How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: natural fibers

10 10 2012

Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibers has increased dramatically,  causing the natural fiber industry to lose much of its market share. In December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres (IYNF); a year-long initiative focused on raising global awareness about natural fibers with specific focus on increasing market demand to help ensure the long-term sustainability for farmers who rely heavily on their production.

                       International Forum for Cotton Promotion

Natural fibers  have a history of being considered the fibers that are easiest to live with, valued for their comfort, soft hand and versatility.  They also carry a certain cachet:  cashmere, silk taffeta and 100% pure Sea Island cotton convey different images than does 100% rayon,  pure polyester or even Ultrasuede, don’t they?  And natural fibers, being a bit of an artisan product, are highly prized especially in light of campaigns by various trade associations to brand fiber:    “the fabric of our lives” from Cotton, Inc. and merino wool with the pure wool label are two examples.                                                              

Preferences for natural fibers seem to be correlated with income; in one study, people with higher incomes preferred natural fibers by a greater percentage than did those in lower income brackets.   Cotton Incorporated funded a study that demonstrated that  66% of all women with household incomes over $75,000 prefer natural fibers to synthetic.

What are the reasons, according to the United Nations, that make natural fibers so important?  The UN website, Discover Natural Fibers lists the following reasons why natural fibers are a good choice.  Please remember that this list does not include organic natural fibers, which provide even more benefits (but that’s another post):

  1. Natural fibers are a healthy choice.
    1. Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. (It also explains why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are made from 100% synthetic material.) The bends, or crimp, in wool fibers trap pockets of air which act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep them cool. Since wool can absorb liquids up to 35% of its own weight, woollen blankets efficiently absorb and disperse the cup of water lost through perspiration during sleep, leaving sheets dry and guaranteeing a much sounder slumber than synthetic blankets.
    2. The “breathability” of natural fiber textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies, while hemp fabric has both a high rate of moisture dispersion and natural anti-bacterial properties.   Studies by Poland’s Institute of Natural Fibers have shown that 100% knitted linen is the most hygienic textile for bed sheets – in clinical tests, bedridden aged or ill patients did not develop bedsores. The institute is developing underwear knitted from flax which, it says, is significantly more hygienic than nylon and polyester. Chinese scientists also recommend hemp fiber for household textiles, saying it has a high capacity for absorption of toxic gases.
  2. Natural fibers are a responsible choice.
    1. Natural fibers production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibers as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.
    2. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.
      1. For example, more than 60% of the world’s cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and the sale of cotton provides the primary source of income for some 100 million rural households.
      2. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibers has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports even further.
      3. Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China.
      4. Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fiber – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fiber to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
      5. Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fiber, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people.
  3. Natural fibers are a sustainable choice.
    1. Natural fibers will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in bio-based polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.  Natural fibers are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.
    2. An FAO study estimated that production of one ton of jute fiber requires just 10% of the energy used for the production of one ton of synthetic fibers (since jute is cultivated mainly by small-scale farmers in traditional farming systems, the main energy input is human labor, not fossil fuels).
    3. Processing of some natural fibers can lead to high levels of water pollutants, but they consist mostly of biodegradable compounds, in contrast to the persistent chemicals, including heavy metals, released in the effluent from synthetic fiber processing. More recent studies have shown that producing one ton of polypropylene – widely used in packaging, containers and cordage – emits into the atmosphere more than 3 ton of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. In contrast, jute absorbs as much as 2.4 tonnes of carbon per tonne of dry fiber.
    4. The environmental benefits of natural fiber products accrue well beyond the production phase. For example, fibers such as hemp, flax and sisal are being used increasingly as reinforcing in place of glass fibers in thermoplastic panels in automobiles. Since the fibers are lighter in weight, they reduce fuel consumption and with it carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.
    5. But where natural fibers really excel is in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibers decay through the action of fungi and bacteria – this releases the fixed CO2 in the fibers and closes the cycle; it also improves soil structure.  Synthetics present society with a range of disposal problems. In land fills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants and, in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans.
  4. Natural fibers are a high-tech choice.
    1. Natural fibers have intrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight and low cost – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry.
      1. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-molded      thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.
        1. For consumers, natural fiber composites in automobiles provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass, and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibers also reduces vehicle weight, which cuts fuel consumption.
        2. For car manufacturers, the moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on machinery, cutting production costs by up to 30%. The use of natural fibres by Europe’s car industry is projected to reach 100 000 tonnes by 2010. German companies lead the way. Daimler-Chrysler has developed a flax-reinforced polyester composite, and in 2005 produced an award-winning spare wheel well cover that incorporated abaca yarn from the Philippines. Vehicles in some BMW series contain up to 24 kg of flax and sisal. Released in July 2008, the Lotus Eco Elise (pictured above) features body panels made with hemp, along with sisal carpets and seats upholstered with hemp fabric. Japan’s carmakers, too, are “going green”. In Indonesia, Toyota manufactures door trims made from kenaf and polypropylene, and Mazda is using a bioplastic made with kenaf for car interiors.
    1. Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre, now being manufactured in Tanzania and Brazil. In India, a growing shortage of timber for the construction industry has spurred development of composite board made from jute veneer and coir ply – studies show that coir’s high lignin content makes it both stronger and more resistant to rotting than teak. In Europe, hemp hurd and fibres are being used in cement and to make particle boards half the weight of wood-based boards. Geotextiles are another promising new outlet for natural fibre producers. Originally developed in the Netherlands for the construction of dykes, geotextile nets made from hard natural fibres strengthen earthworks and encourage the growth of plants and trees, which provide further reinforcement. Unlike plastic textiles used for the same purpose, natural fibre nets – particularly those made from coir – decay over time as the earthworks stabilize.
  1. Natural fibers are a fashionable choice.
    John Patrick Organic Fall/Winter 2010
    1. Natural fibers are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fiber producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry. Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable. Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.
    2. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)   sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing.
    3. Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru. A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.
    4. Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labor. The  Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labor, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.
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How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: synthetic fibers

3 10 2012

So from last week’s post, you  know that you want a durable, colorfast fabric that will be lovely to look at and wonderful to live with.  What’s the best choice?  I’m so glad you asked.

You have basically two choices in fibers:  natural (cotton, linen, wool, hemp, silk)  or synthetic (polyester, acrylic, nylon, etc.).  Many fabrics today are made from blends of natural and synthetic fibers – it has been said that most sheet sets sold in the U.S. are cotton/poly blends.

Natural fibres breathe, wicking moisture from the skin, providing even warmth and body temperature;  they are renewable, and decay at end of life.  On the other hand, synthetics do not breathe,  trapping body heat and perspiration; they are based on crude oil, definitely a non-renewable resource and they do not decompose at end of life, but rather remain in our landfills, leaching their toxic monomers into our groundwater.  They are, however, cheap and durable.

I like to think that even without the health issues involved I’d choose to live with natural fibers, since they work so well with humans!  The fibers themselves present no health issues and they’re comfortable.  But they simply don’t last as long as synthetics. But I have begun to see the durability of synthetics as their Dorian Grey aspect, in other words they last so long that they’ve become a huge problem.  By not decomposing, they just break into smaller and smaller particles which leach their toxic monomers into our groundwater.

The impact on health (ours the the planet’s) is an issue that’s often overlooked when discussing the merits of natural vs. synthetic.   And it’s a complex issue, so this week we’ll explore synthetic fibers, and next week we’ll look at natural fibers.

The most popular synthetic fiber in use today is polyester.

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 diaperpin.com:

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.

And then there is acrylic.  The key ingredient of acrylic fiber is acrylonitrile, (also called vinyl cyanide). It is a carcinogen (brain, lung and bowel cancers) and a mutagen, targeting the central nervous system.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acrylonitrile enters our bodies through skin absorption, as well as inhalation and ingestion.  So could the acrylic fibers in our acrylic fabrics be a contributing factor to these results?

Acrylic fibers are just not terrific to live with anyway.  Acrylic manufacturing involves highly toxic substances which require careful storage, handling, and disposal. The polymerization process can result in an explosion if not monitored properly. It also produces toxic fumes. Recent legislation requires that the polymerization process be carried out in a closed environment and that the fumes be cleaned, captured, or otherwise neutralized before discharge to the atmosphere.(4)

Acrylic is not easily recycled nor is it readily biodegradable. Some acrylic plastics are highly flammable and must be protected from sources of combustion.

Just in case you missed the recent report which was published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine [5], a Canadian study found that women who work with some common synthetic materials could treble their risk of developing breast cancer after menopause. The data included women working in textile factories which produce acrylic fabrics – those women have seven times the risk of developing breast cancer than the normal population, while those working with nylon fibers had double the risk.

What about nylon?  Well, in a nutshell, the production of nylon includes the precursors benzene (a known human carcinogen) and hydrogen cyanide gas (extremely poisonous); the manufacturing process releases VOCs, nitrogen oxides and ammonia.  And finally there is the addition of those organophosphate flame retardants and dyes.

[1] http://www.bu-eh.org/uploads/Main/Soto%20EDs%20as%20Carcinogens.pdf

[2] http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.95103608

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

(4) ) http://www.madehow.com/Volume-2/Acrylic-Plastic.html

(5) Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2010, 67:263-269 doi: 10.1136/oem.2009.049817 (abstract: http://oem.bmj.com/content/67/4/263.abstract) SEE ALSO: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/new_research/20100401b.jsp AND http://www.medpagetoday.com/Oncology/BreastCancer/19321





The case for natural fibers

26 06 2012

I’m going to be taking a few weeks off,  and thought I’d recycle some of our old posts.  So if you think you’ve seen these before – you have.   But the issues remain important and it doesn’t hurt to remind you.    I’ve updated the topics a bit if necessary.

Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibers has increased dramatically,  causing the natural fiber industry to lose much of its market share.  Polyester – especially recycled polyester – became the fabric of choice in the United States.   It was cheap, and oil was plentiful.  But with with dawning realization that the party might be over, polyester prices – and those of other synthetics – will reflect climbing oil prices, so the price of synthetics may equal those of natural fibers.

International Forum for Cotton Promotion

Natural fibers  have a history of being considered the highest quality fibers, valued for their comfort, soft hand and versatility.  They also carry a certain cachet:  cashmere, silk taffeta and 100% pure Sea Island cotton convey different images than does 100% rayon,  pure polyester or even Ultrasuede, don’t they?  And natural fibers, being a bit of an artisan product, are highly prized especially in light of campaigns by various trade associations to brand its fiber:   “the fabric of our lives” from Cotton, Inc. and merino wool with the pure wool label are two examples. 

Preferences for natural fibers seem to be correlated with income; in one study, people with higher incomes preferred natural fibers by a greater percentage than did those in lower income brackets.   Cotton Incorporated funded a study that demonstrated that  66% of all women with household incomes over $75,000 prefer natural fibers to synthetic.

What are the reasons, according to the United Nations, that make natural fibers so important?  As  the UN website, Discover Natural Fibers says:

  1. Natural fibers are a healthy choice.
    1. Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. (It also explains why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are made from 100% synthetic material.) The bends, or crimp, in wool fibers trap pockets of air which act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep them cool. Since wool can absorb liquids up to 35% of its own weight, woollen blankets efficiently absorb and disperse the cup of water lost through perspiration during sleep, leaving sheets dry and guaranteeing a much sounder slumber than synthetic blankets.
    2. The “breathability” of natural fiber textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies, while hemp fabric has both a high rate of moisture dispersion and natural anti-bacterial properties.   Studies by Poland’s Institute of Natural Fibers have shown that 100% knitted linen is the most hygienic textile for bed sheets – in clinical tests, bedridden aged or ill patients did not develop bedsores. The institute is developing underwear knitted from flax which, it says, is significantly more hygienic than nylon and polyester. Chinese scientists also recommend hemp fiber for household textiles, saying it has a high capacity for absorption of toxic gases.
  2. Natural fibers are a responsible choice.
    1. Natural fibers production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibers as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.
    2. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.
      1. For example, more than 60% of the world’s cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and its sale provides the primary source of income of some 100 million rural households.
      2. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibers has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports by 20% in 2009.
      3. Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China. Orders of Indian silk goods from Europe and the USA are reported to have declined by almost 50% in 2008-09.
      4. Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fiber – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fiber to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
      5. Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fiber, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people. However, the global slowdown has cut demand for sisal, forced a 30% cut in prices, and led to mounting job losses.
  3. Natural fibers are a sustainable choice.
    1. Natural fibers will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in bio-based polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.  Natural fibers are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. They are also carbon neutral: they absorb the same amount of carbon dioxide they produce. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.
    2. An FAO study estimated that production of one ton of jute fiber requires just 10% of the energy used for the production of one ton of synthetic fibers (since jute is cultivated mainly by small-scale farmers in traditional farming systems, the main energy input is human labor, not fossil fuels).
    3. Processing of some natural fibers can lead to high levels of water pollutants, but if the processing is done to Global Organic Textile Standards, it consists mostly of biodegradable compounds, in contrast to the persistent chemicals, including heavy metals, released in the effluent from synthetic fiber processing.
    4. The environmental benefits of natural fiber products accrue well beyond the production phase. For example, fibers such as hemp, flax and sisal are being used increasingly as reinforcing in place of glass fibers in thermoplastic panels in automobiles. Since the fibers are lighter in weight, they reduce fuel consumption and with it carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.
    5. But where natural fibers really excel is in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibers decay through the action of fungi and bacteria. Natural fiber products (processed organically)  can be composted to improve soil structure, or incinerated with no emission of pollutants and release of no more carbon than the fibers absorbed during their lifetimes. Synthetics present society with a range of disposal problems. In land fills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants and, in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans.
  4. Natural fibers are a high-tech choice.
    1. Natural fibers have intrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight  – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry.
      1. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-molded      thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.
        1. For consumers, natural fiber composites in automobiles provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass, and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibers also reduces vehicle weight, which cuts fuel consumption.
        2. For car manufacturers, the moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on machinery, cutting production costs by up to 30%.  German companies lead the way. Daimler-Chrysler has developed a flax-reinforced polyester composite, and in 2005 produced an award-winning spare wheel well cover that incorporated abaca yarn from the Philippines. Vehicles in some BMW series contain up to 24 kg of flax and sisal. Released in July 2008, the Lotus Eco Elise (pictured above) features body panels made with hemp, along with sisal carpets and seats upholstered with hemp fabric. Japan’s carmakers, too, are “going green”. In Indonesia, Toyota manufactures door trims made from kenaf and polypropylene, and Mazda is using a bioplastic made with kenaf for car interiors.
    1. Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre, now being manufactured in Tanzania and Brazil. In India, a growing shortage of timber for the construction industry has spurred development of composite board made from jute veneer and coir ply – studies show that coir’s high lignin content makes it both stronger and more resistant to rotting than teak. In Europe, hemp hurd and fibres are being used in cement and to make particle boards half the weight of wood-based boards. Geotextiles are another promising new outlet for natural fibre producers. Originally developed in the Netherlands for the construction of dykes, geotextile nets made from hard natural fibres strengthen earthworks and encourage the growth of plants and trees, which provide further reinforcement. Unlike plastic textiles used for the same purpose, natural fibre nets – particularly those made from coir – decay over time as the earthworks stabilize.
  1. Natural fibers are a fashionable choice.
    John Patrick Organic Fall/Winter 2010
    1. Natural fibers are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fiber producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry. Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable. Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.
    2. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)   sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing.
    3. Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru. A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.
    4. Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labor. The recently approved (November 2008) Global Organic Textile Standard, widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labor, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.




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 diaperpin.com:

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?


[2] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/zwa-reports-are-plastic-products-causing-breast-cancer-epidemic-76957597.html

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





Estimating the carbon footprint of a fabric

19 01 2011

We published this blog almost two years ago, but the concepts haven’t changed and we think it’s very important.   So here it is again:

Although most of the current focus on lightening our carbon footprint revolves around transportation and heating issues, the modest little fabric all around you turns out to be from an industry with a gigantic carbon footprint. The textile industry, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is the 5th largest contributor to CO2 emissions in the United States, after primary metals, nonmetallic mineral products, petroleum and chemicals.[1]

The textile industry is huge, and it is a huge producer of greenhouse gasses.  Today’s textile industry is one of the largest sources of greenhouse gasses (GHG’s) on Earth, due to its huge size.[2] In 2008,  annual global textile production was estimated at  60 billion kilograms (KG) of fabric.  The estimated energy and water needed to produce that amount of fabric boggles the mind:

  • 1,074 billion kWh of electricity  or 132 million metric tons of coal and
  • between 6 – 9 trillion liters of water[3]

Fabrics are the elephant in the room.  They’re all around us  but no one is thinking about them.  We simply overlook fabrics, maybe because they are almost always used as a component in a final product that seems rather innocuous:  sheets, blankets, sofas, curtains, and of course clothing.  Textiles, including clothing,  accounted for about one ton of the 19.8 tons of total CO2 emissions produced by each person in the U.S. in 2006. [4] By contrast, a person in Haiti produced a total of only 0.21 tons of total carbon emissions in 2006.[5]

Your textile choices do make a difference, so it’s vitally important to look beyond thread counts, color and abrasion results.

How do you evaluate the carbon footprint in any fabric?  Look at the “embodied energy’ in the fabric – that is, all of the energy used at each step of the process needed to create that fabric.  To estimate the embodied energy in any fabric it’s necessary to add the energy required in two separate fabric production steps:

(1)  Find out what the fabric is made from, because the type of fiber tells you a lot about the energy needed to make the fibers used in the yarn.  The carbon footprint of various fibers varies a lot, so start with the energy required to produce the fiber.

(2) Next, add the energy used to weave those yarns into fabric.  Once any material becomes a “yarn” or “filament”, the amount of energy and conversion process to weave that yarn into a textile is pretty consistent, whether the yarn is wool, cotton, nylon or polyester.[6]

Let’s look at #1 first: the energy needed to make the fibers and create the yarn. For ease of comparison we’ll divide the fiber types into “natural” (from plants, animals and less commonly, minerals) and “synthetic” (man made).

For natural fibers you must look at field preparation, planting and field operations (mechanized irrigation, weed control, pest control and fertilizers (manure vs. synthetic chemicals)), harvesting and yields.  Synthetic fertilizer use is a major component of the high cost of conventional agriculture:  making just one ton of nitrogen fertilizer emits nearly 7 tons of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases.

For synthetics, a crucial fact is that the fibers are made from fossil fuels.   Very high amounts of energy are used in extracting the oil from the ground as well as in the production of the polymers.

A study done by the Stockholm Environment Institute on behalf of the BioRegional Development Group  concludes that the energy used (and therefore the CO2 emitted) to create 1 ton of spun fiber is much higher for synthetics than for hemp or cotton:

KG of CO2 emissions per ton of spun fiber:
crop cultivation fiber production TOTAL
polyester USA 0.00 9.52 9.52
cotton, conventional, USA 4.20 1.70 5.90
hemp, conventional 1.90 2.15 4.05
cotton, organic, India 2.00 1.80 3.80
cotton, organic, USA 0.90 1.45 2.35

The table above only gives results for polyester; other synthetics have more of an impact:  acrylic is 30% more energy intensive in its production than polyester [7] and nylon is even higher than that.

Not only is the quantity of GHG emissions of concern regarding synthetics, so too are the kinds of gasses produced during production of synthetic fibers.  Nylon, for example, creates emissions of N2O, which is 300 times more damaging than CO2 [8] and which, because of its long life (120 years) can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation.  In fact, during the 1990s, N2O emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[9] A study done for the New Zealand Merino Wool Association shows how much less total energy is required for the production of natural fibers than synthetics:

Embodied Energy used in production of various fibers:
energy use in MJ per KG of fiber:
flax fibre (MAT) 10
cotton 55
wool 63
Viscose 100
Polypropylene 115
Polyester 125
acrylic 175
Nylon 250

SOURCE:  “LCA: New Zealand Merino Wool Total Energy Use”, Barber and Pellow,      http://www.tech.plym.ac.uk/sme/mats324/mats324A9%20NFETE.htm

Natural fibers, in addition to having a smaller carbon footprint in the production of the spun fiber, have many additional  benefits:

  1. being able to be degraded by micro-organisms and composted (improving soil structure); in this way the fixed CO2 in the fiber will be released and the cycle closed.   Synthetics do not decompose: in landfills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater.  Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants – in the case of high density polyethylene, 3 tons of CO2 emissions are produced for ever 1 ton of material burnt.[10] Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing nets in the world’s oceans.
  2. sequestering carbon.  Sequestering carbon is the process through which CO2 from the atmosphere is absorbed by plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (leaves, stems, branches, roots, etc.) and soils.  Jute, for example, absorbs 2.4 tons of carbon per ton of dry fiber.[11]

Substituting organic fibers for conventionally grown fibers is not just a little better – but lots better in all respects:  uses less energy for production, emits fewer greenhouse gases and supports organic farming (which has myriad environmental, social and health benefits).  A study published by Innovations Agronomiques (2009) found that 43% less GHG are emitted per unit area under organic agriculture than under conventional agriculture.[12] A study done by Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University found that organic farming systems used just 63% of the energy required by conventional farming systems, largely because of the massive amounts of energy requirements needed to synthesize nitrogen fertilizers. Further it was found in controlled long term trials that organic farming adds between 100-400kg of carbon per hectare to the soil each year, compared to non-organic farming.  When this stored carbon is included in the carbon footprint, it reduces the total GHG even further.[13] The key lies in the handling of organic matter (OM): because soil organic matter is primarily carbon, increases in soil OM levels will be directly correlated with carbon sequestration. While conventional farming typically depletes soil OM, organic farming builds it through the use of composted animal manures and cover crops.

Taking it one step further beyond the energy inputs we’re looking at, which help to mitigate climate change, organic farming helps to ensure other environmental and social goals:

  • eliminates the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified organisims (GMOs) which is  an improvement in human health and agrobiodiversity
  • conserves water (making the soil more friable so rainwater is absorbed better – lessening irrigation requirements and erosion)
  • ensures sustained biodiversity
  • and compared to forests, agricultural soils may be a more secure sink for atmospheric carbon, since they are not vulnerable to logging and wildfire.

Organic agriculture is an undervalued and underestimated climate change tool that could be one of the most powerful strategies in the fight against global warming, according to Paul Hepperly, Rodale Institute Research Manager. The Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial (FST) soil carbon data (which covers 30 years)  provides convincing evidence that improved global terrestrial stewardship–specifically including regenerative organic agricultural practices–can be the most effective currently available strategy for mitigating CO2 emissions.

At the fiber level it is clear that synthetics have a much bigger footprint than does any natural fiber, including wool or conventionally produced cotton.   So in terms of the carbon footprint at the fiber level, any natural fiber beats any synthetic – at this point in time.   Best of all is an organic natural fiber.

And next let’s look at #2, the energy needed to weave those yarns into fabric.

There is no dramatic difference in the amount of energy needed to weave fibers into fabric depending on fiber type.[14] The processing is generally the same whether the fiber is nylon, cotton, hemp, wool or polyester:   thermal energy required per meter of cloth is 4,500-5,500 Kcal and electrical energy required per meter of cloth is 0.45-0.55 kwh. [15] This translates into huge quantities of fossil fuels  –  both to create energy directly needed to power the mills, produce heat and steam, and power air conditioners, as well as indirectly to create the many chemicals used in production.  In addition, the textile industry has one of the lowest efficiencies in energy utilization because it is largely antiquated.

But there is an additional dimension to consider during processing:  environmental pollution.  Conventional textile processing is highly polluting:

  • Up to 2000 chemicals are used in textile processing, many of them known to be harmful to human (and animal) health.   Some of these chemicals evaporate, some are dissolved in treatment water which is discharged to our environment, and some are residual in the fabric, to be brought into our homes (where, with use, tiny bits abrade and you ingest or otherwise breathe them in).  A whole list of the most commonly used chemicals in fabric production are linked to human health problems that vary from annoying to profound.
  • The application of these chemicals uses copious amounts of water. In fact, the textile industry is the #1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet.[16] These wastewaters are discharged (largely untreated) into our groundwater with a high pH and temperature as well as chemical load.

Concerns in the United States continue to mount about the safety of textiles and apparel products used by U.S. consumers.  Philadelphia University has formed a new Institute for Textile and Apparel Product Safety, where they are busy analyzing clothing and textiles for a variety of toxins.  Currently, there are few regulatory standards for clothing and textiles in the United States.  Many European countries,  as well as Japan and Australia, have much stricter restrictions on the use of chemicals in textiles and apparel than does the United States, and these world regulations will certainly impact world production.

There is a bright spot in all of this:  an alternative to conventional textile processing does exist.  The new Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) is a  tool for an international common understanding of environmentally friendly production systems and social accountability in the textile sector; it covers the production, processing, manufacturing, packaging, labeling, exportation, importation and distribution of all natural fibers; that means, specifically, for example:  use of certified organic fibers, prohibition of all GMOs and their derivatives; and prohibition of a long list of synthetic chemicals (for example: formaldehyde and aromatic solvents are prohibited; dyestuffs must meet strict requirements (such as threshold limits for heavy metals, no  AZO colorants or aromatic amines) and PVC cannot be used for packaging).

A fabric which is produced to the GOTS standards is more than just the fabric:

It’s a promise to keep our air and water pure and our soils renewed; it’s a fabric which will not cause harm to you or your descendants.  Even though a synthetic fiber cannot be certified to  GOTS, the synthetic mill could adopt the same production standards and apply them.   So for step #2, the weaving of the fiber into a fabric, the best choice is to buy a GOTS certified fabric or to apply as nearly as possible the GOTS parameters.

At this point in time, given the technology we have now, an organic fiber fabric, processed to GOTS standards, is (without a doubt) the safest, most responsible choice possible in terms of both stewardship of the earth, preserving health and limiting toxicity load to humans and animals, and reducing carbon footprint – and emphasizing rudimentary social justice issues such as no child labor.

And that would be the end of our argument, if it were not for this sad fact:  there are no natural fiber fabrics made in the United States which are certified to the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS).  The industry has, we feel, been flat footed in applying these new GOTS standards.  With the specter of the collapse of the U.S. auto industry looming large, it seems that the U.S. textile industry would do well to heed what seems to be the global tide of public opinion that better production methods, certified by third parties, are the way to market fabrics in the 21st Century.


[1] Source: Energy Information Administration, Form EIA:848, “2002 Manufacturing Energy Consumption Survey,” Form EIA-810, “Monthly Refinery Report” (for 2002) and Documentatioin for Emissions of Greenhouse Gases in the United States 2003 (May 2005). http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb1204.html

[2] Dev, Vivek, “Carbon Footprint of Textiles”, April 3, 2009, http://www.domain-b.com/environment/20090403_carbon_footprint.html

[3] Rupp, Jurg, “Ecology and Economy in Textile Finishing”,  Textile World,  Nov/Dec 2008

[4] Rose, Coral, “CO2 Comes Out of the Closet”,  GreenBiz.com, September 24, 2007

[5] U.S. Energy Information Administration, “International Energy Annual 2006”, posted Dec 8, 2008.

[6] Many discussions of energy used to produce fabrics or final products made from fabrics (such as clothing) take the “use” phase of the article into consideration when evaluating the carbon footprint.  The argument goes that laundering the blouse (or whatever) adds considerably to the final energy tally for natural fibers, while synthetics don’t need as much water to wash nor as many launderings.  We do not take this component into consideration because

  • it applies only to clothing; even sheets aren’t washed as often as clothing while upholstery is seldom cleaned.
  • is biodegradeable detergent used?
  • Is the washing machine used a new low water machine?  Is the water treated by a municipal facility?
  • Synthetics begin to smell if not treated with antimicrobials, raising the energy score.

Indeed, it’s important to evaluate the sponsors of any published studies, because the studies done which evaluate the energy used to manufacture fabrics are often sponsored by organizations which might have an interest in the outcome.  Additionally, the data varies quite a bit so we have adopted the values which seem to be agreed upon by most studies.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Tesco carbon footprint study confirms organic farming is energy efficient, but excludes key climate benefit of organic farming, soil carbon”, Prism Webcast News, April 30, 2008, http://prismwebcastnews.com/2008/04/30/tesco-carbon-footprint-study-confirms-organic-farming%E2%80%99s-energy-efficiency-but-excludes-key-climate-benefit-of-organic-farming-%E2%80%93-soil-carbon/

[9] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles,  Earthscan, 2008,  Page 13

[10] “Why Natural Fibers”, FAO, 2009: http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/iynf/sustainable.html

[11] Ibid.

[12] Aubert, C. et al.,  (2009) Organic farming and climate change: major conclusions of the Clermont-Ferrand seminar (2008) [Agriculture biologique et changement climatique : principales conclusions du colloque de Clermont-Ferrand (2008)]. Carrefours de l’Innovation Agronomique 4. Online at <http://www.inra.fr/ciag/revue_innovations_agronomiques/volume_4_janvier_2009>

[13] International Trade Centre UNCTAD/WTO and Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL);    Organic Farming and Climate Change; Geneva: ITC, 2007.

[14] 24th session of the FAO Committee on Commodity Problems IGG on Hard Fibers of the United Nations

[15] “Improving profits with energy-efficiency enhancements”, December 2008,  Journal for Asia on Textile and Apparel,  http://textile.2456.com/eng/epub/n_details.asp?epubiid=4&id=3296

[16] Cooper, Peter, “Clearer Communication,” Ecotextile News, May 2007.





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