Our oceans and your textile choices

23 02 2011

I just don’t know what it takes to change people’s habits.  We need a huge wake up call about the disastrous state of our oceans!  Our oceans are our life support system.  And they’re in trouble.

Because this is a blog about textile issues, I wanted to remind you that  the textile industry is the world’s #1 industrial polluter of fresh water.    So remember that  each time you choose a fabric that has been processed conventionally, in a mill which does not treat its wastewater, you’re  adding to the problem.  We’re all downstream.  And please also remember that a fabric marked “organic cotton” – though decidedly better than conventional cotton – is still a fabric which is 27% synthetic chemicals by weight,  processed at a mill which returned the untreated, chemically infused effluent to our oceans.

Sorce: NOLA.com

People once assumed that the ocean was so large that all pollutants would be diluted and dispersed to safe levels. But in reality, they have not disappeared – and some toxic man-made chemicals have even become more concentrated as they have entered the food chain.

Tiny animals at the bottom of the food chain, such as plankton in the oceans, absorb the chemicals as they feed. Because they do not break down easily, the chemicals accumulate in these organisms, becoming much more concentrated in their bodies than in the surrounding water or soil. These organisms are eaten by small animals, and the concentration rises again. These animals are in turn eaten by larger animals, which can travel large distances with their even further increased chemical load.

Animals higher up the food chain, such as seals, can have contamination levels millions of times higher than the water in which they live. And polar bears, which feed on seals, can have contamination levels up to 3 billion times higher than their environment.

Some scientists describe the chemical change in the ocean as throwing evolution into reverse: the chemical composition is going back toward the “primordial soup,” favoring the simplest organisms – indeed, algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked –  and threatening or eliminating the more complex.  There are so many jellyfish in the ocean that many fisheries have given up their normal catch and are just harvesting jellyfish.[1] Clickhere to view Jellyfish Gone Wild by the National Science Foundation.  In fact, according to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, these most primitive organisms are exploding:  it’s a ‘rise of slime’ as one scientist calls it.   It’s killing larger species and sickening people.

Los Angeles Times report  in 2006 (click here to read the entire article)  sounds like something from a horror movie:  A spongy weed, reported to grow at 100 square meters per minute – literally fast enough to cover a football field sized area in an hour – has been plaguing fishermen in Australia.  The culprit, it was found, is a strain of cyanobacteria known as Lyngbya majuscula, an ancestor of modern-day bacteria and algae that flourished 2.7 billion years ago.  It has since shown up in at least a dozen places around the globe. It thrives in oxygen depleted water.   Once established, Lyngbya creates its own nitrogen fertilizer from decaying parts of the plant.

Many fishermen in Moreton Bay avoid working in the four months every year that Lyngbya clogs their waters because it is highly toxic to them.  When fishermen touch it, their skin breaks out in searing welts.  Their lips blister and peel.   As the weed blanketed miles of Moreton Bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air.

After one man bit a fishing line in two, his mouth and tongue swelled so badly that he couldn’t eat solid food for a week.

Scientists in labs studying the bacteria couldn’t even be in the same room with it, the smell was so pungent.  It’s like “The Blob” come to life.

Scientist Jeremy Jackson says that we have forgotten the basic rule of thumb:  “Be careful what you dump in the swimming pool, and make sure the filter is working.”

And to add insult to  our ocean’s injury, the number of dead zones – where there is so little oxygen only microbes can survive – has doubled every 10 years since the 1960s [2].  In 2008, there were 400 dead zones [3].   So does that make you worry?  It should.   This is an example of what mathematicians call “exponential growth”, and it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t really impact us until we’re about to be kicked in the teeth.

To demonstrate the concept, there is an old story about a king who was presented with a gorgeous handmade chessboard by one of his subjects.  The king was delighted, and asked what the man wanted in return.  The courtier surprised the king by asking for one grain of rice on the first square, two grains on the second, four grains on the third etc. The king readily agreed and asked for the rice to be brought.   But there was not enough rice in the world to fill the courtier’s request (see note below) – the total amount of rice required would be 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.   This is about  460 billion tons, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth’s biomass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And to see how the problem can become critical overnight (because according to the laws of exponential growth, the larger the quantity becomes, the faster it grows):  Imagine having a pond with water lily leaves floating on the surface. The lily population doubles in size every day and if left unchecked will smother the pond in 30 days, killing all the other living things in the water. We want to save the pond, so we check the lilies every day.   Yet day after day the plant seems small and so it is decided to leave it to grow until it half-covers the pond, before cutting it back. But the pond doesn’t becomes half covered until day 29 – leaving just one day to save the pond.  (4)

This concept has even led to the phrase “second half of the chessboard”, which refers to a point where an exponentially growing factor begins to have a significant impact.

So this news about the ocean dead zones – you might think that a dead zone the size of the state of Oregon is no big deal, but the area is growing exponentially.  How many years do we have until we reach the second half of the chessboard?

We must stop messing up our oceans.   If not for yourself, do it for your children. “You wouldn’t let a child open up a cabinet under the sink and start tasting the chemicals down there,” Fabien Cousteau says. “So why would you dump those chemicals down the drain and have them end up on your plate, which you then feed to your child?” (5)

NOTE regarding rice on the chessboard:

The total number of grains of rice on the first half of the chessboard is 1 + 2 + 4 + 8 + 16 + 32 + 64 + 128 + 256 + 512 + 1024 … + 2,147,483,648, for a total of exactly 232 − 1 = 4,294,967,295 grains of rice, or about 100,000 kg of rice, with the mass of one grain of rice being roughly 25 mg.

The total number of grains of rice on the second half of the chessboard is 232 + 233 + 234 … + 263, for a total of 264 − 232 grains of rice. This is about 460 billion tonnes, or 6 times the entire weight of the Earth biomass.

On the 64th square of the chessboard there would be exactly 263 = 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 grains of rice. In total, on the entire chessboard there would be exactly 264 − 1 = 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 grains of rice.

[2] Diaz, Robert J., and Rosenberg, Rutger, “Spreading Dead Zones and Consequences for Marine Ecosystems”, Science, August 2008.

[3] http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/08/ocean-dead-zones-increasing-400-now-exist.php

(4)  Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III. (1972) The Limits to Growth. New York: University Books. ISBN 0-87663-165-0

(5)  http://www.oprah.com/world/Ocean-Pollution-Fabien-Cousteaus-Warning-to-the-World/4


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