Our oceans and your textile choices

23 02 2011

I just don’t know what it takes to change people’s habits.  We need a huge wake up call about the disastrous state of our oceans!  Our oceans are our life support system.  And they’re in trouble.

Because this is a blog about textile issues, I wanted to remind you that  the textile industry is the world’s #1 industrial polluter of fresh water.    So remember that  each time you choose a fabric that has been processed conventionally, in a mill which does not treat its wastewater, you’re  adding to the problem.  We’re all downstream.  And please also remember that a fabric marked “organic cotton” – though decidedly better than conventional cotton – is still a fabric which is 27% synthetic chemicals by weight,  processed at a mill which returned the untreated, chemically infused effluent to our oceans.

Sorce: NOLA.com

People once assumed that the ocean was so large that all pollutants would be diluted and dispersed to safe levels. But in reality, they have not disappeared – and some toxic man-made chemicals have even become more concentrated as they have entered the food chain.

Tiny animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton in the oceans, absorb the chemicals as they feed. Because they do not break down easily, the chemicals accumulate in these organisms, becoming much more concentrated in their bodies than in the surrounding water or soil. These organisms are eaten by small animals, and the concentration rises again. These animals are in turn eaten by larger animals, which can travel large distances with their even further increased chemical load.

Animals higher up the food chain, such as seals, can have contamination levels millions of times higher than the water in which they live. And polar bears, which feed on seals, can have contamination levels up to 3 billion times higher than their environment.

Some scientists describe the chemical change in the ocean as throwing evolution into reverse: the chemical composition is going back toward the “primordial soup,” favoring the simplest organisms – indeed, algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked –  and threatening or eliminating the more complex.  There are so many jellyfish in the ocean that many fisheries have given up their normal catch and are just harvesting jellyfish.[1] Clickhere to view Jellyfish Gone Wild by the National Science Foundation.  In fact, according to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, these most primitive organisms are exploding:  it’s a ‘rise of slime’ as one scientist calls it.   It’s killing larger species and sickening people.

Los Angeles Times report  in 2006 (click here to read the entire article)  sounds like something from a horror movie:  A spongy weed, reported to grow at 100 square meters per minute – literally fast enough to cover a football field sized area in an hour – has been plaguing fishermen in Australia.  The culprit, it was found, is a strain of cyanobacteria known as Lyngbya majuscula, an ancestor of modern-day bacteria and algae that flourished 2.7 billion years ago.  It has since shown up in at least a dozen places around the globe. It thrives in oxygen depleted water.   Once established, Lyngbya creates its own nitrogen fertilizer from decaying parts of the plant.

Many fishermen in Moreton Bay avoid working in the four months every year that Lyngbya clogs their waters because it is highly toxic to them.  When fishermen touch it, their skin breaks out in searing welts.  Their lips blister and peel.   As the weed blanketed miles of Moreton Bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air.

After one man bit a fishing line in two, his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn’t eat solid food for a week.

Scientists in labs studying the bacteria couldn’t even be in the same room with it, the smell was so pungent.  It’s like “The Blob” come to life.

Scientist Jeremy Jackson says that we have forgotten the basic rule of thumb:  “Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make sure the filter is working.”

And to add insult to  our ocean’s injury, the number of dead zones – where there is so little oxygen only microbes can survive – has doubled every 10 years since the 1960s [2].  In 2008, there were 400 dead zones [3].   So does that make you worry?  It should.   This is an example of what mathematicians call “exponential growth”, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really impact us until we’re about to be kicked in the teeth.

To demonstrate the concept, there is an old story about a king who was presented with a gorgeous handmade chessboard by one of his subjects.  The king was delighted, and asked what the man wanted in return.  The courtier surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four grains on the third etc. The king readily agreed and asked for the rice to be brought.   But there was not enough rice in the world to fill the courtier’s request (see note below) – the total amount of rice required would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.   This is about  460 billion tons, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth’s biomass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And to see how the problem can become critical overnight (because according to the laws of exponential growth, the larger the quantity becomes, the faster it grows):  Imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. We want to save the pond, so we check the lilies every day.   Yet day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. But the pond doesn’t becomes half covered until day 29 – leaving just one day to save the pond.  (4)

This concept has even led to the phrase “second half of the chessboard”, which refers to a point where an exponentially growing factor begins to have a significant impact.

So this news about the ocean dead zones – you might think that a dead zone the size of the state of Oregon is no big deal, but the area is growing exponentially.  How many years do we have until we reach the second half of the chessboard?

We must stop messing up our oceans.   If not for yourself, do it for your children. “You wouldn’t let a child open up a cabinet under the sink and start tasting the chemicals down there,” Fabien Cousteau says. “So why would you dump those chemicals down the drain and have them end up on your plate, which you then feed to your child?” (5)

NOTE regarding rice on the chessboard:

The total number of grains of rice on the first half of the chessboard is 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 + 128 + 256 + 512 + 1024 … + 2,147,483,648, for a total of exactly 232 − 1 = 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, or about 100,000 kg of rice, with the mass of one grain of rice being roughly 25 mg.

The total number of grains of rice on the second half of the chessboard is 232 + 233 + 234 … + 263, for a total of 264 − 232 grains of rice. This is about 460 billion tonnes, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth biomass.

On the 64th square of the chessboard there would be exactly 263 = 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice. In total, on the entire chessboard there would be exactly 264 − 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.


[2] Diaz, Robert J., and Rosenberg, Rutger, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems”, Science, August 2008.

[3] http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/08/ocean-dead-zones-increasing-400-now-exist.php

(4)  Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972) The Limits to Growth. New York: University Books. ISBN 0-87663-165-0

(5)  http://www.oprah.com/world/Ocean-Pollution-Fabien-Cousteaus-Warning-to-the-World/4

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More reasons to find a replacement for polyester.

22 06 2009

plastic trap The mass of  debris in the photo is, apparently, a tiny part of what the Wall Street Journal reports is afloat in the Pacific.   Nobody really knows how big it is:   “Some say it is about the size of Quebec, or 600,000 square miles — also described as twice the size of Texas. Others say this expanse of junk swept together by currents is the size of the U.S. — 3.8 million square miles. Or, it could be twice that size.”

Called The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s a mass of floating plastic.  Nobody seems to be able to agree on the size, or even whether the plastic is dangerous or serving a function.   Plastics can harm ocean birds and mammals who eat it, because they carry toxins, can pierce internal organs and can trick animals into thinking they are full. But hard numbers are tough to come by. “It’s so hard to say a bird died due to plastic in its stomach,” says Holly Bamford, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine-debris program. “We have seen birds mature and live out their whole life, and necropsies show plastic in their stomach.”  On the other hand, David Karl, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii, says that the plastics have a high concentration of microorganisims clinging to them which are producing oxygen.

Polyester, or PET, is  a major component of this trash because PET is the major component of beverage containers (like bottled water).  But most PET (60% of global production) is used to make fibers and textiles.  In addition to the fact that this polyester remains in our oceans and landfills for around 1,000 years, it’s a very expensive way to spend our energy resources:

Polyester production, running at around 50 million tons  per year, consumes about 104 million barrels of oil for production (and that doesn’t include the energy needed for transportation).

We have called for research into substitutes for polyester fabrics and still insist that we  (a people which have sent men to the moon, after all) should be able to find a substitute for our plastic obsession.  Recycled polyester seems to have been crowned the Queen of Green by decorative fabrics distributors because it is claimed that by recycling the polyester we can have a lighter footprint.  I’ve outlined our arguments against that in other posts, not least of which is the fact that there are no workable takeback programs in place.

The argument in favor of recycling is that if consumers have an “easy” way to recycle their plastic, and are educated and reminded on the need to do so, most will, resulting in a cleaner environment.   However, Americans recycle only about 20% of their plastic bottles – and this in a nation where it’s relatively easy to throw a used bottle into a recycling container.   What percentage of fabrics do you think will be torn off sofas or delivered to a recycling facility?  How many project managers will tear out banquettes and order the separation of the fabric from the wooden frame?

Add to those arguments the fact that there has been a history of corporations collecting plastics and sending them overseas to be processed, such as the famous case of Pepsi Cola exporting tons of PET bottles to India in the 1990s.  This case amounts to an indictment of much of what passes for recycling in the United States and elsewhere – putting the plastic waste out of sight, out of mind.  The plastics industry is exporting their waste to less industrialized countries, avoiding domestic regulations, avoiding community opposition to waste handling facilities, paying their workers pennies a day, and maintaining a “green” image at home.  People in developed countries can lower their ecological guilt by depending on environmental injustice in Asia.  This is not recycling; this is, at best, a type of reprocessing that delays the eventual dumping of the plastic.  And at worst it encourages consumers to buy more plastic because their environmental concerns are lessened by the promise that the goods are being recycled.