethane foam doesn’t affect the fact that in a fire, the toxic gasses released by the foam (such as hydrogen cyanide) would incapacitate the occupants of a house in just a few minutes.

The newest entry in the green sweepstakes is what’s called a bio-based foam made from soybeans. This “soy foam” is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock,  CEO of Upholstery Arts (which was the first furniture company in the world to introduce Cradle to Cradle product cycle and achieve the Rainforest Alliance Forest Stewardship Council Certification),  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   (I have leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.)

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe. To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  • it’s made from soybeans, a renewable  resource
  • it reduces our dependence on fossil  fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based,  contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. If you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations. This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’. It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.  But the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a “greenhouse gas spewing pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon”) on what they consider to be a driving force behind Amazon rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.

In “Killing You Softly“, another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer a ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual ‘ for polyurethane manufacturers.”

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

So what’s a poor consumer to do?  We think there is a viable, albeit expensive, product choice: natural latex (rubber). The word “latex” can be confusing for consumers, because it has been used to describe both natural and synthetic products interchangeably, without adequate explanation. This product can be 100% natural (natural latex) or 100% man-made (derived from petrochemicals) – or it can be a combination of the two – the so called “natural latex”. Also, remember latex is rubber and rubber is latex.

  • Natural latex – The raw material for  natural latex comes from a renewable resource – it is obtained from the sap of the Hevea Brasiliensis (rubber) tree, and was once widely used for cushioning.  Rubber trees are cultivated, mainly in South East Asia,  through a new planting and replanting program by large scale plantation and small farmers to ensure a continuous sustainable supply of natural  latex.  Natural latex is both recyclable and biodegradeable, and is mold, mildew and dust mite resistant.  It is not highly  flammable and does not require fire retardant chemicals to pass the Cal 117 test.  It has little or no off-gassing associated with it.    Because natural rubber has high energy production costs (although a  smaller footprint than either polyurethane or soy-based foams [3]),  and is restricted to a limited supply, it is more costly than petroleum based foam.
  • Synthetic latex – The terminology is very confusing, because synthetic latex is often referred to simply as  “latex” or even “100% natural latex”.  It is also known as styrene-butadiene rubber  (SBR).   The chemical styrene is  toxic to the lungs, liver, and brain; the EPA finds nervous system effects such as depression, loss of concentration and a potential for cancer(4).  Synthetic additives are added to achieve stabilization.    Often however, synthetic latex  can be made of combinations of polyurethane and natural latex, or a  combination of 70% natural latex and 30% SBR.  Most stores sell one of these versions under the term “natural latex” – so caveat emptor!    Being  petroleum based, the source of supply for the production of  synthetic latex is certainly non-sustainable and diminishing as well.

Natural latex is breathable, biodegradeable,  healthier (i.e., totally nontoxic, and mold & mildew proof) and lasts longer than polyfoam – some reports say up to 20 times longer.

 

[1] DFE 2008 Office Chair Foam;  http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

[2] http://www.foamforyou.com/Foam_Specs.htm

[3] Op cit., http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/DFE2008_Office_Chair_Foam#Basics

(4) Technical Fact Sheet on: Styrene; Environmental Protection Agency; http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw/pdfs/factsheets/voc/tech/styrene.pdf

 

 





What you can do to avoid toxins

27 06 2013

North-Cascades-e1346800825850I’ll be taking a few weeks off so instead of sitting in front of the computer I’ll be hiking in the mountains and sitting by a lake. Have a wonderful fourth, and see you in August.

Last week I promised you the list of things to do to avoid toxins in your life. In putting together the list, it all became a bit overwhelming and I found myself asking whether it would really make a difference. I mean, the chemicals in use are so pervasive and ubiquitous that I wasn’t sure whether my puny attempts at reducing exposure would result in any improvements. Like that old adage: you can’t buy health – can you protect yourself from exposure? I mean, they found GMO wheat in a remote field in Oregon. Then I ran across the Michael Pollan piece in the New York Times (for the full article, click here) in which he talks about what we can do to fight climate change and it seems to reflect my own feelings about chemical exposure:

Why bother? That really is the big question facing us as individuals hoping to do something about climate change, and it’s not an easy one to answer. I don’t know about you, but for me the most upsetting moment in “An Inconvenient Truth” came long after Al Gore scared the hell out of me, constructing an utterly convincing case that the very survival of life on earth as we know it is threatened by climate change. No, the really dark moment came during the closing credits, when we are asked to . . . change our light bulbs. That’s when it got really depressing. The immense disproportion between the magnitude of the problem Gore had described and the puniness of what he was asking us to do about it was enough to sink your heart.

But then he answers his own question: “Going personally green is a bet, nothing more or less, though it’s one we probably all should make, even if the odds of it paying off aren’t great. Sometimes you have to act as if acting will make a difference, even when you can’t prove that it will.”

The fact that chemicals are not being directly linked to health issues is largely because of the long delay between time of exposure and effect, so causation is difficult to prove. As Ed Brown points out in his new documentary “Unacceptable Levels” (click here for more information), it’s only because these chemicals have been in our environment for so long that we can now start to monitor their results. Another reason it’s difficult to prove the effects of these chemicals is that we’re exposed to low levels of individual chemicals from different sources – and they enter your body and react with all the other chemicals found there. Yet chemicals are tested for safety only one by one. As Ken Cook points out, no doctor will prescribe a new drug for a patient before finding out what other drugs that patient is taking.

So, yes, it’s overwhelming but that’s okay. Now that you know, begin to read up a bit and learn what all the fuss is about. Then you can start to make some changes that might mean all the difference.

Back to my list: my top 11 suggestions to avoid toxins are below. If you can do even some of those, you’ll be ahead of the game:

• Take off your shoes in the house – simple and easy, and it prevents lots of pesticides and other chemicals from being tracked in.

• Vacuum and/or dust regularly –because the dust in our homes has been proven to contain lots of chemicals (want proof? click here )

• Filter your water. You’d be surprised to read the list of really bad chemicals found in most tapwater in the US – if you’re interested, read the series called “Toxic Waters” which was published in the New York Times. Click here.

• Buy only GOTS or Oeko Tex certified fabrics if you can – for everything, not just sheets and pajamas – starting now. Never buy wrinkle-free or permanent-press anything and pass on any stain protection treatments. Fabrics – even those made of organic cotton – are, by weight, 27% synthetic chemicals. Click here to get started on what that means!

• Check the labels on your furniture. The California Furniture Flammability Standard essentially requires that cushioned furniture, children’s car seats, diaper-changing tables and other products containing polyurethane foam be drenched in flame retardants – and most manufacturers build to that standard, so don’t think you’re off the hook just because you don’t live in California. (Click here to read why that’s important). Check the labels on electronics, too. Avoid polyurethane if possible.

• Read the labels of your grooming products – avoid anything that includes the words “paraben” (often used as a suffix, as in methylparaben) or “phthalate” (listed as dibutyl and diethylhexyl or just “fragrance”). If there isn’t an ingredients list, log on to cosmeticsdatabase.com, a Web site devised by the Environmental Working Group that identifies the toxic ingredients of thousands of personal-care products.

• About plastics: Never use plastics in the microwave. Avoid “bad plastics” like PVC and anything with “vinyl” in its name. And don’t eat microwave popcorn, because the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with a chemical that can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals.

* As Michael Pollan says: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I’d add: eat organic as much as possible, support local farmers and don’t eat meat and fish every day. Grow an organic garden – one of the most powerful things you can do! If you can only purchase a few organic foods, there are lots of lists (EWG has a good one, click here) that tell you which are the most pesticide-laden.

• Replace cleaning products with non toxic alternatives – either commercially available cleaning products (avoiding ammonia, artificial dyes, detergents, aerosol propellants, sodium hypochlorite, lye, fluorescent brighteners, chlorine or artificial fragrances) or homemade. You probably can do most cleaning with a few simple ingredients like baking soda, lemon juice and distilled white vinegar. Lots of web sites offer recipes for different cleaners – I like essential oils (such as lavender, lemongrass, sweet orange, peppermint, cedar wood and ylang-ylang) in a bucket of soap and hot water. It can clean most floors and surfaces and it won’t kill me.

• And now that we mention it, avoid using any product which lists “fragrance” as an ingredient.

• Fly less – in this case my issue is not with the carbon footprint (which is tremendous) but because the fabrics are so drenched in flame retardants that people who fly often have elevated levels of PBDEs in their blood – and you already know that PBDEs and their ilk are to be avoided as much as possible (click here and here ).

• Get involved and become informed! Force the federal government to fulfill its obligation to protect us from harm – join something (like a Stroller Brigade, sponsored by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families or Washington Toxics Coalition, for example) and urge your representatives to support the Safe Chemicals Act.





GMOs and nanotechnology – hope for the future

6 06 2013

I ran into some interesting ideas that seem to display why we should not immediately discredit new science – like genetic engineering or nanotechnology – because it might well provide clues to how we can continue to live on this planet.  So rather than taking a global stand against GMOs or nanotechnology perhaps we should look at how the science is used.

Carbon dioxide (CO2)  – the natural gas that allows sunlight to reach the Earth –  also prevents some of the sun’s heat from radiating back into space, thus trapping heat and warming the planet. Scientists call this warming the greenhouse effect. When t­his effect occurs naturally, it warms the Earth enough to sustain life. In fact, if we had no greenhouse effect, our planet would be an average temperature of minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius)[1].  My kids would love the skiing, but they’d be too dead to enjoy it.  So carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect are necessary for Earth to survive. But human inventions like power plants and cars, which burn fossil fuels, release extra CO2 into the air. Because we’ve added (and continue to add) this carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is stored on Earth, which causes the temperature of the planet to slowly rise, a phenomenon called global warming.

Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas (GHG) – others include water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons and sulfur hexafluoride – but it’s the most important.  And it’s going up as a direct result of human activity.[2]  Just recently, we passed a milestone that climate scientists have warned is impressively scary – for the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will surpass 400 ppm.[3]

So what to do? Traditionally, we’ve relied on natural systems to deal with this extra CO2 – like trees and other plants which soak up the stuff through photosynthesis.  But the amounts being generated exceed the capacity of natural systems to deal with it.  So we look to technological solutions, which basically consist of:  capture (i.e., trapping the gas at its emission source and then putting it someplace where it won’t escape) and geologic sequestration or storage (putting it someplace where it won’t escape.)  But I’m not a believer in these measures – after all, captured CO2 must be transported (by rail, truck or ship) to its final storage place.  And where is there a storage place that will not leak and can accommodate the 30 billion metric tons of CO2 we generate every year – without dire environmental consequences.

We have to look outside the box.  There have been many such ideas, from the more outlandish (i.e., create man-made volcanoes to pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight and cool the planet[4]) to several I’ve outlined below that just might help.  But they depend  on the use of GMO and nano science.

As Technology.org describes it:  “It is not widely appreciated that the most substantial process of carbon sequestration on the planet is accomplished by myriad marine organisms making their exoskeletons, or shells.   Shells are produced biologically from calcium and magnesium ions in sea water and carbon dioxide from the air, as it is absorbed by sea water. When the organisms die, their shells disintegrate and form carbonate sediments, such as limestone, which are permanent, safe carbon sinks.”[5]

from ecoco: sustainable design

from ecoco: sustainable design

By studying how sea urchins grow their own shells, scientists at Newcastle University in the UK have discovered a way to trap CO2 in solid calcium carbonate using nickle nanoparticles.  “It is a simple system,” said Dr Lidija Siller from Newcastle University. “You bubble CO2 through the water in which you have nickel nanoparticles and you are trapping much more carbon than you would normally—and then you can easily turn it into calcium carbonate.”[6]  Most carbon capture and storage programs must first trap the CO2 and then pump it into holes deep under ground, which is both expensive and has a high environmental risk.    Lead author, PhD student Gaurav Bhaduri, is quoted: “ [the nickel catalyst]  is very cheap, a thousand times cheaper than carbon anhydrase”.  The two researchers have patented the process and are looking for investors.

Meanwhile, MIT professor Angela Belcher, who had done her thesis on the abalone,   and graduate students Roberto Barbero and Elizabeth Wood are also looking into this.  They have  created a process that can convert carbon dioxide into carbonates that could be used as building materials. Their process, which has been tested in the lab, can produce about two pounds of carbonate for every pound of carbon dioxide captured.

Their process requires using genetically modified yeast.

Yeast don’t normally do any of those reactions on their own, so Belcher and her students had to engineer them to express genes found in organisms such as the abalone. Those genes code for enzymes and other proteins that help move carbon dioxide through the mineralization process.

The MIT team’s biological system captures carbon dioxide at a higher rate than other systems being investigated. Another advantage of the biological system is that it requires no heating or cooling, and no toxic chemicals.

Dr. Belcher has also used genetically modified viruses so they would have a binding affinity with carbon nanotubes – which allowed them to build a high-powered lithium ion battery cathode that could power a green LED.  Dr. Belcher thinks that she might one day drive a virus-powered car.

I think these two examples demonstrate that we should always keep an open mind.  And remember that it’s not always the science that’s causing a problem, but rather how we use it.  The idea that GMO seeds are intellectual property (owned largely by Monsanto) for example, is one of the wrong ways to use this technology.  But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.





How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: So which fabric should it be?

17 10 2012

So for the past two weeks we’ve discussed the differences between synthetic and natural fibers. But there’s more to consider than just the fiber content of the fabric you buy. There is the question of whether a natural fiber is organically grown, and what kind of processing is used to create the fabric.

First, by substituting organic natural fibers for conventionally grown fibers you are supporting organic agriculture, which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits. Not only does organic farming take far less energy than conventional farming (largely because it does not use oil based fertilizers)[1], which helps to mitigate climate change, but it also:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity;
  • conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion);
  • ensures sustained biodiversity;
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic production has a strong social element and includes many Fair Trade and ethical production principles. As such it can be seen as more than a set of agricultural practices, but also as a tool for social change [2] . For example, one of the original goals of the organic movement was to create specialty products for small farmers who could receive a premium for their products and thus be able to compete with large commercial farms.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years) shows conclusively that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [3]

But if you start with organic natural fibers (a great choice!) but process those fibers conventionally, then you end up with a fabric that is far from safe. Think about making applesauce: if you start with organic apples, then add Red Dye #2, preservatives, emulsifiers, stablizers and who knows what else – do you end up with organic applesauce? The US Department of Agriculture would not let you sell that mixture as organic applesauce, but there is no protection for consumers when buying fabric. And the same issues apply, because over 2000 chemicals are used routinely in textile processing.[4] Many of the chemicals used in textile processing have unknown toxicity, and many others are known to be harmful to humans (such as formaldehyde, lead, mercury, bisphenol A and other phthalates, benzenes and others). In fact, one yard of fabric made with organic cotton fiber is about 25% by weight synthetic chemicals – many of which are proven toxic to humans. [5]

I know you’re saying that you don’t eat those fabrics, so what’s the danger? Actually, your body is busy ingesting the chemicals, which are evaporating (so we breathe them in), or through skin absorption (after all, the skin is the largest organ of the body). Add to that the fact that each time you brush against the fabric, microscopic pieces of the fabric abrade and fly into the air – so we can breathe them in. Or they fall into the dust in our homes, where pets and crawling babies breathe them in.

Should that be a concern? Well, there is hardly any evidence of the effects of textiles themselves on individuals, but in the US, OSHA does care about workers, so most of the studies have been done on workers in the textile industry:

  • Autoimmune diseases (such as IBD, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, for example, which are linked to many of the chemicals used in textile processing) are reaching epidemic rates, and a 14 year study published by the University of Washington and the National Institutes of Health found that people who work with textiles (among other industries) are more likely to die of an autoimmune disease than people who don’t [6];
  • We know formaldehyde is bad for us, but in fabric? A study by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found a link in textile workers between length of exposure to formaldehyde and leukemia deaths. [7] Note: most cotton/poly sheet sets in the U.S. are treated with a formaldehyde resin.
  • Women who work in textile factories with acrylic fibers have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than does the normal population.[8]
  • A study in France revealed a correlation between the presence of cancer of the pharynx and occupation in the textile industry.[9]
  • A high degree of colorectal cancer, thyroid cancer, testicular cancer and nasal cancer has been found among textile workers, and a relationship between non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and working in the textile industry was observed.[10]

And consider this:

  • The Mt. Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center published a list of the top 10 chemicals they believe are linked to autism – and of the 10, 6 are used in textile processing and 2 are pesticides used on fiber crops. [11]
  • Phthalates are so toxic that they have been banned in the European Union since 2005. They have recently been banned in the State of California in children’s toys. They are ubiquitous – and are also found in most textile inks.[12] So parents careful not to bring toxic toys into their homes for can be nevertheless unknowingly putting their kids to sleep on cute printed sheets full of phthalates.
  • Greenpeace did a study of children’s wear sold by the Walt Disney Company – you know, like those cute Tinkerbell pajamas? Turns out that of the 5 chemicals they tested for, most items tested had far more than is considered safe.

Are these rates of disease and the corresponding rise in the use of industrial chemicals a coincidence? Are our increased rates of disease due to better diagnosis? Some argue that we’re less prepared because we’re confronting fewer natural pathogens. All plausible.  But it’s also true that we’re encountering an endless barrage of artificial pathogens that are taxing our systems to the maximum. And our children are the pawns in this great experiment. And if you think artifical pathogens  are  not main culprits, your opinion is not shared by a goodly number of scientists, who believe that this endless barrage of artificial pathogens that is taxing our systems to the maximum has replaced bacteria and viruses as the major cause of human illness. We don’t have to debate which source is primary; especially because, with the rise of super bugs, it’s a silly debate. The point remains that industrial pollution is a cause of human illness – and it is a cause we can take concrete actions to stem.

Textiles are the elephant in the room – the industry is global, relatively low tech, and decentralized – certainly not the darling of venture capatalists who look for the next big thing. So not many research dollars are going into new ways of producing fabrics. Most of the time people are looking for the lowest price fabric for their projects or products – so the industry is on a race to cut costs in any way possible: in 2007, the Wall Street Journal’s Jane Spencer detailed the pollution caused by Chinese textile industries who were being pushing by their multinational clients to cut costs, resulting in untreated effluent discharge [13].


[1] Aubert, C. et al., (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers.

[2] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, p. 19

[3] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf Also see: Muller, Adrian, “Benefits of Organic Agriculture as a Climate change Adaptation and Mitigation Strategy for Developing Countries’, Environement for Development, April 2009

[4] See the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists’ (AATCC) Buyers Guide, http://www.aatcc.org/

[5] Lacasse and Baumann, Textile Chemicals: Environmental Data and Facts, Springer, New York, 2004, page 609

[6] Nakazawa, Donna Jackson, “Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard”, Washington Post, March 16, 2008

[7] Pinkerton, LE, Hein, MJ and Stayner, LT, “Mortality among a cohort of garment workers exposed to formaldehyde: an update”, Occupational Environmental Medicine, 2004 March, 61(3): 193-200.

[8] Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi:
10.1136/oem.2009.049817 SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321

[9] Haguenour, J.M., “Occupational risk factors for upper respiratory tract and upper digestive tract cancers” , Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Vol 47, issue 6 (Br J Ind Med1990;47:380-383 doi:10.1136/oem.47.6.380).

[12] “Textile Inkmaker Tackles Phthalates Ban”, Esther D’Amico, Chemical Week, September 22, 2008 SEE ALSO: Toxic Textiles by Disney, http://archive.greenpeace.org/docs/disney.pdf

[13] Spencer, Jane, “China Pays Steep Price as Textile Exports Boom”, Wall Street Journal, August 22, 2007.





How to buy a “quality” sofa – soy foam

19 09 2012

In my last post I explained that polyurethane foam (polyfoam) has a plethora of problems associated with it:

  • The chemicals used to manufacture the foam have been formally identified as carcinogens; and the flame retardant chemicals added to almost all foams increase the chemical toxicity.  These chemicals evaporate (VOCs)  and pollute our indoor air and dust;
  • It does not decompose in the landfill; the recycling claim only perpetuates the continued use of hazardous chemicals;
  • It is dependent on a non-renewable resource: crude oil.

When untreated foam (aka, “solid gasoline”)  is ignited, it burns extremely fast. Ignited polyurethane foam sofas can reach temperatures over 1400 degrees Fahrenheit within minutes. Making it even more deadly is the toxic gas produced by burning polyurethane foam – hydrogen cyanide gas.  Hydrogen cyanide itself is so toxic that it was used by the Aum Shinrikyo terrorists who attacked Tokyo’s subway system in 1995, and in Nazi death camps during World War II. The gas was also implicated in the 2003 Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people, including Great White guitarist Ty Longley, and injured more than 200 others. Tellingly, a witness to that fire, television news cameraman Brian Butler, told interviewers that “It had to be two minutes, tops, before the whole place was black smoke.”   Just one breath of superheated toxic gas can incapacitate a person, preventing escape from a burning structure.

Polyfoam is so flammable  – burning  so hot and emitting such toxic fumes while burning –  that even the National Association of State Fire Marshals (NASFM) recommends that it be placed in Class 9 (an unusual but clearly hazardous material) because they are concerned about the safety of firemen and other first responders.

According to the federal government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology, polyurethane foam in furniture is responsible for 30 percent of U.S. deaths from fires each year.

Polyurethane foam was introduced as a cushion component in furniture in 1957 –  only a bit more than 50 years ago – and quickly replaced latex, excelsior, cotton batting, horsehair and wool because it was CHEAP!  Imagine – polyfoam cushions at $2 vs. natural latex at $7 or $8.  Price made all the difference.

But today – not long after jumping on the bandwagon –  we have concerns about polyurethane:  in addition to all the problems mentioned above there is concern about its carbon footprint. So now we see ads for a  new miracle product: a bio based foam made from soybeans, which is highly touted as “A leap forward in foam technology, conserving increasingly scarce oil resources while substituting more sustainable options,” as one product brochure describes it. Companies and media releases claim that using soy in polyurethane foam production results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, requires less energy, and could significantly reduce reliance on petroleum. Many companies are jumping on the bandwagon, advertising their green program of using foam cushions with “20% bio based foam” (everybody knows we have to start somewhere and that’s a start, right?).  As Len Laycock, CEO of Upholstery Arts,  says  – who wouldn’t sleep sounder with such promising news?   I have again leaned heavily on Mr. Laycock’s articles on poly and soy foam, “Killing You Softly”, for this post.

As with so many over hyped ‘green’ claims, it’s the things they don’t say that matter most.  While these claims contain grains of truth, they are a far cry from the whole truth. So-called ‘soy foam’ is hardly the dreamy green product that manufacturers and suppliers want people to believe.

To begin, let’s look at why they claim soy foam is green:

  1. it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. it reduces our dependence on fossil fuels  by  both reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for the feedstock  and  by reducing the energy requirements needed to produce the foam.

Are these viable claims?

It’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource:  This claim is undeniably true.   But what they don’t tell you is that this product, marketed as soy or bio-based,  contains very little soy. In fact, it is more accurate to call it ‘polyurethane based foam with a touch of soy added for marketing purposes’. For example, a product marketed as “20% soy based” may sound impressive, but what this typically means is that only 20 % of the polyol portion of the foam is derived from soy. Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in approximately equal parts, “20% soy based” translates to a mere 10% of the foam’s total volume. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam and by any reasonable measure cannot legitimately be described as ‘based’ on soy. As Len Laycock asks, if you go to Starbucks and buy a 20 oz coffee and add 2-3 soy milk/creamers to it, does it become “soy-based” coffee?

It reduces our dependence on fossil fuels: According to Cargill, a multi-national producer of agricultural and industrial products, including BiOH polyol (the “soy” portion of “soy foam”), the soy based portion of so called ‘soy foam’ ranges from  5% up to a theoretical 40% of polyurethane foam formulations (theoretical because 40% soy has not resulted in useable foams). This means that while suppliers may claim that ‘bio foams’ are based on renewable materials such as soy, in reality a whopping 90 to 95%, and sometimes more of the product consists of the same old petro-chemical based brew of toxic chemicals. This is no ‘leap forward in foam technology’ as claimed.

It is true that the energy needed to produce soy-based foam is, according to Cargill, who manufactures the soy polyol,  less that that needed to produce the polyurethane foam.  But the way they report the difference is certainly difficult to decipher:  soy based polyols use 23% less energy to produce than petroleum based polyols, according to Cargill’s LCA.   But the formula for the foam uses only 20% soy based  polyols, so by my crude calculations (20% of 50%…) the energy savings of 20% soy based foam would require only 4.6%  less energy than that used to make the petroleum based foam.  But hey, that’s still a savings and every little bit helps get us closer to a self sustaining economy and is friendlier to the planet.

But the real problem with advertising soy based foam as a new, miracle green product is that the foam, whether soy based or not, remains a “greenhouse gas spewing pretroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock.

My concern with the use of soy is not its carbon footprint but rather the introduction of a whole new universe of concerns such as pesticide use, genetically modifed crops, appropriation of food stocks and deforestation.  Most soy crops are now GMO:  according to the USDA, over 91% of all soy crops in the US are now GMO; in 2007, 58.6% of all soybeans worldwide were GMO.  If you don’t think that’s a big deal, please read our posts on these issues (9.23.09 and 9.29.09).  The debate still rages today.  Greenpeace did an expose (“Eating Up The Amazon”) on what they consider to be a driving force behind Amazon rainforest destruction – Cargill’s race to establish soy plantations in Brazil.  You can read the Greenpeace report here, and Cargill’s rejoinder here.

An interesting aside:  There is an article featured on CNNMoney.com about the rise of what they call Soylandia – the enormous swath of soy producing lands in Brazil (almost unknown to Americans) which dominates the global soy trade.  Sure opened my eyes to some associated soy issues.

In “Killing You Softly“, Len Laycock presents another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing:

“Pretending to offer a ‘soy based’ foam allows these corporations to cloak themselves in a green blanket and masquerade as environmentally responsible corporations when in practice they are not. By highlighting small petroleum savings, they conveniently distract the public from the fact that this product’s manufacture and use continues to threaten human health and poses serious disposal problems. Aside from replacing a small portion of petroleum polyols, the production of polyurethane based foams with soy added continues to rely heavily on ‘the workhorse of the polyurethane foam industry’, cancer causing toluene diisocyanate (TDI). So it remains ‘business as usual ‘ for polyurethane manufacturers.

Despite what polyurethane foam and furniture companies imply , soy foam is not biodegradable either. Buried in the footnotes on their website, Cargill quietly acknowledges that, “foams made with BiOH polyols are not more biodegradable than traditional petroleum-based cushioning”. Those ever so carefully phrased words are an admission that all polyurethane foams, with or without soy added, simply cannot biodegrade. And so they will languish in our garbage dumps, leach into our water, and find their way into the soft tissue of young children, contaminating and compromising life long after their intended use.

The current marketing of polyurethane foam and furniture made with ‘soy foam’ is merely a page out the tobacco industry’s current ‘greenwashing’ play book. Like a subliminal message, the polyurethane foam and furniture industries are using the soothing words and images of the environmental movement to distract people from the known negative health and environmental impacts of polyurethane foam manufacture, use and disposal.

Cigarettes that are organic (pesticide-free), completely biodegradable, and manufactured using renewable tobacco, still cause cancer and countless deaths. Polyurethane foam made with small amounts of soy derived materials still exposes human beings to toxic, carcinogenic materials, still relies on oil production, and still poisons life.

While bio-based technologies may offer promise for creating greener, cradle-to-cradle materials, tonight the only people sitting pretty or sleeping well on polyurethane foam that contains soy are the senior executives and shareholders of the companies benefiting from its sale. As for the rest of humankind and all the living things over which we have stewardship, we’ve been soy scammed!”





Bioplastics – are they the answer?

16 04 2012

From Peak Energy blog; August 27, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Surfrider Foundation

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

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

[1] See for example: Idso, Craig, “Estimates of Global Food Production in the year 2050”, Center for the Study of Carbon dioxide and Global Change, 2011  AND  Wittwer, Sylvan, “Rising Carbon Dioxide is Great for Plants”, Policy Review, 1992  AND  http://www.ciesin.org/docs/004-038/004-038a.html

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

[3] Sikkema, Albert, “What we Don’t Know About Bioplastics”, Resource, December 2011; http://resource.wur.nl/en/wetenschap/detail/what_we_dont_know_about_bioplastics

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

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





Enzymes and GOTS

9 12 2011

Last week we reviewed the ways enzymes are helping to give textile processes a lighter footprint while at the same time producing better finished goods – at a lower cost.  Seems to be a win/win situation, until you begin to unpeel the onion:

It begins with the production of the enzyme:  Enzymes have always been obtained from three primary sources, i.e., animal tissue, plants or microbes.  By starting with the primary source and “feeding” it properly (known as fermentation), we ended up with our target product – like beer, for example.

But these naturally occurring enzymes are often not readily available in sufficient quantities for  industrial use. The production of enzymes – including microorganisms used to produce enzymes –  is a pursuit central to the modern biotechnology industry.  Until recently, the availability of enzymes  have been limited to the quantities that could be produced in the host organism in which they were naturally derived.

Today, the starting point is a vial of a selected strain of microorganisms – microbial hosts which have been selectively bred by industry. They will be nurtured and fed until they multiply many thousand times.  Once fermentation is complete, the microorganisms are destroyed, the desired enzymes are recovered from the fermentation broth and sold as a standardized product.

Modern biotechnology has improved enzyme production and enzyme quality in several ways:

1)     Increased efficiency of enzyme production resulting in higheryields;

2)     Increased enzyme purity through reduction or elimination of side activities;

3)     Enhancing the function of specific enzyme proteins, e.g., by increasing the temperature range over which an enzyme is active.

The results, as we discussed last week,  are better products, produced more efficiently, often at lower cost and with less environmental impact.

It wasn’t until genetic engineering came about that these biological methods became economically viable. Targeted genetic manipulation has not only enhanced the productivity of these methods, it also has resulted in the production of substances that were previously impossible. To date, up to 60% of all technical enzymes are produced with genetically modified organisms (GMO) – and this number is sure to increase given that GMO-based enzyme production requires 40-50% less energy and raw materials than traditional enzyme production.[1]  And therein lies the rub.

Cheese, eggs and milk, for example, may not be genetically modified themselves but may contain ingredients and additives that were produced from genetically modified microorganisms.

Take cheese for example: Traditionally, this enzyme preparation, sometimes known as rennin, was extracted from calf stomachs. The active ingredient is chymosin, an enzyme produced in the stomach of suckling calves needed for breaking down cow’s milk.

It is now possible to produce chymosin in genetically modified fungi. These modified microorganisms contain the gene derived from the stomach of calves that is responsible for producing chymosin. When grown in a bioreactor, they release chymosin into the culture medium. Afterwards, the enzyme is extracted and purified yielding a product that is 80 to 90 percent pure. Natural rennin contains only 4 to 8 percent active enzyme.[2]

Even the nutritive medium used to grow bacteria and fungi is often made from GMOs.

Again, what are the arguments against GMO?

Briefly, because I want to get to how this pertains to the textile industry, here are the most common concerns :

1)     What happens when these GMOs interact with other organisms?  Already there is concern that GMO crops resistant to weed killers will themselves become uncontrolled weeds in other fields – the GMO plant may cross pollinate with a related species that is a weed which then becomes resistant to weed killers.  This is already happening according to many published reports.  And it can happen in really subtle ways:

  1. Since 1986, Novo Nordisk, one of the world’s largest producers of industrial enzymes,  has processed the residuals of fermentation processes generated by GMOs into “biomass” or “sludge” called NovoGro. The sludge is dehydrated and freely distributed among farmers. NovoGro is virtually the company’s only possibility to dispose of its massive enzyme production waste. In 1996, 2.2 million cubic meters of NovoGro were produced. Daily about 150 truckloads of NovoGro are spread over 70 hectares of land in Denmark .  Total costs are about US$ 13 million per year, all carried by Novo Nordisk. A Danish farmers’ organization protested against the distribution of NovoGro because it suspected pollution by GMOs. There are concerns that risks associated with the use of GMO products is not worth the benefits as long as the environmental impacts are not monitored by third parties.[3]

2)     The argument rages about the human health risks of genetically engineered foods – specifically with regard to the rise in food allergies. The British Medical Association (BMA)  in a study done in 2003, concluded that the risks to human health associated with GMO foods is negligible, while calling for further research and surveillance.[4]

3)     Ethical concern of the “slippery slope”: because it appears to provide costless benefits, so companies and governments may rush into production one or more products of the new technologies that will turn out to be harmful, either to the environment or to humans directly.

The manufacturers and scientists tell us that there are no traces of these GMO microorganisms in the final product, and no microbial DNA is detectable.

Additives (such as enzymes) that are produced with the help of genetically modified microorganisms do not require labeling because GMOs are not directly associated with the final product.  In the textile industry, they are known as auxiliaries or processing aids.

In textiles, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) has stated that the use of genetically modified organisms – including their enzymes – is incompatible with the production of textiles labelled as ‘organic’ or ‘made with organic’ under GOTS.  According to the GOTS website:  “While the IWG Technical Committee acknowledges that there are applications including, and based on GM technologies, that result in a reduction of energy and water use and replace chemicals compared to some conventional textile processes this is only one side of the coin.”  They go on to say that it is important to give consumers a choice to actively decide for themselves if they want to purchase a textile product made without using any GMO derived inputs.

As a company which is trying to do the right thing, I don’t know where I stand on this issue.    What do you think?





Renewable?

23 11 2010

We keep seeing the term “renewable”  in the media   –   a lot  –  and especially with reference to products made from “renewable resources”.  And we understand why this term can be so appealing in this time of diminishing natural resources and increasing population growth.  But what do they really mean?  Stick with us and you’ll find that this is yet another area in which a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

A “renewable resource” is a resource that can be replenished naturally  in the same amount of time (or less) than it takes to draw the supply down.  These constantly replenishing natural resources  include forest resources,  and the fertility of agricultural land.  Some renewable resources have essentially an endless supply, such as solar energy, wind energy and geothermal pressure.   Some resources are considered renewable, even though some effort must go into procuring them, such as fisheries or food crops.

To help us make better choices, there is now a differentiation between non-renewable resources, such as petroleum or old-growth timber  (which takes centuries to renew)  and what is known as “rapidly renewable resources”.  These items, as defined by the LEED system of building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) offers points for rapidly renewable materials that regenerate in 10 years or less, such as bamboo, wool, and straw. To qualify for the credit in a new construction project, the value of these materials must represent at least 2.5 % of the total cost of the products used in the building.

Renewable resources have become a focal point of the environmental movement, both politically and economically. Energy obtained from renewable resources puts much less strain on our limited supply of fossil fuels (non-renewable resources). The problem with using renewable resources on a large scale, however, is that it  may create some new and unforeseen problems.

What can some of these new and unforeseen problems be?  Like all green claims, it’s terribly important to understand the wider implications of each of our choices.  Take bamboo, for example.  Bamboo is a fast growing grass which is hard enough to be used as a replacement for wood in applications such as flooring and furniture. However, most bamboo is grown and processed in China, so while ocean shipping consumes less fuel per mile than overland trucking, the type of fuel used in shipping can be more polluting. In addition, there are concerns about forestry practices, the toxicity of binders, and worker safety.  A few bamboo plantations have earned certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which accredits forests managed “to meet the social, economic, ecological, cultural, and spiritual needs of present and future generations.” However, certified bamboo products are still not widely available in the U.S. And even though bamboo plantations sequester as much carbon as native forests, they do not support the same wildlife.  Clearly, the environmental balance is more difficult to calculate than by simply examining the length of a harvest cycle.

Another product worth examining is cork, which comes from the bark of cork oaks. Unlike nearly every other tree species, cork trees are  not harmed by removal of their bark. A mature tree is stripped about once every 10 years and lives for an average of 16 strippings. After stripping, the large slabs of bark are boiled, and bottle stoppers are punched from them. The leftover material is then ground up, pressed into sheets, and cut into tiles for flooring. This dual-purpose production is critical to the cork industry.   According to the World Wildlife Fund International, cork production provides a vital source of income for thousands of people and supports one of the world’s highest levels of biodiversity among forest habitats, with plant diversity reaching as high as 135 species per square meter. In an ironic twist, the increased market share for alternative wine stoppers could reduce the value of cork oak, leading the areas in which cork is grown to be converted or abandoned. It also may contribute to the end of the cork ecosystem.

The World Wildlife Fund International and the Forest Stewardship Council have established programs to promote and encourage responsible cork use to save this natural resource. For more information, visit www.panda.org and www.fsc.org.

Another not so easy call, is it?

In my opinion, another area worth investigating is the very visible promotion of biobased products using corn and soybeans  (soy based foam in upholstery and biobased polymers are two products that come immediately to mind) as being environmentally preferable because they’re based on a renewable resource.  Dow Cargill, manufacturer of BiOH polyols, the soybean derived biopolymer, says that it creates products with from 5 to 20% renewable content (meaning the soybeans). But soybeans are one of the three crops globally which have the highest percentage of GMO (corn and cotton being the other two).   The GMO percentage of global soybean production was 77%  in 2009, and for cotton it was 49%.  (In India, 87% of all cotton was GMO in 2009.)

Monsanto, the largest seed producer in the world, with a massive 20% share of the world market, has been  interested in a technology which was named “Terminator” – and began applying it to their seeds.

The Terminator idea was to genetically modify seeds so that the plants they produced when they grew were sterile. In biotechnology jargon, this is known as a “genetic use restriction technology”, or GURT.  Companies such as Monsanto were keen on such “suicide seeds” because they would enable the company to control any proprietary genetic traits they had engineered into the seeds. So resistance to a particular herbicide, for example, or an ability to grow faster, would not be passed on from one generation of plants to the next.

So most GMO seeds have a genetic modification that prevents the crops from setting fertile seed.  So seeds for next year’s crop must be purchased – effectively ending the centuries old practice of collecting seeds at each harvest  so they could be replanted next year.

The main problem with this is that over 1.4 billion people around the world depend on saved seeds from season to season to grow crops. Terminator seeds force dependence on the Monsantos of the world, destroying local and indigenous seed exchange practices, as well as the breeding and selection done by farmers.

There was a great outcry against this technology.

“While seeds with the ability to reproduce contain the essence of life, Terminator represents only ‘exploitation and death,’” according to Terry Boehm, vice-president of the National Farmer’s Union in Saskatchewan, Canada. Boehm further uses nuclear weapons as a parallel to Terminator technology: “Extensive testing of nuclear weapons did not change the fact that this was such a dangerous technology that it should not be used.”

At the  United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity in Nagoya, Japan (18-29 October 2010) the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) warned that there are a  handful of multinational corporations which are pressuring governments to allow what could become the broadest and most dangerous patent claims in history.

“The Gene Giants are stockpiling patents that threaten to put a choke-hold on the world’s biomass and our future food supply,” warns Silvia Ribeiro of ETC Group. “The breadth of many patent claims on climate ready crop genes is staggering. In many cases, a single patent or patent application claims ownership of engineered gene sequences that could be deployed in virtually all major crops – as well as the processed food and feed products derived from them,” explains Ribeiro.

Hope Shand, research director of ETC,  links the argument over Terminator technologies with wider criticisms of the ways in which agribusiness is exercising its increasingly powerful influence. “The top 10 seed companies control 57% of the commercial seed market worldwide. That’s a staggering level of corporate control over the first link in the food chain,” she says.

“Whoever controls our seeds, controls the food supply. These companies are trying to reduce competition and maximize profits by promoting laws and technologies that eliminate the practice of farmer-saved seeds. Whether it’s promoting genetic seed sterilization and patent laws, or dictating trade regimes, these trends threaten traditional farming communities and erode crop diversity.”

The ETC web site goes on to say that “the natural genetic diversity of crops is a vital insurance against future farming catastrophes. The world needs to retain as many different varieties of potato, tomato, rice and wheat as possible in case the commercial varieties grown in bulk get diseased, or are rendered useless by the accelerating impacts of global warming. That’s why there are some 1,400 “seed banks” around the world, storing some six million different species.”  For more information on this issue, see the ETC Group’s report, Gene Giants Stockpile Patents on “Climate-Ready” Crops in Bid to Become Biomassters”

I think the use of GMO crops to produce soy based foam and biobased polymers cannot be marketed as being made from a renewable resource because of the presence of these patented GMO crops – which are largely sterile. They cannot be renewed without human input – in other words, new crops cannot be grown unless the farmer purchases new seed from the corporation.  And the danger is that these genetic mutations will spread to non GMO crops.

This goes entirely against the intent  in defining a renewable resource.  These crops cannot be “created again”.  So to say that soy based polyols (or soy based foam) is made from a “renewable resource” is false.

Another objection I have to GMOs as they are being implemented is that the basic motivation for almost every introduction thus far is profit-driven rather than need-driven – but that’s nit picking.

For more information on Terminator Technology visit:

www.banterminator.org – the Ban Terminator Campaign

www.etcgroup.org – Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration

• Also see www.seedsofchangefilm.org for information on the film, “Seeds of Change,” which looks at genetically modified crops and how they are changing the face of agriculture in western Canada. This film was made back in 2002 but hidden from the public by the administration at the University of Manitoba until 2005. Click here for a review of this documentary.





Reasons for concern regarding GMO’s

29 09 2009

From last week’s post, you’ll remember we explained that GMO crops (to date) do not fulfill their promise:

  1. They do not decrease hunger and poverty;
  2. Data shows that GMO crops actually increase pesticide and herbicide use;
  3. They do not yield more; in a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Failure to Yield, data shows that despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.   In fact data points to possibly lower yields than would have been achieved by NOT using GMO seed.

But I still didn’t understand  what the fuss is all about.  After all, companies have been making claims for products forever.  Shouldn’t the product just die by way of non-purchase?  Why should governments get involved and prohibit the use of GMO seeds?  Why are the organic trade associations around the world in such an uproar?

After all, the promise of genetic engineering  is very powerful –  to be able to feed the world as populations increase and agricultural land gets squeezed.   James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, says that genetic engineering is “a hidden realm of opportunity to feed the world’s impending 9 billion a diet produced in an environmentally responsible way.” Time Magazine reported in September, 2009 that a scientist at Texas A & M University has discovered a way to remove the gossypol (a naturally occurring toxic chemical that protects the plant from infestation) from cottonseeds.  Today cottonseeds can be used for humans only after an extensive refining process to remove the gossypol.  Also in the works are crops that can produce higher yields with less water; a dust from genetically modified ferns that can remove heavy metals from the soil;  crops that can withstand drought or high salt content in soil; and other GM technologies that “have the potential not only to streamline production, but to play a meaningful role in reducing their carbon footprint.”(1)  Sounds pretty good to me.

In the United States, we haven’t heard much about genetic engineering, because in 1992, the
FDA unilaterally decided (in its opinion) that as long as a GM food is no more toxic, allergenic, or any less “substantially equivalent” than its standard counterpart, it need not be labeled to show the process that created it. That is quite different from the European labeling laws, introduced in 1997, which required that any food containing residues of engineered DNA or protein must be recorded as GM.

So what is it about genetic engineering that has these other governments and organizations so concerned?  Part of the problem may be that the scientific community does not like the unknown, and it seems to have not reached a consensus on the safety of these products for our health or for the environment, although it’s hard to determine what interests are behind which studies.

These areas of concern, in addition to those of the plants developing increasing tolerances to pesticides and herbicides, include :

  1. The concept of “drift”:   that is,  pollen from genetically engineered plants will spread by insects and the winds to affect non-GMO plants.  (After all, a bee can travel up to 30 km or more.)  This contaminates both conventional and organic fields.  And farmers or food processors lose money because of unwanted contamination.   The  Organic Trade Association of Canada recently reported the discovery of contaminated flax seed in some German food products;  native corn in Mexico (where it is illegal to plant genetically engineered corn) was reported to have new GM genes found in the genome, where they could interfere with the plant’s normal genes.(2)   “It’s time for biotech companies to be good parents and take responsibility for their children. The owners of GE crops need to assume the liability for loss of market access due to their technologies appearing in countries or products in which they are not wanted. As GE products are not permitted under organic standards, the organic sector in Canada is extremely concerned by the prospect of losing access to its essential markets in Europe, Asia and around the world,” said Matthew Holmes, managing director of OTA in Canada.  According to the U.S. Organic Trade Association,  “Bt contamination is  a trespass, a nuisance, unwanted, and can lead to significant economic losses for organic farmers.  This is a clear example of potentially disastrous environmental degradation, with the added problem that consumers seeking products that contain no genetically engineered materials may be denied this choice because of inadvertent contamination.”
  2. Concerns regarding human health: These are classed into those that fall under “unknown effect on human health” and allergenicity.   With regard to unknown effects, a study published by the Austrian government found that mice fed a type of genetically engineered corn produced fewer offspring and more females with no offspring, than mice fed conventional corn.  The effects were particularly pronounced in the third and fourth litters, after the mice had eaten the GE corn for a longer period of time.  Another study published in Lancet claimed that there are appreciable differences in the intestines of rats fed genetically engineered potatoes and those fed unmodified potatoes.(3)  The milk from cows injected with genetically engineered  bovine growth hormone rBGH  (sometimes called rBST)  has been found to have much higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone considered to be a high risk factor for breast, prostate, colon, lung and other cancers – and the milk has lowered nutritional value! (4). “This … should serve as a wake-up call to governments around the world that genetically engineered foods could cause long-term health damage,” said Andrew Kimbrell, Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety.       With regard to allergenicity, there is the possibility that introducing a gene into a plant may cause a new allergen or cause an allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. When DNA from one organism is spliced into another, can it turn a non-allergenic food into one that will cause an allergic reaction in some people?
  3. Concerns regarding agricultural diversity:  The 1st conference on animal and plant breeding of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) was held in August, 2009.  Speakers at the conference made it clear that we are in a battle to save the diversity of today’s food in order to have future food.  According to Vandana Shivam,  who spoke at the conference, unprecendented weather is occurring in India with the disruption of life-giving monsoons which used to appear as regularly as clockwork.  Farmers growing GMO rice could not plant their seedlings because of lack of rain, while farmers who had access to heirloom drought-tolerant varieties were able to plant and get a crop.  Traditional farming used to include over 250 crops.  Now there are a mere 2 crops.  Community seed banks are springing up around India to preserve traditional varieities, and “freedom villages” are forming to prohibit GMOs because of their threat to traditional seeds.  You can learn more about the situation in India by reading “Stop the Biopiracy of Climate Resilient Crops” by clicking here. The Wall Street Journal ran an article on how organic farming, even with reduced yields, is more profitable for Indian farmers than conventional crops, because the farmers  no longer are subjected to high up front costs for chemical fertilizers and insecticides, and they can save  seeds from year to year.
  4. Concerns regarding the safety of wildlife in the surrounding areas of GM crops: A major study performed by the British government and published by the Royal Society,   found that GM crops had 33% fewer seeds for birds to eat at the end of the season, and even two years later there were still 25% fewer seeds.  As the study puts it: “While reduction or removal of the visible flora temporarily reduces the food available to farmland animals, the key to longer-term impacts is the ‘seed rain’ (seeds falling from weeds) and its contribution to the seedbank (weed seeds left in soil).” (5)  They concluded that over time this would have a dramatic impact on the bird populations which are dependent on these seeds.  There are also fewer bees, beetles, butterflies and other insects in the GM crops. Such invertebrates are food for mammals, birds and other animals, and many are important for controlling pests or recycling nutrients within the soil.
  5. Concerns regarding the use of Bt crops and organic agriculture:  Bt is often used in organic agriculture;  it is an excellent biological control for corn and cotton insect pests.  It is the most widely used biological control in organic agriculture.    But Bt engineered plants will lead quickly to significant insect resistance, depriving organic farmers of one of their most useful tools.
  6. Concerns regarding the business of corporate agriculture: Many are concerned that farmers are turning dependent on large multinational corporations (MNCs) for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs while also becoming more vulnerable to pressures to produce genetically engineered crops.   They fear the predatory nature of corporate agriculture and its attempts to corner the entire chain of food production from seeds to sales of food products.  Three companies — Cargill, Archer Daniels and Bunge — control nearly 90 per cent of global grain trade while DuPont and Monsanto dominate the global seed market. Eleven firms account for about half the world sales of seeds, of which about a quarter are sales of genetically engineered seeds. (6)  And agrichemical sales are concentrated in 6 firms which together control 85% of the annual pesticide market. (7)   The research into GMO crops is very expensive, meaning only large, well funded companies can afford the research.  It’s this last concern, that of “vertical integration” (i.e., a corporation taking over the entire food production cycle from the development of proprietary strains of DNA and the sales of seeds to farmers down to contracts with farmers that determine what is produced, how and for whom, and at what price and quality), that I want to focus on.

In an equity research paper done by Deutsche Banc of DuPont in 1999, they stated that they were willing to believe that GMOs were safe and “may provide a benefit for the environment” but that the perception wars are being lost by the industry.     “Not a day goes by lately where concerns and/or rebuttals are not in the press somewhere in the world. Domestic concerns regarding agbiotechnology are clearly on the rise, with the Monarch butterfly but one example of negative press causing a rethink of the future. For the most part, though, it has not yet gotten the attention of the ordinary U.S. citizen, but when it does – look out.”

The corporations which have so much at stake here know that they need a more aggressive marketing technique to promote the impression that GMOs are good and safe to use.  Agrichemical lobbyists are trying to convince the public that the industry is “science-based”.  A new global federation of agrichemical multinational corporations, Crop Life International, is the new representative of the “plant science industry”.  Crop Life’s annual report for 2007 makes the breathtaking claim that pesticides are actually good for the environment for a host of reasons, including “lower carbon dioxide emissions associated with the switch to no-till/reduced tillage farming systems, and less frequent pesticide applications made possible by biotech crops fuel savings.”

The agrichemical companies are vertically integrated, based on the law of efficiency similar to economies of scale which favors big corporations.  Antonio Tujan, Jr., international director of the Ibon Foundation Inc. (a research and educational institution specializing in socio-economic issues) says that “integration destroys the free market as it becomes increasingly dominated by the giants, which are able to dictate profits and what is produced.”  This turns the market into a sellers’ market, and farmers have little or no choice.  Farmers are forced to accept whatever they are asked to use such as seeds and pesticides.  A democratic market, in contrast, is a consumers’ market.

The big companies have a lot at stake, and the squabbling and double dealing – not to mention lawsuits and counter suits –  are worthy of a good thriller.   Monsanto, after years of acquiring seed companies while trying to become the major seed producer in the world,  filed a lawsuit in the spring accusing DuPont of patent infringement; DuPont countersued saying Monsanto wanted to protect its franchise at the expense of giving farmers access to better technology.   But in June, DuPont sued BASF over the same kind of alleged violations Monsanto sued it for in the spring – and of course, BASF countersued!

A more disturbing set of statistics is the number of lawsuits that Monsanto has filed against farmers who are accused of violating its patents.  It has built a department of 75 employees and set aside an annual budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of investigating and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement. For cases with recorded judgments, farmers have paid a mean of $412,259.54.  (Click here to read the entire report.) The table below gives the number of cases by year:

Number of Lawsuits by Year

Source:  The Center for Food Safety,  January 2005

According to Tom Wiley, a North Dakota farmer, farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they “did not buy, do not want,  will not use and cannot sell.”

This just in:   Monsanto announced on  August 13 that it would be raising prices for its genetically modifed seeds from 17% to 42% – saying that these new seeds will boost yields; this is part of the company’s drive to double profits by 2012. (8)

(1) Brandon, Hembree, “GMO rejection – ‘Fatal rush to judgment'”, June 3, 2009, Southeast Farm Press

(2) “Chapala Vindicated”, Organic Consumers Association, March 5, 2009, http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_17133.cfm

(3) “Effect of diets containing genetically mofidied potatoes expressing Galanthus nivalis lectin on rat small intestine”, Lancet, Vol 354, No 9187, pp 1353-1354, Oct 1999

(4) http://www.preventcancer.com/consumers/general/milk.htm

(5) http://www.i-sis.org.uk/GMCHW.php

(6) Netto, Anil, “GMO Seeds:  “MNCs Gaining Total Control Over Farming”, December 12, 2007, Center for Research on Globalization

(7) Ibid.

(8) “A Seed Company Some Love to Hate”, Jim Jubak blog on MSN Money, http://blogs.moneycentral.msn.com/topstocks/archive/2009/08/14/a-seed-company-some-love-to-hate.aspx





GMO cotton

23 09 2009

gmo1The Global Organic Textiles Standard (GOTS) prohibits all “genetically modified organisms (GMO’s) and their derivatives”.  According to the Organic Exchange, none of the organic growing standards established by any government allows for GMO crops.  In April, 2009, Germany announced a plan to ban all GMO crops in the country, citing concerns of the environmental impact, making Germany the latest in a string of EU countries to outlaw GMO crops.  And during a public comment period in 2000, the Organic Trade Association generated 275,000 letters against GMOs being included in the National Organic Program (NOP).

Why the fuss?  After all, GMO crops were developed to help us meet the demands our burgeoning population makes on our limited resources.  How can that be bad?

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) are plants, animals and microorganisms which have been altered genetically.  Here’s how the National Orgtanic Standards Board puts it:  “Genetically engineered is defined as:  made with techniques that alter the molecular or cell biology of an organism by means that are not possible under natural conditions or processes.   Genetic engineering includes recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro-and macro-encapsulation, gene deletion and doubling, introducing a foreign gene, and changing the positions of genes.”(1)

The benefits of genetic engineering in the agriculture sector is great, according to its proponents.  GMO crops have been hailed as a way to increase yields by protecting against pests, drought and disease.  The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has put forward the arguments for GMOs in agriculture, (such as increased yields and better resistance to pests and other stresses – which reduces dependence on chemicals needed for crop protection.   They also list the arguments against GMO crops. There is great debate about the pros and cons of this relatively new product.

But before looking at some of the reasons so many are opposed to genetic engineering,  let’s look at the issues pertaining to fiber crops only – and to cotton specifically:

Shortly after GMO cotton was introduced, GMO cotton producers, citing advances based on new GMO cotton  and supported by a series of Cotton Incorporated conferences on sustainable cotton,  portrayed conventional cotton as the new “sustainable” choice and organic cotton as an old and inadequate solution that is “as out-dated as last year’s fashions.”  (Editor’s note:  They also redefined the term “sustainable” to include “growing profitability.”)

GMO cotton was quickly adopted by cotton farmers, and millions of hectares of GMO modified cotton has been planted worldwide since its introduction in 1996.

Why did so many farmers pay for GMO seed – which cost more – and plant this new crop?  Bottom line: they were told that there was more money to be made from GMO cotton.    GMO cotton was supposed to have higher yields at the same time it was helping to reduce costs.  Cost savings in chemicals and manual labor was estimated at between 15 – 30%.   How did it reduce dependence on chemicals:

  • GMO cotton was engineered to reduce insect pests so farmers could reduce their chemical dependence on pesticides, and buy less of them.  The gene coding for Bacillus Thuringiensis (Bt) was inserted into the cotton.  Bt is a protein that acts as a natural toxin to the larvae of certain moths, butterflies, beetles and flies (including the dred bollworm) and is harmless to other forms of life.  When the larvae feed on the cotton they are killed by the Bt protein – thereby eliminating the need for a broad spectrum insecticide.
  • GMO cotton was designed to be resistant to herbicides so that weed killers could be liberally sprayed on crops without worrying about killing the cotton plants.  It was genetically modified to be resistant to glyphosate (marketed as Roundup in the USA and manufactured by Monsanto – remember this fact) which is a broad-spectrum herbicide, and toxic to humans at concentrations far below the recommended agricultural use levels. (2)  Studies link glyphosate to spontaneous abortions, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and multiple myeloma.

Not only could they make more money, but  GMO cotton crops were also promoted as helping tackle world hunger and poverty, and helping small farmers. If you were a cotton farmer, how could you resist?  They didn’t:  Today 86% of all United States cotton, 68% of all Chinese cotton, and 76% of all Indian cotton (three of the major cotton growing countries) is now GMO cotton. (3)

Initial results seemed that all they promised was true – early studies in 2002/2003 reported that pesticide and herbicide use was down and yields were up (by as much as 80%)  for GMO cotton (4).  But these results were short lived.   Recent reports are full of data on GMO crops requiring ever more doses of chemical pesticides and herbicides to control pests which are mutating faster than even their worse case scenarios had envisioned,  and becoming resistant to the genetic modifications found in GMO cotton.  A study published by the Institute for Science in Society reports that Bt cotton fields rarely have studies done on what the crops do to the soil itself; they found that soil growing Bt cotton had significantly fewer beneficial soil enzymes in the soil (which makes nutrients available to plants) and total biomass was reduced 8.9%.  This, they conclude, could even lead to dead soils, unable to produce food.

What about the promise of reduced chemical dependence on pesticides and herbicides?

It was always thought that pests would eventually evolve and develop a resistance to Bt.  It wasn’t a question of whether resistance would happen, but how quickly it would evolve.  The Central Institute for Cotton Research (CICR) in India published the (then currently held) opinion that, “with the current rate of increase in the area under Bt cotton, it is likely to take about 11 – 12 years for the pest to develop resistance to Bt cotton.  However, with implementation of proper strageties as suggested by CICR, it is possible to delay resistance by at least 30 – 40 years if not more.”  Worse case scenario was thought to be three years.

Yet in 2008 the University of Arizona published some of the first documented cases of bollworm resistance to Bt. Professor Bruce Tabashnik, a renowed insect researcher and the primary researcher of this study, said “our results contradict the worse-case scenarios of some experts under which resistance to Bt plants was expected in three years.  It is no surprise that, after a while, pests can develop biological strategies against insecticidal agents and become thereby insensitive:  as  a rule, even advantages that have been established in a plant by conventioinal breeding methods only have a limited time span of effectiveness.”

According to a 2008 study  by Friends of the Earth, independent studies have demonstrated not only that pesticide reduction claims are unfounded, but that GM crops have substantially increased pesticide use, particularly since 1999.  Dr. Charles Benbrook, a leading U.S. agricultural sicentist, conducted an “exhaustive analysis of USDA data on pesticide use in agriculture from 1996 to 2004.  His conclusion is that over this 9 year period, adoption of GM soy, corn and cotton crops has led to use of 122 million more pounds of pesticides than would have been used had GM crops not been introduced.”(4)

With regard to herbicides, GM cotton crops were engineered to have a resistance to glyphosate – the primary component in Monsanto’s patented week killer called Roundup.  Roundup is Montsanto’s biggest product, accounting for about 40% of their estimated 2002 revenue of $4.6 billion.  Monsanto sold its GMO seeds under the brand name, “Roundup Ready” because farmers could spray the herbicide directly onto their fields and not have to worry about killing their crop.  The popularity of Roundup Ready crops skyrocketed, and the use of Roundup also skyrocketed.  In the U.S. alone, glyphosate use jumped by a factor of 15 between 1994 and 2005, according to the Center for Food Safety.  That led to a host of  “superweeds” developing a resistance to Roundup.   Farmers were told that in order to combat glyphosate-resistant weeds they’d have to apply other chemicals, often in combination with higher rates of glyphosate.   In 2005, Monsanto recommended farmers use several additional herbicides with Roundup, including Prowl (pendimethalin), metolachlor, diuron and others.    In fact, recent data shows resistance to herbicides in general, and herbicides used in GMO crops in particular, has escalated at exponential rates, according to the International Survey of Herbicide Resistant Weeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth study, cited above: ” When forced to admit that herbicide-tolerant crops increase overall pesticide use, biotech industry apologists quickly fall back on a second claim: the increasing use of glyphosate has reduced use of more toxic herbicides, and so is a benefit to the environment. While this was true in the first few years of Roundup Ready crops, a look at recent trends in herbicide use undermines this claim.”  For instance, 2,4-D is the second most heavily used herbicide on soybeans; it is a herbicide that formed part of the defoliant Agent Orange, and has been associated with health risks such as increased risk of  both cancer and birth defects – and use of 2,4-D more than doubled from 2002 to 2006.  Likewise, use of atrazine (which is linked to endocrine disruption, neuropathy, breast and prostate cancer and low sperm counts) rose by nearly 7 million lbs (a 12% increase).

And according to the Friends of the Earth study,  “It is important to understand two key facts about weed  resistance. First, resistance is defined as a weed’s ability to  survive more than the normal dose of a given herbicide rather than absolute immunity. Higher doses of the herbicide will often still kill the resistant weed, at least in the short term. The  second fact follows from the first. Weed resistance is not only the result of using an herbicide excessively, it often leads to still
greater use of that herbicide.”

And the promised yield increases?  Often, the answer depends on weather and growing conditions rather than types of seed planted.  Average cotton yields in the United States  were stagnant from 1996 (when GM cotton was introduced) to 2002 (when it made up 76% of cotton acerage);  there was a record yield in 2004 and 2005 but these increases were chiefly attributable to excellent weather conditions. (5)   In fact the question is really whether the yield for U.S. cotton is lower than it would have been had it not been Roundup Ready seed! (6)  Other parts of the world had similar or worse results.

Another facet of this discussion should include the fact that GMO seeds are expensive:  in India, Monsanto’s Roundup Ready cotton seed was selling  for twice the price of non-GMO seeds.    GMO seeds cannot be saved and used for next season’s crop.   The high price for the seed led to farmers in India often having to take out loans from moneylenders who charged exorbitant interest rates.  In a poignant article in the New York Times,  Somini Sengupta published a discussion about the rash of suicides by Indian farmers – 17,107 farmers committed suicide in 2003 – and lays the blame on a combination of rural despair and American multinational companies peddling costly, genetically modified seeds.

According to the Friends of the Earth, GM crops do not fulfill their promise.

  1. GM crops do not tackle hunger or poverty.
  2. GM crops increase pesticide use and foster the spread of resistant “superweeds”.
  3. GM crops do not yield more and often yield less than other crops. (7)
  4. GM crops benefit the biotech industry and some large growers, but not small farmers.

But why is the Organic Trade Association and GOTS so adamantly opposed to GMO crops?  Why are European countries like Germany banning the sale and planting of GMO crop?  And why did the American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) release a position  paper calling for a moratorium on genetically modified foods?  That’s next week’s post.

(1) Organic Materials Review Institute, http://www.omri.org/OMRI_GMO_policy.html

(2) Benachour N and Séralini G-E.. Glyphosate formulations Induce Apoptosis and Necrosis in Human Umbilical, Embryonic, and Placental Cells Chem. Res. Toxicol. , 2009, 22 (1), pp 97–105

(3)  GMO Compass; http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/agri_biotechnology/gmo_planting/343.genetically_modified_cotton_global_area_under_cultivation.html

(4)  Qaim, Matin and Zilberman, David, “Yield Effects of Genetically Modified Croops in Dveloping Countries”, Science, 2.7.03

(4) “Who Benefits From GM Crops?”, Friends of the Earth,  issue 112 Agriculture and Food; January 2008, page 7.

(5) Meyer, L., S., MacDonald & L. Foreman, March 2007.  Cotton Backgrounder.  USDA Economic Research Service Outlook Report.

(6) Friends of the Earth, op cit.

(7) “Corn, Soy Yields Gain Little From Genetic Engineering”, Agence France Presse, April 14, 2009