Antimony in fabrics

6 02 2013

antimonySynthetic fibers are the most popular fibers in the world – 65% of the world’s production of fibers are synthetic, and 35% are natural fibers. (1) Fully 70% of those synthetic fibers are polyester. There are many different types of polyester, but the type most often produced for use in textiles is polyethylene terephthalate, abbreviated PET. Used in a fabric, it’s most often referred to as “polyester” or “poly”. It is very cheap to produce, which is the primary driver for its use in the textile industry.

The majority of the world’s PET production – about 60% – is used to make fibers for textiles; and about 30% is used to make bottles. Think about that for a moment – bet you didn’t realize that those bottles that we’re all being told to recycle make up just 30% of PET production! Annual PET production requires 104 million barrels of oil – that’s 70 million barrels just to produce the virgin polyester used in fabrics.(2) That means most polyester – 70 million barrels worth – is manufactured specifically to be made into fibers, NOT bottles. Of the 30% of PET which is used to make bottles, only a tiny fraction is recycled into fibers. But the idea of using recycled bottles – “diverting waste from landfills” – and turning it into fibers has caught the public’s imagination. There are many reasons why using recycled polyester (often called rPET) is not a good choice given our climate crisis, but today’s post is concentrating on only one aspect of polyester: the fact that antimony is used as a catalyst to create PET. We will explore what that means.

Antimony is present in 80 – 85% of all virgin PET. Antimony is a carcinogen, and toxic to the heart, lungs, liver and skin. Long term inhalation causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The industry will say that although antimony is used as a catalyst in the production process, it is “locked” into the finished polymer, and not a concern to human health. And that’s correct: antimony used in the production of PET fibers becomes chemically bound to the PET polymer so although your PET fabric contains antimony, it isn’t available to your living system. (3)

So what’s the concern? Antimony is leached from the fibers during the high temperature dyeing process. The antimony that leaches from the fibers is expelled with the wastewater into our rivers (unless the fabric is woven at a mill which treats its wastewater). In fact, as much as 175ppm of antimony can be leached from the fiber during the dyeing process. This seemingly insignificant amount translates into a burden on water treatment facilities when multiplied by 19 million lbs each year – and it’s still a hazardous waste when precipitated out during treatment. Countries that can afford technologies that precipitate the metals out of the solution are left with a hazardous sludge that must then be disposed of in a properly managed landfill or incinerator operations. Countries who cannot or who are unwilling to employ these end-of-pipe treatments release antimony along with a host of other dangerous substances to open waters.

But what about the antimony that remains in the PET fabric? We do know that antimony leaches from PET bottles into the water or soda inside the bottles. The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says that the antimony in fabric is very tightly bound and does not expose people to antimony, (4) as I mentioned earlier. So if you want to take the government’s word for it, antimony in PET is not a problem for human health – at least directly in terms of exposure from fabrics which contain antimony. (Toxics crusader William McDonough has been on antimony’s case for years, however, and takes a much less sanguine view of antimony. (5) )

Antimony is just not a nice thing to be eating or drinking, and wearing it probably won’t hurt you, but during the production process it’s released into our environment. Recycling PET is a high temperature process, which creates wastewater tainted with antimony trioxide – and the dyeing process for recycled PET is problematic as I mentioned in an earlier post. Another problem occurs when the PET (recycled or virgin) is finally incinerated at the landfill – because then the antimony is released as a gas (antimony trioxide). Antimony trioxide has been classified as a carcinogen in the state of California since 1990, by various agencies in the U.S. (such as OSHA, ACGIH and IARC) and in the European Union. And the sludge produced during PET production (40 million pounds in the U.S. alone) when incinerated creates 800,000 lbs of fly ash which contains antimony, arsenic and other metals used during production.(5)

So the continued use of polyester exposes our environment (and remember, the “environment” means you and me) to more antimony, which is a heavy metal and not good for us. So if we care about leaving a liveable planet for our children, we should pay attention to the types of fibers we’re supporting.

(1) “New Approach of Synthetic Fibers Industry”, Textile Exchange,
(2) Polyester, Absolute and Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water, Gleick and Cooley, Feb 2009,
(3) Shotyk, William, et al, “Contamination of Canadian and European Bottled waters with antimony from PET containers”, Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 2006.


Beyond natural fibers

11 07 2012

It looks like the plastic bottle is here to stay, despite publicity about bisphenol A and other chemicals that may leach into liquids inside the bottle. The amount of plastic used to make the bottles is so enormous that estimates of total amount of plastic used is staggering. says that over 2,456 million pounds of PET was available for recycling in the United States in 2009. Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of bottles.
Those bottles exist – they’re not going away, except perhaps to the landfill. So shouldn’t we be able to use them somehow?
We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year ( to read them, click here, here, and here ) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics. All in all, plastic recycling is not what it’s touted to be. Even if recycled under the best of conditions, a plastic bottle or margarine tub will probably have only one additional life. Since it can’t be made into another food container, your Snapple bottle will become a “durable good,” such as carpet or fiberfill for a jacket. Your milk bottle will become a plastic toy or the outer casing on a cell phone. Those things, in turn, will eventually be thrown away.
So the reality is that polyester bottles exist, and using them any way we can before sending them to the landfill will prevent the use of more crude oil, which we’re trying to wean ourselves from, right? Recycling some of them into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than land filling them.
Plastic bottles (the kind that had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post-consumer recycled polyester”. Even though plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise, recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers. So manufacturers, in their own best interest, have promoted “recycled polyester” as the sustainable wonder fabric, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.
Recycled post consumer polyester is made from bottles – which have been collected, sorted by hand, and then melted down and formed into chips, sometimes called flakes. These chips or flakes are then sent to the yarn spinning mills, where they’re melted down, often mixed with virgin polyester, and and spun into yarn, which is why you’ll often see a fabric that claims it’s made of 30% post consumer polyester and 70% virgin polyester, for example.

But today the supply chains for recycled polyester are not transparent, and if we are told that the resin chips we’re using to spin fibers are made from bottles – or from industrial scrap or old fleece jackets – we have no way to verify that. Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from. So the yarn/fabric could be virgin polyester or it could be recycled. Many so called “recycled” polyester yarns may not really be from recycled sources at all because – you guessed it! – the process of recycling is much more expensive than using virgin polyester. Unfortunately not all companies are willing to pay the price to offer a real green product, but they sure do want to take advantage of the perception of green. So when you see a label that says a fabric is made from 50% polyester and 50% recycled polyester – well, (until now) there was absolutely no way to tell if that was true.
Along with the fact that whether what you’re buying is really made from recycled yarns – or not – most people don’t pay any attention to the processing of the fibers. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that the fabric (which is identified as being made of 100% recycled polyester) is really made from recycled polyester. But unless they tell you specifically otherwise, it is processed conventionally.
What does that mean? It can be assumed that the chemicals used in processing – the optical brighteners, texturizers, dyes, softeners, detergents, bleaches and all others – probably contain some of the chemicals which have been found to be harmful to living things. In fact the chemicals used, if not optimized, may very well contain the same heavy metals, AZO dyestuffs and/or finish chemicals that have been proven to cause much human suffering.
It’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true? The weaving, however, uses the same amount of water (about 500 gallons to produce 25 yards of upholstery weight fabric) – so the wastewater is probably expelled without treatment, adding to our pollution burden. And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% of the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case? There is no guarantee that the workers who produce the fabric are being paid a fair wage – or even that they are working in safe conditions. And finally there are issues specific to the textile industry:

  • The base color of the recyled chips varies from white to creamy yellow. This makes it difficult to get consistent dyelots, especially for pale shades, necessitating more dyestuffs.
  • In order to get a consistently white base, some dyers use chlorine-based bleaches.
  • Dye uptake can be inconsistent, so the dyer would need to re-dye the batch. There are high levels of redyeing, leading to increased energy use.
  • PVC is often used in PET labels and wrappers and adhesives. If the wrappers and labels from the bottles used in the post-consumer chips had not been properly removed and washed, PVC may be introduced into the polymer.
  • Some fabrics are forgiving in terms of appearance and lend themselves to variability in yarns, such as fleece and carpets; fine gauge plain fabrics are much more difficult to achieve.

As the size of the recycled polyester market grows, we think the integrity of the sustainability claims for polyesters will become increasingly important. There has not been the same level of traceability for polyesters as there is for organically labeled products.

But now there is now a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues. The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), originated by Control Union and now administered by Textile Exchange (formerly Organic Exchange), is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn, with the important added dimension of prohibiting certain chemicals, requiring water treatment and upholding workers rights, holding the weaver to standards similar to those found in the Global Organic Textile Standard:

  • Companies must keep full records of the use of chemicals, energy, water consumption and waste water treatment including the disposal of sludge;
  • All prohibitied chemicals listed in GOTS are also prohibited in the GRS;
  • All wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • There is an extensive section related to worker’s rights.

The GRS provides a track and trace certification system that ensures that the claims you make about a product can be officially backed up. It consists of a three-tiered system: Gold standard – products contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material;Silver standard – products contain between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product;Bronze standard – products have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

I have long been concerned about the rampant acceptance of recycled polyester as a green choice when no mention has been made of processing chemicals, water treatment or workers rights, so we welcome this new GRS certification, which allows us to be more aware of what we’re really buying when we try to “do good”.

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

[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;

[4] Chandler Slavin, “Bio-based resin report!” Recyclable Packaging Blog May 19, 2010 online at

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

Polyester and our health

13 10 2011

Polyester is a very popular fabric choice – it is, in fact, the most popular of all the synthetics.  Because it can often have a synthetic feel, it is often blended with natural fibers, to get the benefit of natural fibers which breathe and feel good next to the skin, coupled with polyester’s durability, water repellence and wrinkle resistance.  Most sheets sold in the United States, for instance, are cotton/poly blends.

It is also used in the manufacture of all kinds of clothing and sportswear – not to mention diapers, sanitary pads, mattresses, upholstery, curtains  and carpet. If you look at labels, you might be surprised just how many products in your life are made from polyester fibers.

So what is this polyester that we live intimately with each day?

At this point, I think it would be good to have a basic primer on polyester production, and I’ve unabashedly lifted a great discussion from Marc Pehkonen and Lori Taylor, writing in their website

Basic polymer chemistry isn’t too complicated, but for most people the manufacture of the plastics that surround us is a mystery, which no doubt suits the chemical producers very well. A working knowledge of the principles involved here will
make us more informed users.

Polyester is only one compound in a class of petroleum-derived substances known as polymers. Thus, polyester (in common with most polymers) begins its life in our time as crude oil. Crude oil is a cocktail of components that can be separated by industrial distillation. Gasoline is one of these components, and the precursors of polymers such as polyethylene are also present.

Polymers are made by chemically reacting a lot of little molecules together to make one long molecule, like a string of beads. The little molecules are called monomers and the long molecules are called polymers.

Like this:

O + O + O + . . . makes OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Depending on which polymer is required, different monomers are chosen. Ethylene, the monomer for polyethylene, is obtained directly from the distillation of crude oil; other monomers have to be synthesized from more complex petroleum derivatives, and the path to these monomers can be several steps long. The path for polyester, which is made by reacting ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid, is shown below. Key properties of the intermediate materials are also shown.

The polymers themselves are theoretically quite unreactive and therefore not particularly harmful, but this is most certainly not true of the monomers. Chemical companies usually make a big deal of how stable and unreactive the polymers are, but that’s not what we should be interested in. We need to ask, what about the monomers? How unreactive are they?

We need to ask these questions because a small proportion of the monomer will never be converted into polymer. It just gets trapped in between the polymer chains, like peas in spaghetti. Over time this unreacted monomer can escape, either by off-gassing into the atmosphere if the initial monomers were volatile, or by dissolving into water if the monomers were soluble. Because these monomers are so toxic, it takes very small quantities to be harmful to humans, so it is important to know about the monomers before you put the polymers next to your skin or in your home. Since your skin is usually moist,
any water-borne monomers will find an easy route into your body.

Polyester is the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals shown in the flowchart above. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden
that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 at Tufts Medical School in Boston by
    research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991)[1].
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives (1995).[2]
  • Commentary published in Environmental Health Perspectives in April 2010 suggested that PET might yield endocrine disruptors under conditions of common use and recommended research on this topic. [3]

These studies support claims that plastics are simply not good for us – prior to 1940, breast cancer was relatively rare; today it affects 1 in 11 women.  We’re not saying that plastics alone are responsible for this increase, but to think that they don’t contribute to it is, we think, willful denial.  After all, gravity existed before Newton’s father planted the apple tree and the world was just as round before Columbus was born.

Polyester fabric is soft, smooth, supple – yet still a plastic.  It contributes to our body burden in ways that we are just beginning to understand.  And because polyester is highly flammable, it is often treated with a flame retardant, increasing the toxic load.  So if you think that you’ve lived this long being exposed to these chemicals and haven’t had a problem, remember that the human body can only withstand so much toxic load – and that the endocrine disrupting chemicals which don’t seem to bother you may be affecting generations to come.

Agin, this is a blog which is supposed to cover topics in textiles:   polyester is by far the most popular fabric in the United States.  Even if made of recycled yarns, the toxic monomers are still the building blocks of the fibers.  And no mention is ever made of the processing chemicals used to dye and finish the polyester fabrics, which as we know contain some of the chemicals which are most damaging to human health.

Why does a specifier make the decision to use polyester – or another synthetic –  when all the data points to this fiber as being detrimental to the health and well being of the occupants?  Why is there not a concerted cry for safe processing chemicals at the very least?


[3]  Sax, Leonard, “Polyethylene Terephthalate may Yield Endocrine Disruptors”,
Environmental Health Perspectives, April 2010, 118 (4): 445-448

Polyester – to recycle or not to recycle?

12 01 2011

I know it’s hard to imagine that the lovely fabric you’re eyeing for that chair – so soft and supple and luxurious – is just another plastic.

But because 60% of all polyethylene terephalate (PET – commonly called polyester) manufactured globally is destined to be made into fibers to be woven into cloth,  and because  polyester absolutely dominates the market, and because the textile industry has adopted using recycled polyester as their contribution to help us fight climate change, I think it’s important that we keep up with topics in recycling plastic.

”A Tribute to PET Bottles“ by Czech Sculptor Veronika Richterová

If using recycled polyester is good, then using “post consumer” PET bottles  is deemed the highest good.  But an interesting thing is happening with PET bottles and recycling, according to a study published in August, 2010, by SRI Consulting, which is, according to their web site,  the world’s leading business research service for the global chemical industry (  The study, PET’s Carbon Footprint: To Recycle or Not to Recycle, caused more than a few ripples because it concluded that in many cases recycling bottles is no better — and could be worse — than landfilling.
The study’s key finding — widely reported — is that a recycling facility needs to recover at least 50 percent of the material it takes in if it is to achieve a more environmentally favorable carbon footprint than simply disposing directly to landfill.  The key is to improve yields , especially in sorting and to a lesser extent, in reprocessing.

This study addresses two key questions:

  • should we recycle plastics?
  • what are the carbon footprints of virgin (vPET)  and recycled PET (rPET)

In order to calculate the carbon footprint of various PET products, the study  calculated the carbon footprint for PET bottles used to package drinks from “cradle to grave,” i.e., extending from production of raw materials (primarily oil and gas) through to disposal of all wastes. The study considers a base case—bottles are used by consumers in northwest Europe, collected in a curbside system and sent on for sorting and recycling—and variations on that theme, including PET-only take-back (as currently practiced in Switzerland) as well as no recycling (with scenarios of “all landfill” and “all incineration”). Sensitivities of all major variables were assessed.

The study concludes that the curbside take-back systems are no better than landfill, in terms of carbon footprint. From a carbon-emissions standpoint, it would be just as well to bury used bottles as to recycle them, and either would be a better option than burning them.  The study found that landfilling PET bottles from certain systems rather than incinerating them could reduce carbon footprint by 30%.  Call it “carbon capture and storage” on an economy budget.  The key is to have the room – and if you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded you may be hard pressed to agree that there could ever be anyplace on the planet with room!

SRI report author Eric Johnson told that transportation and processing costs, as well as low yields of pure PET (of below 50 per cent) from curbside recycling collections such as Germany’s DSD ‘Green Dot’ programme,  warranted SRI’s conclusion. (read article here)

Johnson said: “In terms of resource squandering [of oil in particular], if it takes more resources to recycle bottles …  than to produce units from virgin PET then this is irresponsible. If you’re going to recycle…do it properly.”

Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the UK Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, concurred with Johnson’s point that rPET purity was a significant hindrance to worthwhile recycling, given that it affected recoverable PET levels: “Quality of recyclate is a big issue because the energy costs to separate out contaminants and clean the polymer are significant,” she said. (1)

As you might expect, there was a bit of an uproar over the study.

Casper van den Dungen,  EuPR PET working group chairman,  condemned SRI Consulting’s report:  “By applying SRI Consulting’s results we would …  lose valuable [rPET] material in landfills. The model used is intrinsically wrong, as in reality landfill should be avoided as a starting principle.”  (2)

Antonio Furfari from EuPR added: “The wrong signal is that landfill is good for environment. Landfilling is not acceptable for environmental and resources efficiency reasons, and CO2 is not the only environmental variable.” (3)

And yet, Jane Bickerstaffe had this comment: “It’s worth noting that landfilling inert materials like PET is just like putting back the sand, granite etc. that was dug out of a hole in the ground in the first place.  Inert materials are benign, whereas biodegradable materials such as cabbage leaves and potato peelings generate methane in landfill and have a negative impact on climate change.” (4)

The findings of this study hinge on how the plastics are collected.  Recycling programs using curbside collection typically displace less than 50% of new PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Community programs with plastic bottle take-back, mandated separate collection, or deposits on bottles tend to report much higher displacement rates. For regions that already have a recycling infrastructure, the aim should be to boost recycled PET (rPET) displacement of virgin PET (vPET) significantly above 50%.   The key seems to be in increasing yields rather than improving collection rates.  In countries where there is no recycling infrastructure, the best choice may well be to landfill bottles.”

It seems to me that, in consideration of “should we recycle plastics”  –  the answer is (as it almost always is): “it depends”.   Should we use only carbon footprint as a yardstick?  Sometimes you have to pull back and take in the big picture; as one blogger put it, “It’s unconscionable to pay out the nose for foreign oil so that we can produce more soda bottles to package up products that make our population fat and unhealthy.”

And how does all that trash get into the oceans?  How does that figure into this equation?

Hey, I never promised answers.

(1)  Bouckley, Ben; “Plastic recycling body slams report advising countries to landfill PET bottles”,, September 2, 2010

(2)  Ibid.

(3)  Ibid.

(4)  Ibid.

Plastics – part 1

28 04 2010

Philosopher George Carlin once said,   “Man is only here to give the planet something it didn’t have:   Plastic.”

And man has done well:  plastic is ubiquitous in our world today and the numbers are growing.   We produce 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.

The production and use of plastics has a range of environmental impacts. Plastics production requires significant quantities of resources:  it uses land and water, but the primary resource is fossil fuels, both as a raw material and to deliver energy for the manufacturing process. It is estimated that 8% of the world’s annual oil production is used as either feedstock or energy for production of plastics.

Plastics production also involves the use of potentially harmful chemicals, which include cadmium, lead, PVC, and other pollutants which are added as stabilizers, plasticizers or colorants. Many of these have not undergone environmental risk assessment and their impact on human health and the environment is currently uncertain.  Finally, plastics manufacture  produces waste and emissions. In the U.S., fourteen percent of airborne toxic emissions come from plastics production.  The average plastics plant can discharge as much as 500 gallons of  wastewater per minute – water contaminated with process chemicals.  (The overall environmental impact varies according to the type of plastic and the production method employed.)

Every second, 200 plastic bottles made of virgin, non-renewable resources are land-filled – and every hour another 2.5 million bottles are thrown away.  And though I can’t get a definitive answer about whether the plastics decompose (because although they don’t biodegrade they do photodegrade – when exposed to UV radiation, over time they break down into smaller and smaller bits, leaching their chemical components), most sources, if they do accept that plastic can degrade, admit that nobody knows how long it really takes because most plastics have only been around for 50 years or so  –  but estimates range into the thousands of years.   (To read how scientists make estimates for plastic decomposition rates, click here. )

How do we cope with this plastic onslaught?

Recycling is the most widely recognized concept in solid waste management – and the environmental benefits of recycling plastic are touted elsewhere.  I’ll just give you the highlights here:

  • It reduces the amount of garbage we send to landfills:  Although plastic accounts for only 8% of the waste by weight, they occupy about 20% of the volume in a landfill due to their low bulk density.
  • It conserves energy:  recycling 1 pound of PET conserves 12,000 BTUs of heat energy; and the production of recycled PET uses 1/3 less energy than is needed to produce virgin PET.
  • It reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It helps conserve natural resources.

But it should be remembered that some items are much better candidates for recycling than others.  Aluminum recycling, for example, uses 95% less energy than producing aluminum from bauxite ore, and aluminum cans can be recycled into new aluminum cans.  There is no limit to the amount of times an aluminum container can be recycled. The PET bottle, which is used for everything from water to wine,  was patented in 1973 – that’s only 27 years ago!  Prior to that most bottles were of glass.  Glass, like aluminum,  is infinitely recyclable.  As late as 1947, virtually 100% of all beverage bottles were returnable; and states with bottle deposit laws have 35 – 40% less litter by volume.  I found this image while looking for Earth Day anniversary images, and think it’s a great example of how corporations will slant anything to their purposes.  (Please note that the company in question is Coca Cola – I’ll have a lot to say about Coke’s recycling efforts in 2010 in upcoming blog posts):

There are different costs and benefits for other recyclable items: plastic, paper, electronics, motor oil… They each have their own individual problems.

With reference to the textile industry, 60% of all the virgin polyethelene terephthalate (PET) produced globally is used to make fibers, while only 30% goes into bottle production.  As I explained in a previous blog,  the textile industry has adopted recycled polyester as the fiber of choice to promote its green agenda.   What I want to do is expose this choice for what it is: a self-serving attempt to convince the public that a choice of a recycled polyester fabric is actually a good eco choice – when the reality is that this is another case of expediency and greed over any authentic attempts to find a sustainable solution.  My biggest complaint with the industry’s position is that there is no attempt made to address the question of water treatment or of chemical use during dyeing and processing of the fibers.

So to begin, let’s look at what plastic recycling means, since there are many misconceptions about recycling plastic – especially plastic bottles from which (some) recycled polyester yarns are made.

In 1970, at the time of the first Earth Day, Gary Anderson won a contest sponsored by Container Corporation of America to present a design which symbolizes the recycling process.  His winning design  was a three-chasing-arrows Mobius loop, with the arrows twisting and turning among themselves.   Because of the symbol’s simplicity and clarity it became widely used worldwide and is a symbol now recognized  by almost everyone.  Today almost all plastic containers have the “chasing arrows” symbol.  We’re bombarded with that symbol – any manufacturer worth his salt slaps it on their products.

But the symbol itself is meaningless.  This symbol is not a government mandated code, and does not imply any particular type or amount of recycled content.  Many people think that the “chasing arrows” symbol means the plastic can be recycled – and that too is untrue.

The only useful information in the “chasing arrows” symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. There are thousands of types of plastic used for consumer packaging today. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry devised a numbering system  to aid in sorting plastics for recycling, because in order to be recycled,  each plastic container must be separated by type before it can be used again to make a new product. Of the seven types, only two kinds, polyethelene terephthalate (PET), known as #1, and High Density Polyethelyne (HDPE) – or #2 –  are typically collected and reprocessed.   Some of these resins are not yet recyclable at all (such as #6 or 7), or they’re recyclable only rarely.

In addition, a resin code might indeed indicate #1 (PET) for example, but depending on the use (yogurt cup vs. soda bottle) it will contain different dyes, plasticizers, UV inhibitors, softeners, or other chemicals.
This mix of additives changes the properties of the plastic, so not all #1 resins can be melted together – further complicating the process.  Here’s a list of the seven resin codes and some of the concerns associated with each:

Consumers see the symbol and  – thinking it means the plastic can be recycled – drop bottles into recycling bins, feeling they’ve “done their part” and that the used bottle is now part of the infinite loop, becoming a new and valued product.  But does the bottle actually get “recycled”, returning to a high value product, staying out of the garbage dump?

Well, uh, . . .  not really.  Collecting plastic containers in a recycling bin fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers.  In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers are being made into containers again, but rather into new secondary products, like textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products.  “Recycled’ in this case merely means “collected.”

A bottle can become a fabric, but a fabric can’t become a bottle – or even another fabric, but we’ll get to that later.  There are far too few exceptions to this rule.

Plastic has what’s called a “heat history”: each time it gets recycled the polymer chains break down, weakening the plastic and making it less suitable for high end use.  PET degrades after about 5 melt cycles.  This phenomenon, known in the industry as “cascading” or “downcycling,” has a troubling consequence.    It means that all plastic – including the tiny proportion that finds its way into another bottle – “will eventually end up in the landfill,” said Jerry Powell, editor of Plastics Recycling Update.

The technology exists to recycle most kinds of plastic, but a lack of infrastructure prevents all but the most widespread kinds of plastic from being recycled.  Collection is expensive because plastic bottles are light yet bulky, making it hard to efficiently gather significant amounts of matching plastic.  For recycling to work, communities must be able to cost effectively collect and sort plastic, and businesses must be willing to accept the material for processing. So no matter whether a particular plastic is in a form which allows it to be melted and reused, something is only recyclable if there is a company out there who is willing to use it to make a new product. If there is no one who will accept the material and make a new product out of it, then it is not recyclable.

Only a few kinds of plastic have the supply and market conditions that make recycling feasible. With plastics in particular, how the plastic particles are put together (molded or extruded) changes their chemical make up and make them non recyclable in certain applications. Some bottles make it to a recycler, who must scramble to find a buyer.  The recycler  often ends up selling the bottles at a loss to an entrepreneur who makes carpeting or traffic strips – anything but new bottles.

Recycling reduces the ecological impact of plastic, but it remains more complicated, more expensive and less effective than other parts of the recycling industry. No matter how many chasing arrows are printed on plastic products, it doesn’t change the fact that plastic is largely a throwaway material.

Next week:   what is the plastic industry doing to create a stronger recycling market for its product?

Greenwashing and textiles

29 12 2009

I have been saying for years that fabric is the forgotten product.  People just don’t seem to care about what their fabric choices do to them or to the environment.  (Quick, what fiber is your shirt/blouse made of?  What kinds of fibers do you sleep on?)   They are too busy to do research, or they’re gullible – either way they decide to believe claims made by many product manufacturers.  And I can’t really blame them, because the issues are complex.

Green products are proliferating so quickly (the average number of “green” products per store almost doubled between 2007 and 2008, according to TerraChoice’s Greenwashing Report 2009) and adding so many new consumer claims that the term “greenwash” (verb: the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service) has become part of most people’s vocabulary.    In the area of fabrics, the greenwashing going on has led the FTC to make the publication of its new Green Guide on textiles a priority.

Incidences of greenwashing are going up, and that means increased risk:

  • Consumers may be misled into purchases that do not deliver on their environmental promise.
  • Illigetimate environmental claims will take market share away from products that offer legitimate benefits, thereby slowing the spread of real environmental innovation.
  • Greenwashing will lead to cynicism and doubt about all environmental claims.  Consumers may just give up.
  • And perhaps worst of all – the sustainability movement will lose the power of the market to accelerate real progress towards sustainability.

The first step to cleaning up greenwashing is to identify it, and Kevin Tuerff (co-founder of the marketing consultancy EnviroMedia) and his partners have hit on an innovative way to spotlight particularly egregious examples. They’ve launched the Greenwashing Index,  a website that allows consumers to post ads that might be examples of greenwashing and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5–1 is a little green lie; 5 is an outright falsehood.  This hopefully teaches people to be a bit more cautious about the claims they hear.  Read more about greenwashing here.

TerraChoice published its six sins of greenwashing in 2007 but added a seventh sin in 2009.  Let’s look at these sins:

1)      The Sin of Worshiping False Labels:  a product that (through words or images) gives the impression of third-party endorsement or certification where none really exists; basically fake labels.  Examples:

  1. Using the company’s own in-house environmental program without further explanation.
  2. Using certification-like images with green jargon including “eco-safe”, “eco-preferred”.

I’ve begun to see examples of products which claim to be certified to the GOTS standard  (Global Organic Textile Standard) – but the reality is that the fiber is certified to the GOTS standard while the final fabric is not.  There is a big difference between the two.  And the GOTS-certifying agencies have begun to require retailers to be certified – to keep the supply chain transparent because there have been so many incidences of companies substituting non- GOTS products for those that actually received the certification.

2)      Sin of the Hidden Trade-off:  a claim suggesting that a product is “green” based on a narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.  The most overused example of this is with recycled content of fabrics – a textile is advertised as “green” because it is made of x% recycled polyester.  Other important environmental issues such as heavy metal dyes used, whether the polyester is woven with other synthetics or even natural fibers  (thereby contributing to other environmental degredation), the fact that plastic is not biodegradeable and contains antimony or bisphenol A  may be equally important.  Cargill Dow introduced it’s new Ingeo fiber with much fanfare, saying that it is based on a renewable resource (rather than oil).  Missing entirely from Cargill Dow’s press materials is any acknowledgement of the fact that the source material for these products is genetically engineered corn, designed by one of Cargill Dow’s corporate parents, Cargill Inc., a world leader in genetic engineering.  (See our blog postings on genetic engineering dated 9.23 and 9.29.09) That’s a potentially huge problem, since millions of consumers around the world and several governments have rejected the use of genetically engineered (GE) products, because of the unforeseen consequences of unleashing genetically altered organisms into nature.

3)      Sin of No Proof:  An environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.  Google organic fabric and you can find any number of companies offering “organic and natural fabrics” with no supporting documentation.   And the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals really took exception to this claim:

4)      Sin of Vagueness:  a claim so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer. ‘All-natural’ is an example. Arsenic,  mercury, and formaldehyde are all naturally occurring, used widely in textile processing,  and poisonous. ‘All natural’ isn’t necessarily ‘green’. Hemp is a fabric that has been expertly greenwashed, as most people have been led to focus on the fact that it grows in a manner that it is environmentally friendly. Few realize that hemp is naturally made into rope and that it requires a great deal of chemical softening to be suitable for clothing or bed linen.  Or this ad from Cotton Inc.:

5)      Sin of Irrelevance:  An environmental claim that may be truthful but is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.  The term “organic” is the most often used word in textile marketing – and what does it really mean?  Organic, by definition, means carbon-based, so unless the word “organic” is coupled with “certified” the term is meaningless.  But even “certified organic” fiber can cause untold harm during the processing and finishing of the fabric – think of turning organic apples into applesauce (adding Red Dye #2, stabalizers, preservatives, emulsifiers) where the final result cannot be considered organic APPLESAUCE even though the apples started out as organic. It is said that the amount of “organic cotton” supposedly coming out of India far outweighs the amount of organic cotton actually being grown. It is common practice for vendors to call a batch of cotton “organic”, if minimal or no chemicals have been used, even if no certification has been obtained for the fiber. It’s also generally understood that certification can be “acquired”, even if not earned.

6)      Sin of Lesser of Two Evils:  A claim that may be true within the product category, but that risks distracting the consumer from the greater environmental impacts of the category as a whole.  Again, the use of recycled polyester as a green claim distracts from the greater environmental impact that plastics have on the environment,  the much greater carbon footprint that any synthetic has compared to any natural fiber,  the antimony used in polyester production, the fact that polyesters are dependent on non renewable resources for feedstock…the list goes on.

7)      Sin of Fibbing:  just what it says – environmental claims that are simply false.

I’d like to add an additional sin which I think is specific to the textile industry: that of a large fabric company touting it’s green credentials because it has a “green” collection  (sometimes that “green” collection is anything but) – but if you look at the size of the green collection and compare it to conventional offerings, you’ll find that maybe only 10% of the company’s fabrics have any possible claim to “green”.  Is that company seriously trying to make a difference?