When is recycled polyester NOT recycled polyester?

23 03 2011

Fabric might be the only product I can think of which is known by its component parts, like cotton, silk, wool.  These words usually refer to the fabric rather than the fiber used to make the fabric.  We’ve all done it: talked about silk draperies, cotton sheets.  There seems to be a disassociation between the fibers used and the final product, and people don’t think about the process of turning cotton bolls or silkworm cocoons or flax plants into luxurious fabrics.

There is a very long, involved and complex process needed to turn raw fibers into finished fabrics.  Universities award degrees in textile engineering,  color chemistry or any of a number of textile related fields.  One can get a PhD in fiber and polymer science,  or study the design, synthesis and analysis of organic dyes and pigments.  Then there is the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists (AATCC) which has thousands of members in 60 different countries.  My point is that we need to start focusing on the process of turning raw textile fiber into a finished fabric – because therein lies all the difference!

And that brings me to recycled polyester, which has achieved pride of place as a green textile option in interiors.  We have already posted blogs about plastics (especially recycled plastics) last year (on 4.28.10, 5.05.10 and 5.12.10) so you know where we stand on the use of plastics in fabrics.  But the reality is that polyester bottles exist,  and recycling some of them  into fiber seems to be a better use for the bottles than landfilling them.

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 any kind of  polyester  –  we have no way to verify that.  Once the polymers are at the melt stage, it’s impossible to tell where they came from, because the molecules are the same.  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.   And 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, there is absolutely no way to tell if that’s true.

Some companies are trying to differentiate their brands by confirming that what they say is recycled REALLY is from recycled sources.  Unifi, which supplies lots of recycled resins and yarns, has an agreement with Scientific Certification Systems to certify that their Repreve yarns are made from 100% recycled content.  Then Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain to verify that if Repreve is in a product , that it’s present in the right amounts.  But with this proprietary information there are still many questions Unifi doesn’t answer – the process is not transparent.  And it applies only to Unifi’s branded yarns.

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.  That means that the chemicals used during 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.  The processing 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 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.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  They assumed that this would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring (all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap!).

But now, Ecotextile News‘ suggestion has become a reality.   There is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard (GRS), issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn. 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 with the Gold standard requiring products to contain between 95 percent to 100 percent recycled material; the Silver standard requires products to be made of between 70 percent to 95 percent recycled product; and the Bronze standard requires products to have a minimum of 30 percent recycled content.

And – we think this is even more important –  in addition to the certification of the recycled content, the GRS looks at the critical issues of processing and workers rights.  This new standard holds the weaver to similar standards as 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 health and safety.

Is Ultrasuede® a “green” fabric?

8 09 2010

In 1970, Toray Industries colleagues Dr. Toyohiko Hikota and Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto created the world’s first micro fiber as well as the process to combine those fibers with a polyurethane foam into a non-woven structure – which the company trademarked as Ultrasuede®.

In April 2009,  Toray announced “a new  environmentally responsible line of products which are based on innovative recycling technology”, called EcoDesign™.    An EcoDesign™ product, according to the company press release, “captures industrial materials, such as scrap polyester films, from the Toray manufacturing processes and recycles them for use in building high-quality fibers and textiles.”

One of the first EcoDesign™ products to be introduced by Toray is a variety of their Ultrasuede®  fabrics.

So I thought we’d take a look at Ultrasuede® to see what we thought of their green claims.

The overriding reason Toray’s EcoDesign™ products are supposed to be environmentally “friendly” is because recycling postindustrial polyesters reduces both energy consumption and CO2 emissions by an average of 80% over the creation of virgin polyesters, according to Des McLaughlin, executive director of Toray Ultrasuede (America).   (Conventional recycling of polyesters generally state energy savings of between 33% – 53%.)

If that is the only advance in terms of environmental stewardship, we feel it falls far short of being considered an enlightened choice.  If we just look at the two claims made by the company:

  1. Re: energy reduction:  If we take the average energy needed to produce 1 KG of virgin polyester, 125 MJ[1], and reduce it by 80% (Toray’s claim), that means it takes 25 MJ to produce 1 KG of Ultrasuede® –  still far more energy than is needed to produce 1 KG of organic hemp (2 MJ), linen (10 MJ), or cotton (12 MJ).
  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,[2] acetaldehyde and 1,4-dioxane (also potentially carcinogenic).[3]

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 it’s 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.
  1. 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 un-useable 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  premature. 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:     indeed 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.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again:  The trend to eco consciousness in textiles represents major progress in reclaiming our stewardship of the earth, and in preventing preventable human misery.  You have the power to stem the toxic stream caused by the production of fabric. If you search for and buy an eco-textile, you are encouraging a shift to production methods that have the currently achievable minimum detrimental effects for either the planet or for your health. You, as a consumer, are very powerful. You have the power to change harmful production practices. Eco textiles do exist and they give you a greener, healthier, fair-trade alternative.

What will an eco-textile do for you? You and the frogs and the world’s flora and fauna could live longer, and be healthier – and in a more just, sufficiently diversified, more beautiful world.

[1]“Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Enviornemnt Institute

[2] “Ecological Footprint and Water Analysis of Cotton, Hemp and Polyester”, by Cherrett et al, Stockholm Environment Institute

[3] Gruttner, Henrik, Handbook of Sustainable Textile Purchasing, EcoForum, Denmark, August 2006.

[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

Plastics – part 3: even more about why recycling is not working

12 05 2010

I was going to go on to other subjects, but just saw in the Seattle Times that the whale that washed up on a West Seattle beach last month was discovered to have 3.2 lbs. of garbage in its belly – including 20 plastic bags and 37 other  kinds of plastic (read entire article here.)

If you’ve been reading my posts for the past two weeks (On 5.5.10 and 4.28.10), it has hopefully dawned on you that we have a dilemma with regard to plastic:   Recycling presents problems, yet not recycling hardly seems an option.  Whether you see plastic as a boon or a bane, plastic is the fastest-growing portion of our waste stream and now makes up the second-largest category by volume (next to paper) of trash going into our landfills, according to a draft report prepared for the California Integrated Waste Management Board called the “Plastics White Paper.”

Eco Nature Care did a post on plastic recycling, and highlighted many of the reasons recycling isn’t catching on in this country.  I’ve copied the post below (and you can read it here):

Plastics make up 17.8 % by volume  of what’s thrown into California landfills. While consumers are increasingly snapping those Evian bottles off the shelves, they toss the empties into the trash bin more often than the recycling bin. The recycling rate for plastic bottles is only 16 percent — miserably low compared to glass and aluminum — even though consumers can redeem their used plastic bottles for the same CRV (California Refund Value) rate as other containers.

California cities and counties have an incentive to recycle as much material as possible. A 1989 law requires that municipalities reduce the trash they send to landfills by 50%  or face hefty fines.

Diversion, then, becomes the magic word. But from the point of view of recyclers, accepting some types of plastic is more trouble than it’s worth. For example, plastics coded 3 through 7 — cottage cheese, tofu, salsa and yogurt containers — are particularly difficult to recycle profitably. So why take these additional containers at all, especially when their volume is low? According to Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center, the answer is public pressure.

“I fought it. There are no domestic markets for it. At a point you get tired of being harangued by people coming in trying to quote unquote “do the right thing.’”  They don’t want to throw anything away, he said, and that’s all well and good. But a more appropriate position might be, “I shouldn’t buy it in the first place,” he suggested.

The plastics trail

The plastics collected at the Arcata sites are baled and stored for about a month until they fill a 12-ton truckload, Loughmiller said. The truck typically contains 5 tons of milk bottles (the number 2s), 7 tons of soda and water bottles (the number 1s), and about three-quarters of a ton of the so-called “mixed plastics,” the 3s through 7s, which are baled together.

They then make their way to Ming’s Recycling in Sacramento (which also takes all of the plastics from Humboldt Sanitation in McKinleyville). Kenny Luong, president of Ming’s, said his center has 40 or 50 suppliers in California and another 30 to 40 elsewhere in the United States and Canada. Almost all of the plastics that come into Ming’s are sold to brokers in Hong Kong, who pay to transport it via container ship from the Port of Oakland to China. The transport is cheap because China exports far more to the United States than we do to them; the ships traveling back to China have plenty of room.

The mixed plastics don’t make Luong very much money, he said, which explains why the cities of Arcata and Eureka get nothing for their mixed plastic bales. (A ton of milk jugs, by contrast, pays about $200; a ton of soda bottles, $160.)

“It’s enough to cover the transport to the harbor, that’s pretty much it,” Luong said of the mixed plastics. He would prefer not to take those at all. But a change to state law in 2000 expanded the list of beverages included in the California Redemption Value program. And if the bottle has a “CRV” on it — even if it’s a number 3 or 4 plastic — a certified recycling center must accept it and pay the refund to the consumer.

“It’s really a pain in the butt,” Luong said. “There aren’t a whole lot, but we are required to purchase them by law. It prompted us to find a market for it.”

That market, it turns out, consists of recyclers in Shanghai and Guangdong province. Luong said he has never seen the China facilities and knows little about them. “Once it’s loaded on the ship, it’s out of my hands.”

Recycling in Guangdong

One of his brokers has visited some of the locations in China where plastics from Humboldt end up. Doug Spitzer is the owner of Monarch Enterprises of Santa Cruz, which is affiliated with the gargantuan paper company Boise Cascade. He sells plastics to Chinese recyclers and ran a plastic film-recycling factory himself outside of Guangdong in the early 1990s.

“Most of our material goes through Hong Kong into that closest province [to Hong Kong], which is Guangdong,” Spitzer said. One factory will typically limit itself to one type of plastic, and one village might have most of its residents involved in that type of recycling, he said.

“Within this one town outside of Guangzhou [in Guangdong province], when I was there, my partners were telling me there were at least 3,000 plastic film processors there, and they’re right next door to each other. It’s a small village; they all process it.” The facilities range from a mom-and-pop operation that takes one container-load per month to very large, comparatively modern factories.

One Spitzer saw when he visited four years ago involved soda bottles: The workers would break open the bales, women would sort the bottles by color, a “guy with a machete” cut the tops off, two other men scraped labels off, then the bottles were ground into pellets and melted down. 

It was not the kind of place that would be approved by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Spitzer said.

“OSHA would go nuts. The place is noisy, it’s crowded, it’s just amazing. Not that they’re killing people off. They’re safe, and all the time we were running the factory there were no major accidents,” he said. “Do people engage in unsafe practices to try to make a living? Yeah, all over the world.”

He said his current business provides a valuable service. “What I’m doing is I’m supplying a raw material that can go to a Third World country.”

There are some facilities in the United States that recycle soda bottles and milk jugs “if the material is clean enough,” said Luong of Ming’s Recycling. But the market for recycled plastic makes it difficult, if not impossible, for recyclers to make any money. The reasons are many. Since plastic is made from petroleum, virgin plastic makers have a large supply of raw material available to them. When manufacturers can buy virgin plastic pellets or flakes for about the same amount of money as recycled plastic, there is little incentive to use recycled (the italics are mine!).

There are also limits to the products that can be made from recycled plastic. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not allow food containers to be made into new food containers because they can’t be heated at temperatures high enough to sterilize them. (The FDA has said it will allow a layer of recycled plastic sandwiched between layers of virgin plastic in soda bottles.)

A numbers game

Plastic recyclers must also face the issue of contamination. Recycling the number 1 (PET) plastics — the soda bottles — could work economically were it not for the number 3s that enter the mix, said Peter Anderson, a recycling consultant in Madison, Wis., who has worked with state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state of California. Number 3 plastics are polyvinyl chloride, or PVC for short.

“PVC presents enormous problems because it looks just like PET physically,” Anderson said. “A single bottle of PVC will contaminate the entire [10,000-bottle] load” aesthetically, causing the new PET bottles made with the material to be yellowed or, with more contamination, to have black streaks, he said. There are X-ray scanning machines that can detect the PVC intruders, but those are too expensive for many recyclers.

“You can’t make plastics recycling work with PVC in the mix,” Anderson said. So, he argued, taking the 3 through 7 plastics makes no economic sense. “Who the hell knows what China’s doing with them? I don’t think anyone can make a case without a smirk on their face that they’re recycling 3 through 7s.”

He called the idea of recycling all plastics “a serious mistake.”

Some recyclers take the 3 through 7 plastics because, they reason, they’ll get more of the “good stuff” — the soda bottles and milk bottles — if they advertise that they accept a wider range of recyclables. Eel River Disposal in Fortuna, for example, accepts numbers 1, 2 and 3, which they send to Smurfit Recycling in Oakland.

Eel River owner Harry Hardin said he doesn’t collect enough of the number 3s to make a separate bale with it, so he bales it with the number 2s. “I even put some 4s in there,” he said.

Asked about the PVC contamination problem, Hardin said, “It depends what market you send it into. Smurfit’s — I’m not quite sure what they do with theirs. But they will allow some number 3 and 2 together.”

Not so, said Don Kurtz, plant manager for Smurfit in Oakland. “If we identify that there are 3s in there, we reject the bale,” he said. Eel River was recently told to come and get one of their bales that was turned away for that very reason. “We really don’t want number 3s. It really doesn’t make sense for us to mess with it.” (Unlike Ming’s, Smurfit is not legally bound to take any particular recyclables because the company is classified as a “processor,” not a recycling facility.)

Another Humboldt County recycler sells his material to a middleman in a different part of the state. The man, who did not want to be identified, said he does not collect enough 3 through 7 numbered plastics to bale them separately, so he mixes them with the bales for the numbers 1 and 2. “Don’t advertise that,” he said. “It’s garbage plastic, but a lot of people like to recycle it.” His company then sells it to a broker who sends it overseas.

“If they’re putting it in with the PET [number 1s], I guarantee they’re getting thrown out,” said the broker, Patty Moore of the Sonoma-based Moore Recycling Associates.

Destination landfill

All in all, plastic recycling appears to fall far short of its promise. 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.

“With plastics recycling, we’re just extending the life of a material. We’re not creating a perpetual loop for that material,” like we do with glass and aluminum recycling, said Loughmiller, the Arcata recycling director.

“I think people really need to have a reality check on plastics,” said Puckett of the Basel Action Network. “The mantra has been, `divert from the landfill.’ What we’ve been saying is, divert to what? Dump it on the Chinese? Plastics recycling needs to be looked at with a jaundiced eye,” he said. “It’s not what it’s touted to be.”

If you’ve ever looked on the bottom of your plastic juice bottle,  detergent bottle or tofu tub, you’ve seen the little triangle of arrows with a number inside. That symbol — contrary to popular belief — does not indicate that a container is recyclable.

Back in 1988, “the trade groups managed to get into law the resin [type of plastic] identification,” said Mark Loughmiller, executive director of the Arcata Community Recycling Center. The numbers indicate which category of plastic the container is made from.

“The triangled arrows imply recyclability,” Loughmiller said. “The plastic industry denied it was trying to mislead the public and cause confusion.” But that’s what happened, he said. People regularly come to his center and demand to know why their plastic lawn chair with a number on the bottom can’t be recycled.

And why can’t it? Because, even in one category, such as plastics labeled with a number 2 (high density polyethylene or HDPE), there are many variations. Milk jugs and yogurt containers, for example, may both be made with HDPE, but because the recycling process requires melting of the old containers, and they melt at different temperatures, they may be incompatible.

Our finite pool of worry

14 04 2010

Earth Day is coming up and I am having a hard time with climate change.  It’s such a big, complicated issue.  Climate change, according to Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED),  is  inherently abstract, scientifically complex, and globally diffused in causes and consequences.  People have a hard time grasping the concept, let alone taking action.  What can one person do to have an impact on such an overriding problem?

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Research shows that most Americans are  aware of climate change and even rank it as a concern,  but they don’t perceive it on a par with, say, the economic downturn or health care reform.   According to CRED,  most Americans do not currently associate climate change with disastrous impacts, such as drought, extreme weather events, and coastal flooding. And although most people can recite at least a few things they could do to help mitigate global climate change (like replacing light bulbs or carrying  reuseable grocery bags) – most are not doing them.

I’m ashamed to say,  I’m in that category.  I forget my grocery bags.  I use the car when I should really walk.  I  wash dishes by hand rather than using the dishwasher.  (What’s that?  Did you know that a running faucet can waste 2.5 gallons of water every minute!  So if I do the dishes by hand and it takes me 15 minutes, I’ve just wasted 37.5 gallons of water.  It’s better for me to run the dishwasher  – which uses only 11 gallons of water per use – even if it isn’t full. But I’m an old dog and habits die hard.)    It’s not easy, is it?  Don’t you just feel like throwing up your hands?

I’m faced with decisions every day in our fabric collection that could have far reaching effects – for example, a supplier wants to know if it’s o.k. to use the mill which has antiquated water treatment because that mill is closer (thereby reducing the energy needed for transport) and, not least, they’re cheaper!  There it is again –   Cost.  The bottom line in most decisions.  And if we decide to go with the sub optimal water treatment,  we might gain a cost advantage (so YOU might buy the fabric) but what will it mean in terms of the health of our children and the kind of world we leave them?

Each day I do more research into the effects that synthetic chemicals are having on us and our environment.  It chills me and I really believe that we’re causing ourselves harm.  We’re playing Russian roulette with the chemical mix we allow in our systems – thinking that since we’re not sick now it’s really nothing we have to worry about.   I absolutely believe that long term effects of our love affair with synthetic chemicals will be profound and that we must do something to stem the tide.  I proselytize to expectant mothers (I can’t help myself) about using organic fabrics and mattresses for their infants and themselves – because much of the research shows exposure in utero is when the most harm can be done.  But research also shows that future consequences are discounted, so people think they’ll just put off thinking of this until they have more time.

I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that we still behave in destructive ways – we don’t buy organic foods because it costs more (and it’s not gonna kill us – tomorrow, anyway),  we forget our reuseable grocery bags and we don’t take the time to replace light bulbs.  It’s like losing weight or exercising – we know it’s good for us, but we still don’t do it.

A report entitled The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, released  by CRED, looks at how people process information and decide to take action …  or not.  It seems people can deal with only so much bad news at a time before they tune out.   Social scientists call this the “finite pool of worry”.   And for really big threats like climate change, people are likely to alleviate their worries by taking only one action, even if it’s in their best interest to take more than one action.

For Americans, recycling has become the catchall green measure, the one action that anybody can do and feel that they’re doing something.  As with every action, there are costs and benefits.  The recycling of some products, such as computers and other electronics, creates a more severe strain on the environment that do other types of products, such as newsprint.  Again, even this topic is so fraught with subtleties and variety that dissecting it is hard.

I’d like to focus on plastics because the textile industry has concentrated sustainability efforts on recycled polyesters – many fabric collections claim green credentials because certain of their fabrics are made of recycled, rather than virgin, polyester.  And we all smile and pat ourselves on the back because we’re doing something – and hey, it doesn’t even cost any more.

Polyester is just one of the many plastics that are in use today;  plastic recycling – bottles, packaging, bags – has been adopted  as the mascot of our green efforts – as one school program says, it “teaches children social responsibility and reinforces learning to respect and take care of the environment”.   But what does plastic recycling really accomplish?

Stay tuned.

Issues with using recycled polyester

31 03 2010

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.   Plastic bottles (which had been used for some kind of consumer product) are the feedstock for what is known as “post consumer recycled polyester”.  Recycled polyester, also called rPET, is now accepted as a “sustainable” product in the textile market.   In textiles, most of what passes for “sustainable” claims by manufacturers have some sort of recycled polyester in the mix, because it’s a message that can be easily understood by consumers – and polyester is much cheaper than natural fibers.

The recycled market today has lots of unused capacity – as well as great potential for growth, because the recycling rates in many high consumption areas (like Europe and the USA) are low but growing.   In Europe, collection rates for bottles rose to 46% of all PET bottles on the market, while in the US the rate is 27%.   Factories are investing in technology and increasing their capacity – so the demand is huge.  According to Ecotextile News, beggars in China will literally stand watching people drink so that they can ask for the empty bottle.

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 labelled products.  According to Ecotextile News, this is due (at least in part) to lack of import legislation for recycled goods.

When you buy a fabric that claims it’s made of 100% post consumer polyester – how do you know that the fibers are 100% post consumer?  Is there a certification which assures us that the fibers really are what the manufacturer says they are?  And it’s widely touted that recycling polyester uses just 30 – 50% the energy needed to make virgin polyester – but is that true in every case?  And what about water use – it’s widely thought that water use needed to recycle polyester is low, but who’s looking to see that this is true?

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 and (if not used at 100% rates) mixed with virgin polyester.   A fabric made of “recycled polyester” has a designated percentage of those chips in the polymer.  The technology has gotten so sophisticated that it’s now difficult to verify if something is really recycled.

First, let’s look at how the recycled polyester is used in textiles, beyond the issue of whether the recycled PET yarns actually ARE spun from recycled feedstock,  because there are several issues with using recycled PET which are unique 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.
  • 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.

And of course, the chemicals used to dye the polymers as well as the processing methods used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not – be optimized to be environmentally benign.  Water used during weaving of the fabric may – or may not –  be treated.  And the workers may – or may not – be paid a fair wage.

One solution, suggested by Ecotextile News, is to create a tracking system that follows the raw material through to the final product.  This would be very labor intensive and would require a lot of monitoring (all of which adds to the cost of production – and don’t forget, recycled polyester now is fashion’s darling because it’s so cheap!).  There are also private standards which have begun to pop up, in an effort to differentiate their brands.  One fiber supplier which has gone the private standard route is Unifi.   Repreve is the name of Unifi’s recycled polyester – the company produces recycled polyester yarns, and (at least for the filament yarns) they have Scientific Certification Systems certify that Repreve yarns are made with 100% recycled content.  Unifi’s  “fiberprint” technology audits orders across the supply chain  to verify that if Repreve is in a product it’s present in the right amounts.  But there are still  many unanswered questions (because they’re  considered “proprietary information” by Unifi)  so the process is not transparent.

But now there is a new, third party certification which is addressing these issues.  The Global Recycle Standard, issued by Control Union, is intended to establish independently verified claims as to the amount of recycled content in a yarn.  In addition to the certification of the recycled content, this new standard holds the weaver to similar standards as 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 wastewater must be treated for pH, temperature, COD and BOD before disposal;
  • there is an extensive section related to worker’s health and safety.

In the end, polyester – whether recycled or virgin – is plastic.

I came across the work of a photographer living in Seattle, Chris Jordan, who published photographs of albatross chicks which he made in September, 2009, on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific.   As he says, “The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

To document this phenomenon as faithfully as possible, not a single piece of plastic in any of these photographs was moved, placed, manipulated, arranged, or altered in any way. These images depict the actual stomach contents of baby birds in one of the world’s most remote marine sanctuaries, more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent.”  See more at Chris Jordan’s website here.

To make thing worse, these tiny pieces of plastic are extremely powerful chemical accumulators for organic persistent pollutants present in ambient sea water such as DDE’s and PCB’s. The whole food chain,  from invertebrates to fish, turtles and mammals … are eating plastic and /or other animals who have plastic in them.

If you’re shocked by this picture, remember that this was brought to our attention years ago by National Geographic Magazine and in reports by scientists from many organizations.  One of the things they warned us of is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which has doubled in size while we have done nothing.  I am shocked that we have done nothing while the cascading effects of our disposable society continue to accumulate.

Textiles and water use

24 02 2010

Water.  Our lives depend on it.  It’s so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet – but freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed everywhere or to everyone.  The number of people on our planet is growing fast, and our water use is growing even faster.  About 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortage[1] – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe.[2] And the blues singers got it right: you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.

I just discovered that the word “rival” comes from the Latin (rivalis) meaning those who share a common stream.  The original meaning, apparently, was closer to our present word for companion, but as words have a way of doing, the meaning became skewed to mean competition between those seeking a common goal.

This concept – competition between those seeking a common goal – will soon turn again to water, since water, as they say, is becoming the “next oil”;  there’s also talk of “water futures” and “water footprints”  – and both governments and big business are looking at water (to either control it or profit from it).  Our global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.  The pressure is on.

Note: There are many websites and books which talk about the current water situation in the world, please see our bibliography which is at the bottom of this post.

What does all this have to do with fabrics you buy?

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step.  The water used is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater which is returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

When we say the textile industry uses a lot of water, just how much is a lot?  One example we found:  the Indian textile industry uses 425,000,000 gallons of water every day [3] to process the fabrics it produces.  Put another way, it takes about 20 gallons of water to produce one yard of upholstery weight fabric.  If we assume one sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, then the water necessary to produce the fabric to cover that one sofa is 500 gallons.  Those figures vary widely, however, and often the water footprint is deemed higher.  The graphic here is from the Wall Street Journal, which assigns 505 gallons to one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans [4]:

The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion.  What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem.  The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs,  phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated.  And we are all downstream.

The process chemicals used by the mills are used on organic fibers just as they’re used on polyesters and conventionally produced natural fibers.  Unless the manufacturer treats their wastewater – and if they do they will most assuredly let you know it, because it costs them money – then we have to assume the worst.  And the worst is plenty bad.  So just because you buy something made of “organic X”, there is no assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet.

You might hear from plastic manufacturers that polyester has virtually NO water footprint, because the manufacturing of the polyester polymer uses very little water – compared to the water needed to grow or produce any natural fiber.  That is correct.  However, we try to remind everyone that the production of a fabric involves two parts:

  • The production of the fiber
  • The weaving of the fiber into cloth

The weaving portion uses the same types of process chemicals – same dyestuffs, solubalisers and dispersents, leveling agents, soaping, and dyeing agents, the same finishing chemicals,  cationic and nonionic softeners, the same FR, soil and stain, anti wrinkling or other finishes – and the same amount of water and energy.  And recycled polyesters have specific issues:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades.  Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
  • Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process.  Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
  • Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.[5]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.

So water treatment of polyester manufacturing should be in place also.  In fact there is a new standard called the Global Recycle Standard, which was issued by Control Union Certifications.   The standard has strict environmental processing criteria in place in addition to percentage content of recycled  product – it includes wastewater treatment as well as chemical use that is based on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Oeko-Tex 100.

And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (see bibliography below) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust.  These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right?  If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state?  Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water a a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.


The World’s Water:  http://www.worldwater.org/

Water.org:    http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/facts/

Ground water and drinking water:  http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/faq/faq.html

New York Times series, Toxic Waters:  http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters

Barlow, Maude, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008

Water Footprint Network:  http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home

[1]Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation), David J. Tenenbaum, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.

[2] Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online

[3] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.

[4] Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to worry about: Water”, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009

[5] “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008

Will the antimony in polyester fabric hurt me?

17 02 2010

Synthetic fibers are the most popular fibers in the world with 65% of world production of fibers being synthetic and  35%  natural fibers. (1)  Fully  70% of that synthetic fiber production is 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, and that’s a 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.   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, as many people think.  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 your PET fabric does contain antimony but it isn’t available to your living system. (2)

But wait!  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, (3) 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. (4) )

Antimony is just not a nice thing to be eating or drinking, and wearing it probably won’t hurt you, but the problem comes up during the production process  – is it 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)

Designers are in love with polyesters because they’re so durable – and cheap (don’t forget cheap!).  So they’re used a lot for public spaces.  Abrasion results are a function not only of the fiber but also the construction of the fabric, and cotton and hemp can be designed to be very durable, but they will never achieve the same abrasion results that some polyesters have achieved – like 1,000,000 rubs.  In the residential market, I would think most people wouldn’t want a fabric to last that long – I’ve noticed sofas which people leave on the streets with “free” signs on them, and never once did I notice that the sofa was suffering from fabric degredation!  The “free” sofa just had to go because it was out of style, or stained, or something – I mean, have you even replaced a piece of furniture because the fabric had actually worn out?  Hemp linens have been known to last for generations.

But I digress.   Synthetic fibers can do many things that make our lives easier, and in many ways they’re the true miracle fibers.  I think there will always be a place for (organic) natural fibers, which are comfortable and soothing next to human skin.  And they certainly have that cachet: doesn’t  silk damask sound better than Ultrasuede? The versatile synthetics have a place in our textile set – but I think the current crop of synthetics must be changed so the toxic inputs are removed and the nonsustainable feedstock (oil) is replaced.  I have great hope for the biobased polymer research going on, because the next generation of miracle fibers just might come from sustainable sources.

(1) “New Approach of Synthetic Fibers Industry”, Textile Exchange,  http://www.teonline.com/articles/2009/01/new-approach-of-synthetic-fibe.html

(2) Polyester, Absolute Astronomy.com: http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Polyester and Pacific Institute, Energy Implications of Bottled Water, Gleick and Cooley, Feb 2009, http://www.pacinst.org/reports/bottled_water/index.htm)

(3)  Shotyk, William, et al, “Contamination of Canadian and European Bottled waters with antimony from PET containers”, Journal of Environmental Monitoring, 2006.   http://www.rsc.org/delivery/_ArticleLinking/DisplayHTMLArticleforfree.cfm?JournalCode=EM&Year=2006&ManuscriptID=b517844b&Iss=2

(4)   http://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxprofiles/phs23.html

(5)  http://www.victor-innovatex.com/doc/sustainability.pdf

(3) http://www.greenatworkmag.com/gwsubaccess/02mayjun/eco.html


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