Another concern for vigilant parents

19 11 2014

We live in an environment that is full of chemicals – some which are bad for us and yet are completely natural.   We don’t subscribe to the notion that man-made is absolutely bad and natural is absolutely good – botulism is completely natural and can kill you just as dead. But sometimes we adopt products for our use in ways that can hurt us, because we don’t pay attention to the chemicals that are contained in that product nor of how we use the product. Recently, the crushed up tires that are appearing in playgrounds and as the playfield surface of schools around the country have become an object of concern, so let’s take a look at those.

Discarded rubber tires are the bane of waste management – according to the EPA, we generate 290 million scrap tires each year.[1] Obviously finding a market for these slow-to-decompose materials is desirable, and many innovative uses have been developed, including using ground up tires on playground and sports field surfaces. According to the Synthetic Turf Council, this “crumb rubber has been installed in approximately 11,000 U.S. fields, tracks and playgrounds in the United States.[2] And the California Office of Environmental Health says that recycled rubber tires have become one of the top choice materials for surfacing children’s playgrounds.[3]

Crumb rubber is a black, pellet-like substance the size of a cracker crumb. Run your hand through the field, and you’ll pick up black dust, similar to the consistency of pencil graphite. It’s easy to spread, and can easily get into your mouth, shoes, clothing and nostrils. Routes of exposure, especially in the case of infants, can include dermal absorption, inhalation, and even ingestion directly from the material.

Here’s a story about crumb rubber from NBC news:

Various studies have identified the chemicals found in tires, which are made of 40-60% rubber polymers, carbon black (20-35%), silicas, process and extender oils (up to 28%), vulcanization chemicals and chemical anti-degradents, and plasticizers and softeners. It is well known that rubber tire debris contains toxic compounds such as highly aromatic oils and other reactive additives.[1]

The EPA has identified a number of compounds which may be found in tires, though they’re quick to point out that not all are contained in every tire:[2]

  • heavy metals ( cadmium, chromium, iron, lead, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur, and zinc, which can be as much as 2% of tire mass) – most of which have documented health consequences including damage to the central nervous system.
  • Plasticizers (such as phthalates)- phthalates act as estrogens once absorbed by the body. They are considered endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC’s); conditions associated with EDC’s include infertility; breast, prostate and ovarian cancers; asthma; and allergies.[3]
  • Styrene butadiene – associated with risk of leukemia[4]; known to be genotoxic[5]
  • Benzene – known to be a human carcinogen; also impacts the nervous and immune systems[6]
  • Chloroethane, which causes cancer in mice, is also a neurotoxin[7]
  • Halogenated flame retardants – need we reiterate how these impact human health?
  • Methyl ethyl ketone and methyl isobutyl ketone – there is no evidence of carcinogenicy or mutagenicy but studies show impairment of central nervous system; both are on the Hazardous Substances List by OSHA.[8]
  • Naphthalene – a group C carcinogen (possible human carcinogen); also causes neurological damage.[9]

Another concern is the smell that wafts up from the playing field – like old tires – coupled with the fact that the fields often are 10 – 15 degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, and many of the compounds evaporate at temperatures as low as 77 degrees F. Compounds found to be present in the air in a study done by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station include: [10]

  • Benzothiazole: A skin and eye irritation, harmful if swallowed. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole: A recognized carcinogen, suspected endocrine toxicant, gastrointestinal toxicant, immunotoxicant, neurotoxicant, skin and sense-organ toxicant. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • n-hexadecane: A severe irritant based on human and animal studies. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • 4-(t-octyl) phenol: Corrosive and destructive to mucous membranes. There is no available data on cancer, mutagenic toxicity, teratogenic toxicity, or developmental toxicity.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs): heavy occupational exposure leads to risk of lung, skin or bladder cancers; genotoxic, leading to malignancies and heritable genetic damage in humans. [11] In 2010, the EPA concluded that in the case of PAHs, “breathing PAHs and skin contact seem to be associated with cancer in humans.”[12] The total concentration of PAHs in crumb rubber exceedes the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority’s normative values for most sensitive land use.[13]

A 2012 study analyzing rubber mulch taken from children’s playgrounds in Spain found harmful chemicals present in all, frequently at high levels.[14] Twenty-one samples were collected from 9 playgrounds in urban locations and screened for various pollutants. The results showed that all samples contained at least one hazardous chemical, with most containing multiple PAHs found at high concentrations. The authors concluded that the use of rubber recycled tires on playgrounds “should be restricted or even prohibited in some cases.”[15]

Many, if not most, of the compounds present in tire crumbs and shreds have been incompletely tested for human health effects, so there is no data available to evaluate the chemicals (as evidenced by the four compounds above).

Artificial turf and rubber crumb manufacturers point to the fact that no research has linked cancer to artificial turf – yet most studies add the caveat that more research should be conducted.

According to Dr. Joel Forman, associate professor of pediatrics and preventive medicine at New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, in all these studies, data gaps make it difficult to draw firm conclusions. As he says, “None of [the studies] are long term, they rarely involve very young children and they only look for concentrations of chemicals and compare it to some sort of standard for what’s considered acceptable,” said Dr. Forman. “That doesn’t really take into account subclinical effects, long-term effects, the developing brain and developing kids.” Forman said that it is known that some of the compounds found in tires, “even in chronic lower exposures” can be associated with subtle neurodevelopmental issues in children.

“If you never study anything,” said Dr. Forman, “you can always say, ‘Well there’s no evidence that shows you have a problem,’ but that’s because you haven’t looked. To look is hard.”

Another notable critic of the stuff is Dr. Phillip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, who submitted a letter to the New York City Planning Department last year expressing concerns over the carcinogens in tire crumbs.

He wrote that the principal chemical components of crumb rubber are Styrene and Butadiene — Styrene is neurotoxic, and Butadiene is a proven human carcinogen that has been shown to cause leukemia and lymphoma.

“There is a potential for all of these toxins to be inhaled, absorbed through the skin and even swallowed by children who play on synthetic turf fields,” Dr. Landrigan wrote. “Only a few studies have been done to evaluate this type of exposure risk.”

So if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck…

And as if to add insult to injury, wood chips were found to do a better job of protecting children from head trauma![16]

Remember that children are much more likely to be harmed by exposure to chemicals in their environment than adults because they’re smaller (therefore exposure is greater) and their bodies are still developing. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

  • First – ignore the tire crumb playgrounds and find a good old wood chip or grass site.
  • Teach your children the importance of frequent hand washing as many chemicals enter bodies via the mouth.
  • And persuade local officials to use wood chips rather than recycled rubber.

 

[1] Llompart, Maria et al, “Hazardous organic chemicals in rubber recycled tire playgrounds and pavers”, Chemosphere, Vol. 90, issue 2, January 2013, pages 423-431

[2] http://www.epa.gov/nerl/features/tire_crumbs.html

[3] http://www.everydayexposures.com/toxins/phthalates

[4] Santos-Burgoa, Carlos; “Lymphohematopoietic Cancer in Styrene-Butadiene Polymerization Workers”, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 136, issue 7, pp. 843-854.

[5] Norppa, H and Sorsa, M; “Genetic toxicity of 1,3-butadiene and styrene”, IARC Scientific Publications, 1993 (127): 185-193.

[6] http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/substances/toxsubstance.asp?toxid=14

[7] US Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, “Toxicological Profile for Chloroethane”, December 1998 http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/tp105.pdf

[8] http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1258.pdf; and http://nj.gov/health/eoh/rtkweb/documents/fs/1268.pdf

[9] http://www.epa.gov/ttnatw01/hlthef/naphthal.html

[10]Mattina, MaryJane et al; “Examination of Crumb Rubber Produced From Recycled Tires”, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, 2007, http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/publications/fact_sheets/examinationofcrumbrubberac005.pdf

[11] http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/csem/csem.asp?csem=13

[12] US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs)-Fact Sheet. January 2008. http://www.epa.gov/osw/hazard/wastemin/minimize/factshts/pahs.pdf

[13] Llompart M, Sanchez-Prado L, Lamas JP, Garcia-Jares C, et al. “Hazardous organic chemicals in rubber recycled tire playgrounds and pavers”. Chemosphere. 2012; Article In Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2012.07.053

[14]Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] State of California-Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), Contractor’s Report to the Board. Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track PrRememoducts. January 2007. http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/publications/Documents/Tires%5C62206013.pdf

 

[1] http://www.epa.gov/osw/conserve/materials/tires/basic.htm

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/news/investigations/how-safe-artificial-turf-your-child-plays-n220166

[3] State of California-Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), Contractor’s Report to the Board. Evaluation of Health Effects of Recycled Waste Tires in Playground and Track Products. January 2007. http://www.calrecycle.ca.gov/publications/Documents/Tires%5C62206013.pdf

 

 

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Climate change and extreme weather

23 04 2012

I just saw this powerful video based on a recent editorial by Bill McKibben  in the Washington Post on May 23, 2011.   Narritation is  by Stephen Thomson of Plomomedia.com, who accompanies the piece with striking footage of the events Bill wrote about.





Do we need a national plastics control law?

20 10 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plastics and Human Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action Needed

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

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

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

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




Is it sustainable just because we’re told it is?

22 09 2010

I just tried to find out more about Project UDesign,   a competition sponsored by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), Cargill, Toray Industries and Century Furniture.  The goal is to produce a chair that is both “sustainable and sellable.”  It is targeted to be the next “ eco friendly wing chair” on the market, with the goal of educating the industry and consumers on the topic of sustainable furniture design.[1] Century Furniture has pledged to put the winning chair into production.

Since criteria for the chair design is limited to the use of Cargill’s BiOH® polyols soy foam and Toray’s EcoDesign™ Ultrasuede® upholstery fabric we would like to help Project UDesign reach their goal of educating us on sustainable furniture design by explaining why we think these two products cannot be considered a sustainable choice .  In fact, by sponsoring this competition and limiting the student’s choices to Cargill’s BiOH® polyols (“soy”)  foams and Toray’s EcoDesign™ Ultrasuede® fabrics, it sends absolutely the wrong message to the students and the public about what constitutes an “eco friendly” choice.

So, let’s take a look at these two products to find out why I’m in such a dither:

Beginning with soy foam:   the claim that soy foam is a green product is based on two claims:

  1. that it’s made from soybeans, a renewable resource
  2. that 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 soy accounts for  only 10% of the foam’s total volume. Why?  Given that polyurethane foam is made by combining two main ingredients—a polyol and an isocyanate—in 40/60 ratios (40% is the high end for BiOH® polyols used, it can be as low as 5%), “20% soy based” translates to 20% of the polyol portion, or 20% of the 40% of polyols used to make the foam. In this example the product remains 90% polyurethane foam  ‘based’ on fossil fuels, 10% ‘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: 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’.  In the graphic below, “B-Component” represents the polyol portion of polyurethane, and the “A-Component” represents the isocyanate portion of the polyurethane:

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 because the soy based polyols represent only about 10% of the final foam product, the true energy reduction is only about 4.6% rather than 23%, which is what Cargill leads you to believe in their LCA, which can be read here.   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, so this couldn’t be what is fueling my outrage.

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 petroleum product and a witches brew of carcinogenic and neurotoxic chemicals”, according to Len Laycock of Upholstery Arts.

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 (GMO), 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 rain forest 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” (a white paper by Upholstery Arts),  another sinister side of  soy based foam marketing is brought to light:

“Pretending to offer ‘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”.[2] 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.

As Len Laycock says, “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!”

If you’re still with us, lets turn our attention to Toray’s Ultrasuede, and their green claims.

Toray’s green claim for Ultrasuede is that it is based on new and innovative recycling technology, using their postindustrial polyester scraps, which cuts both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by an average of 80% over the creation of virgin polyesters.

If that is the only advance in terms of environmental stewardship, it falls far short of being considered an enlightened choice, as I’ll list below.

If we  look at the two claims made by the company:

  1. Re: energy reduction:  If we take Toray’s claim that it takes just 25 MJ of energy[3] to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede – that’s still far more energy than is needed to produce 1 KG of organic hemp or linen (10 MJ), or cotton (12 MJ) – with none of the benefits provided by organic agriculture.
  2. CO2 emissions are just one of the emissions issues – in addition to CO2, polyester production generates particulates, N2O, hydrocarbons, sulphur oxides and carbon monoxide, acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane (also potentially carcinogenic).

But in addition to these claims, the manufacture of this product creates many concerns which the company does not address, such as:

  1. Polyurethane, a component of Ultrasuede®, is the most toxic plastic known next to PVC; its manufacture creates numerous hazardous by-products, including phosgene (used as a lethal gas during WWII), isosyanates (known carcinogens), toluene (teratogenic and embryotoxic) and ozone depleting gases methylene chloride and CFC’s.
  2. Most polyester is produced using antimony as a catalyst.  Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin.  Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema.  So, recycled  – or not –  the antimony is still present.
  3. Ethylene glycol (EG) is a raw material used in the production of polyester.  In the United States alone, an estimated 1 billion lbs. of spent ethylene glycol is generated each year.  The EG distillation process creates 40 million pounds of still bottom sludge. When incinerated, the sludge produces 800,000 lbs of fly ash containing antimony, arsenic and other metals.[4] What does Toray do with its EG sludge?
  4. The major water-borne emissions from polyester production include dissolved solids, acids, iron and ammonia.  Does Toray treat its water before release?
  5. And remember, Ultrasuede®  is still  . . .plastic.  Burgeoning evidence about the disastrous consequences of using plastic in our environment continues to mount.  A new compilation of peer reviewed articles, representing over 60 scientists from around the world, aims to assess the impact of plastics on the environment and human health [5]and they found:
    1. Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies.   Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
    2. Synthetics do not decompose:  in landfills they release heavy metals, including antimony, and other additives into soil and groundwater.  If they are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.
  6. Nor does it take into consideration our alternative choices:  that using an organic fiber supports organic agriculture, which may be one of our most underestimated tools in the fight against climate change, because it:
      1. Acts as a carbon sink:   new research has shown that what is IN the soil itself (microbes and other soil organisms in healthy soil) is more important in sequestering carbon that what grows ON the soil.  And compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  demonstrates that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [6]
      2. eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
      3. conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
      4. ensures sustained biodiversity

Claiming that the reclamation and use of their own internally generated scrap is an action to be applauded may be a bit disingenuous.   It is simply the company doing what most companies should do as efficient operations:  cut costs by re-using their own scrap. They are creating a market for their otherwise unsaleable scrap polyester from other operations such as the production of polyester film.  This is a good step by Toray, but to anoint it as the most sustainable choice or even as a true sustainable choice at all is disingenuous. Indeed we have pointed in prior blog posts that there are many who see giving “recycled polyester” a veneer of environmentalism by calling it a green option is one of the reasons plastic use has soared:  plastic use has increased by a factor of 30 since the 1960s while recycling plastic has only increased by a factor of 2. [7]

We cannot condone the use of this synthetic, made from an inherently non-renewable resource, as a green choice for the many reasons given above.

[1] Cargill press release, July 20, 2010  http://www.cargill.com/news-center/news-releases/2010/NA3031350.jsp

[2] http://www.bioh.com/bioh_faqs.html

[3] If we take the average energy needed to produce 1 KG of virgin polyester, 125 MJ (data from “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Enviornemnt Institute) , and reduce it by 80% (Toray’s claim), that means it takes 25 MJ to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede®

[4] Sustainable Textile Development at Victor,  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

[5] “Plastics, the environment and human health”, Thompson, et al, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, July 27, 2009

[6] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

[7] http://www.edf.org/documents/1889_SomethingtoHide.pdf and http://discovermagazine.com/2009/oct/21-numbers-plastics-manufacturing-recycling-death-landfill





Fabric structures for the new millenium

10 03 2010

Here we are in  the 21st century, with its acute global issues of over-population, loss of natural habitat, carbon emissions and pollution of all kinds — in a nutshell the specter of diminishing resources and climate change.   What’s a good architect to do?  Some are saying that fabric structures – that ancient way of providing shelter – is in a unique position to contribute significantly to a more sustainable built environment.  Fabric structures  have a modest carbon footprint, minimal post-construction refuse, daylighting and water-harvesting capabilities,  and are relatively  easy and inexpensive to replace.     According to Thomas Fisher, Dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnestoa, “Living lightly on the land is a key principle of sustainability, and fabric allows for that more effectively than almost any other material.”

Architects are finding new and unique ways of using fabric because there is a not so new polymer in their tool kit:  ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene).  This – some say- is the building material of the future.  It’s a transparent plastic, related to Teflon, and is just 1% the weight of glass, but it transmits more light, is a better insulator and costs 24% to 70% less to install.  It’s also resilient (able to bear 400 times its own weight, with an estimated 50 year life span), is self cleaning (dirt slides off its nonstick surface) and it’s recyclable.

Architects started working with ETFE about 15 years ago, but the material got a boost by being used in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where it’s an integral part of the distinctive designs of both the Beijing National Stadium (called the Bird’s Nest – see photo on right)  and the Aquatics Center (the Watercube, at the left).

ETFE has been described as a sturdier version of plastic cling wrap.  It can be used in sheets or inflated into pillows.  The 750,000 square foot Watercube is the largest ETFE project ever.  It is clad entirely in blue ETFE cushions.  It’s interesting to note that the Watercube is the first time the Sydney, Australia based PTW Architects, who designed the building, had ever used the fabric.  They were that confident.  Some bubbles in the design span 30 feet without any internal framing – a distance that wouldn’t be possible with other materials.

On an aesthetic level, the cushions reinforce the building’s theme. Their pillowy shapes evoke a bubble’s roundness, and their triple-layered construction, which mixes layers of blue film with transparent film, gives the façade a sense of depth and shifting color. And there’s  the fun factor:  ETFE comes in different finishes and colors, and can be lit from within using LED lights or decorated with light projections like a giant movie screen as in the picture.   Once the Olympics  started officials were able to transform the Watercube walls into a giant TV screen showing simultaneous projections of the swimming activities taking place inside.  It can take myriad shapes too: strips can be heat-welded together like fabric squares in a quilt.

But what is ETFE – and what does it mean that it’s related to Teflon?

ETFE was developed by DuPont, working with NASA, as a thermo plastic version of Teflon.  It was designed to have high corrosion resistance and durability to hold up under oppressive cosmic radiation that NASA would expose it to.

But Dr. Stefan Lehnert, a mechanical engineering student at the time, was looking for better foils for the sails on  his sailboat.  He experimented with ETFE and found a transparent, self cleaning, durable and very flexible material with just 1% weight of glass.  It also expands to three times its normal length without losing elasticity and offers shade and insulation control. Dr. Lehnert founded Vector Foiltec in Germany in 1982, where they sold ETFE as the Texlon Foil System.

Today it’s being touted as the new green alternative.  Why?

Affiliates of Brunel University in Middlesex and Buro Happold Consulting Engineers in London did a study of the environmental effects of ETFE manufacture and use for building cladding (it’s primary use).  The study compares ETFE foil cushions to 6 mm glass and concluded the following:

“ETFE foils can improve the environmental performance of a building from two points of view:  there is the opportunity to reduce the overall environmental burden incurred by the construction process itself; and there is also the opportunity to reduce the burden of the building during its lifetime.  This is all dependent, however, on the ability of the architects and engineers to take advantage of both the flexibility and limitations of ETFE foil cushions.”

Using ETFE can accrue LEED points by giving you opportunities for daylighting a structure, reduction of steel for support structures, and it can save on transport costs because of its light weight.  If you reduce the tonnage of steel, and reduce the raw building materials you have a real capacity to lighten up a building.  The Texlon Foil System, according to the company, has low energy consumption during its manufacturing process ,  much of which includes recycled materials.  The film itself is recyclable – the recycling is aided by the absence of additives in the manufacturing process, requiring only the ETFE and heat.    It can also be a tensile structure for renewable energy sources such as photovoltaic panels and provide shade to keep buildings cool in hot climates.

Larry Medlin, professor and director of the School of architecture at the University of Arizona, says:  “Fabric’s multiple capabilities from catching water, trellising plants, daylighting, and providing shade for cooling, are being looked at seriously,” he says. “Fabric can contribute to a regenerative landscape. This is important. It can’t be overlooked.” Medlin also explains that using fabric structures is one way to bring the indoor outside, as in the Edith Ball Center (shown at right), a project that required re-conceptualizing with a more innovative approach. Instead of being enclosed, the Center’s three community pools — lap, therapy and swimming — are under a dynamic, open fabric system that can be adjusted to season and climate.

But what about the material itself?  And is it really recyclable?  There are no life cycle analyses of ETFE that I know of  (please let me know if you’re aware of one and I’ll post it here) so until we know the carbon footprint issues of this product I’m still a bit skeptical, although there seem to be many points in its favor.

ETFE – ethylene tetrafluoroethylene – is a fluorocarbon based polymer, aka “fluoropolymer” – a type of plastic.  We did a blog posting on flurocarbons a few weeks back which can be accessed here. So the material is of the chemical family consisting of a carbon backbone surrounded by fluorine – part of the “Teflon” family of chemicals.  These chemicals as a group are highly suspect, since PTFE (which is the building block for Teflon) has been found to produce PFOA as a by product.  From our blog post:  ” They (perflurocarbons) are the most persistent synthetic chemicals known to man. Once they are in the body, it takes decades to get them out – assuming you are exposed to no more. They are toxic in humans with health effects from  increased chloesterol to stroke and cancer. Alarmed by the findings from toxicity studies, the EPA announced on December 30, 2009, that PFC’s (long-chain perfluorinated chemicals)would be on a “chemicals of concern” list and action plans could prompt restrictions on PFC’s and the other three chemicals on the list.”  The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants states that PFOS is used in some  ETFE production.

ETFE is not a derivative of a petrochemical.   It is  manufactured from fluorspar (CaF2), trichloromethane (CHCl3) – called chlorodifluoromethane (CHF2CL) –  and hydrogen sulfate (HSO4).  Chlorodifluoromethane is a raw material classified as a class II substance under the Montreal Treaty on ozone depleting substances.   Class II substances are scheduled to be phased out but have a later timeline than Class I substances.

The by products formed during ETFE manufacture  are calcium sulfate (CaSO4), hydrogen fluoride (HF) and hydrochloric acid (HCl).  The calcium sulfate and hydrogen fluoride are reused to produce more fluorspar which can be used again as in input into the manufacturing process.

The manufactured ETFE is sold as pellets, which are then heated and extruded into sheets 50 – 200 microns thick.

As one pundit has said: if this is a recyclable product, what chemicals are running off into our water supply?  Do we know what those ETFE chemicals do to humans – not to mention cows, tree frogs or trees –  if ingested?

One thing we DO know about ETFE is that fumes given off at 300 degrees Centigrade cause flu like symptoms in humans, and above 400 degrees C – they’re toxic.  (1)  I have seen articles which say it is combustible and others that say ETFE is considered self extinguishing.  What everyone agrees on is that in the event of a fire, the foil will then shrink  from the fire source, thereby self-venting,   and letting  smoke out of the building.

I can’t make up my mind on ETFE as a sustainable building material.  What do you think?

(1)  .   http://www.buildnova.com/buildnovav3/buildingsystems/TensileFabric/tensilefabric.htm





Organic agriculture and climate change

29 07 2009

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The debate over sustainable agriculture has gone beyond the health and environmental benefits that it could bring in place of conventional industrial agriculture. For one thing, conventional industrial agriculture is heavily dependent on oil, which is running out; and it is getting increasingly unproductive as the soil is eroded and depleted. Climate change will force us to adopt sustainable, low input agriculture to ameliorate the worst consequences of conventional agriculture, and to genuinely feed the world.

And climate change is upon us.  I’m sitting in Seattle experiencing an “historic heat wave” while reading that the Hadley Center of the British Meteorological Organization has said the world’s temperature will increase by 8.8 degrees F rather than 5.8 degrees F this century.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has said we can expect a considerable increase in heat waves, storms, floods, and the spread of tropical diseases into temperate areas, impacting  the health of humans, livestock and crops. It also predicts a rise in sea levels up to 35 inches this century, which will affect something like 30% of the world’s agricultural lands (by seawater intrusion into the soils underlying croplands and by temporary as well as permanent flooding). If the Hadley Center is right, the implications will be even more horrifying: Melting of the Antarctic, the Arctic, and especially the Greenland ice-shields is occurring far more rapidly than was predicted by the IPCC. This will reduce the salinity of the oceans, which in turn  weakens (if not diverts) oceanic currents such as the Gulf Stream from their present course . And if that continues, it would eventually freeze up areas that at present have a temperate climate, such as Northern Europe.

According to the Institute of Science in Society, “It is becoming clear that climate change and its different manifestations (as mentioned above) will be the most important constraints on our ability to feed ourselves in the coming decades. We cannot afford to just sit and wait for things to get worse. Instead, we must do everything we can to transform our food production system to help combat global warming and, at the same time, to feed ourselves, in what will almost certainly be far less favorable conditions.”

But before we tackle the question of how best to feed ourselves during these “less favorable” times: how can organic agriculture help with global warming?

It’s generally assumed that various Greenhouse Gases (GHG) are responsible for
global warming and climate change.   On a global scale, according to a study commissioned by IFOAM, agriculture has been responsible for approximately 15% of all GHG emissions:

  • 25% of all CO2 emissions come from agriculture
  • 60% of CH4 (methane) emissions come from agriculture
  • 80% of N2O (nitrous oxide) emissions  come from agriculture

About 60% of the CO2 emissions from human and animal activities is absorbed by the oceans and plants; the remaining 40% builds up in our atmosphere.    So what to do about the 40% that’s building up in our atmosphere?  Where can it be stored?

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In  looking at ways to “defuse” this CO2 build up, scientists began looking at carbon “sinks”.  Carbon sinks are natural systems that suck up and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The main natural carbon sinks are plants, the ocean and soil. Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis; some of this carbon is transferred to soil as plants die and decompose. The oceans are a major carbon storage system for carbon dioxide. Marine animals also take up the gas for photosynthesis, while some carbon dioxide simply dissolves in the seawater.

Initially forests were thought to be the most efficient way to sequester (or absorb) this carbon.  It was thought that escalating fossil fuel consumption could be balanced by vast forests breathing in all that CO2.   But  these sinks, critical in the effort to soak up some of our greenhouse gas emissions, may be maxing out, thanks to deforestation, and human-induced weather changes that are causing the oceanic carbon dioxide “sponge” to weaken.

New data is beginning to show that it may be that the soil itself makes more of a difference (in terms of carbon sequestration)  than what’s growing on it.  On a global scale, soils hold more than twice as much carbon as does vegetation (1.74 trillion tons for soil vs. 672 billion tons for vegetation) – and more than twice as much as is contained in our atmosphere.

The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST), launched in 1981, is a 12 acre side by side experiment comparing three agricultural management systems: one conventional, one legume-based organic and one manure-based organic.  In 23 years of continuous recordkeeping,  the FST’s two organic systems have shown an increase in soil carbon of 15 – 23%, with virtually no increase in non-organic systems.

carbonsoil

This soil carbon data  shows  that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions. [2]

But although it is well established that organic farming methods sequester atmospheric carbon, researchers have yet to flesh out the precise mechanisms by which this takes place.   One of the keys seems to be in the handling of organic matter – while conventional agriculture typically depletes organic matter, organic farming builds it thru the use of composed animal manures and cover crops.  In the FST, soil carbon levels increased more in the manure-based organic system than in the legume-based organic system, presumably because of the incorporation of manures, but the study also showed that soil carbon depends on more than just total carbon additions to the system–cropping system diversity or carbon-to-nitrogen ratios of inputs may have an effect. “We believe that the differences in decay rates [of soil organic matter] have a lot to do with it,” says Hepperly, since “soluble nitrogen fertilizer accelerates decomposition” in the conventional system.

The people at Rodale put the carbon sequestration argument into an equivalency we can all understand: think of it in terms of the number of cars that would be taken off the road each year by farmers converting to organic production.  Organic farms sequester as much as 3,670 pounds of carbon per acre-foot each year. A typical passenger car, according to the EPA, emits 10,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year (traveling an average of 12,500 miles per year). Here’s how many cars farms can take off the road by transitioning to organic:  car

U.S. agriculture as currently practiced emits a total of 1.5 trillion pounds of CO2 annually into the atmosphere. Converting all U.S. cropland to organic would not only wipe out agriculture’s massive emission problem, but by eliminating energy-costly chemical fertilizers, it would actually give us a net increase in soil carbon of 734 billion pounds.

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.  In addition to emitting fewer GHGs while sequestering carbon, organic agriculture uses less energy for production.  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.

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming:

  • 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.[3] 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.

And actually, it seems that modern industrial agriculture is on the way out.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) admitted in 1997 that wheat yields in both Mexico and the USA had shown no increase in 13 years  – blamed on the fact that fertilizers are becoming  less and less effective, as are pesticides.   The farmers are losing the battle.  Conventional agrochemical use (which includes many highly toxic substances) also has many immediate human impacts:  documented cases of short term illnesses, increased medical costs and the build up of pesticides in human and animal food chains.  The chemicals also contaminate the drinking and ground water.  And industrial agriculture is far too vulnerable to shortages in the availability of fuel and to increases in the price of oil.

That’s a lot to think about when looking for your next T shirt, so before you plunk down your money for another really cool shirt,  think about what you  will be getting in exchange.


[1] I should point out that although “sinks” in vegetation and soils  have a high
potential to mitigate increases of CO2 in the atmosphere, they are not
sufficient to compensate for heavy inputs from fossil fuel burning.  The long-term solution to global warming is simple:  reduce our use of fossil fuel, somehow, anyhow!
Yet the contribution from agriculture  could buy time during which
alternatives to fossil fuel can take affect – especially if that agricultural system is organic.

[2] http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/files/Rodale_Research_Paper-07_30_08.pdf

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





Cotton is a good way to buy oil.

21 07 2009

Provocative title, isn’t it?  But I didn’t say it, the statement comes from Jim Rogers, one of the world’s most successful investors and co-founder of the Quantum Fund (with George Soros) from which he retired in 1980.  Since then he has been a college professor, world traveler, author, economic commentator and creator of the Rogers International Commodities Index.  And now, Jim Rogers says he’s investing in agriculture.

Jim Rogers is looking at cotton as a commodity (and an investment strategy), based on the fact that almost everything has some dependence on energy prices, based on  the embodied energy of the product.  He bases his decision on the fact that so many textiles today are made from synthetics – which come from oil.  Since the price of oil is going up (and will likely continue to go up) the price of synthetics is also going up.  So textile makers are reverting to natural fibers.  Cotton is the most popular natural fiber in the world, and the cotton – oil connection is both direct (through the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides), and indirect  (land formerly used to grow cotton can be shifted to other production to feed ethanol demand).  As Jim Rogers says,  “I hadn’t thought of this cotton-oil connection before, and it’s drawing these connections before others do that makes a great investor.”

If we are going to “reduce our dependence on foreign oil” (as the government likes to put it), shouldn’t we be looking at agriculture?  Dr. Albert Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at Colorado University, Boulder, has said that the definition of “modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food”.

I checked the web – and agriculture is really an energy hog.  According to the website Food and Water Watch:

  • 20% of the fossil fuel used in the US goes toward food production.
  • This inefficient system spends 10,551 quadrillion joules of energy each year – about the same as used by all of France.
  • The US EPA reported that US agriculture is responsible for the same amount of CO2 emissions per year as 141,000,000 cars.  Emissions DOUBLE when electricity usage is included.

Kenneth Watt, on the very first Earth Day in 1970, said that our very existence is dependent on the massive import of energy into industrial agriculture from petroleum, natural gas and coal – and this massive energy use creates a “fossil fuel subsidy”:  that means the use of petroleum has enabled fewer farmers to produce much more food on less land, so the population can grow.

Petroleum-based agriculture has reduced the proportion of the US population engaged in agriculture from about 50% about 75 years ago to less than 2% today.  In other words, the average American farmer feeds lots of people, as well as having enough left over to ship abroad. Petroleum also lets Floridians eat salmon from Alaska, and Alaskans enjoy orange juice from Florida. Between 1950 and 1970, the last 11 million horses were taken out of American agriculture and replaced by tractors powered by crude oil. Since it takes very roughly four times the acreage to support one horse as a person, this means we have been able to add 44 million people to the American population [in those twenty years] for that one cause alone, because of a fossil fuel subsidy.

According to Kenneth Watt, “mankind is embarked on an absolutely immense gamble. We are letting the population build up and up and up, by increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth for people, using a crude-oil energy subsidy, on the assumption that there’s no inherent danger in this because when the need arises we’ll be able to get ultimate sources of energy.”

But what happens if we don’t have alternate sources of energy,  when the oil crunch appears?  As oil production declines, prices will rise – especially commodities – and most especially food.

So how can organic agriculture help us with this dire picture.  You’ll be surprised!  Check in next week.