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.