Fur Commission Commentary
Created in the 1970s as an inexpensive convenience, the plastic bag is now an everyday item with costs that are adding up fast.
The plastic bags we use today will be with us virtually forever.
We use tens of billions of bags a month, or about half a million bags a minute! The vast majority are used only once and end up as litter or in landfills.
The crux of the problem is their mineral origin. While materials, natural and synthetic, that derive from vegetable or animal matter are fully biodegradable, those derived from mineral matter are not. And the origin of the ubiquitous plastic bag is, of course, oil. So they don’t biodegrade, and eventually disintegrate into smaller and smaller polymer pieces that can become sources of pollution in their own right as they migrate into the food chain.
Even more sobering are reports of a massive, swirling dump of debris, mostly plastics, fouling the ocean. Floating “clouds” of waste carried by currents into the “North Pacific subtropical gyre” result in a vortex of flotsam halfway between San Francisco and Hawaii. This was just an interesting phenomenon when the debris was all organic matter in various stages of decomposition. But the modern-day Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is now called, has been growing, along with ocean debris worldwide, tenfold every decade since the 1950s when we started our love affair with the “cheap” convenience of inorganic plastic. The Pacific Garbage Patch is now twice the size of Texas, a 3.5-million-ton soupy mass, 80% of it plastic.
Non-biodegradable plastic has made its’ way into our clothing.
Since the advent of nylon in the 1930s, the juggernaut that has been plastic clothing has proven irresistible. By the 1950s, plastic fibers supplied more than 20% of the needs of America’s textile mills. By the 1990s, that figure was over 70%.
To be considered green or environment-friendly, apparel and accessories should be made from natural materials that are:
- Durable, long-lasting
- Reusable, recyclable
- Non-polluting, non-toxic
- Energy-efficient in their production, use and disposal
Like plastic bags, plastic clothing in its many forms does not biodegrade either, since it is chemically manufactured from the same non-renewable oil. And statistics show that little of this form of plastic, plastic clothing, is reused or recycled.
One has to ask, is plastic clothing killing us?
Synthetic clothing materials such as eco-fleece, polyester, nylon and pleather (fake leather), and all those fuzzy plush toys, are all just plastic in other forms. In the UK, approximately 90% of clothing is imported and fully 1.5 to 2 million tons of clothing waste is generated every year!
- 63% (1.2 million tons) enters the household waste stream going to landfills
- 16% (300,000 tons) is recovered
- 21% is unaccounted for, and assumed to fill the “national wardrobe” – closets and drawers
From these figures we can estimate that 60% of the clothing waste that ends up in British landfills is composed of non-biodegradable synthetics adding up to 720,000 tons of waste annually.
But these figures are just for the UK where the population is 60 million souls. The Earth’s population is 100 times that. But most of the Earth is full of stalwart fans of natural fibers so it is most likely misleading to extrapolate the UK figure out to the rest of the world. If we did, we’d have 72 million tons of plastic clothing waste piling up every year.
Meanwhile, the UK is simply awash in plastic clothing and seeks solutions.
The Daily Mail interviewed environmentalists on the subject of natural fiber clothing versus inorganic synthetic clothing, plastic clothing. Said one, “Most people have no idea that every time they buy [synthetic clothing] they are helping to pollute the world.”
The Daily Mail determined that more than half of the UK’s emissions of the poisonous greenhouse gas nitrous oxide comes from nylon production. The same report included a comment from consumer magazine In Touch: “[S]ynthetic materials are responsible for large-scale factory pollution of our waterways, rivers, canals and even the sea.”
In a recent WWF report, Deeper Luxury (p32), the manager of a suit outfitter lamented, “Ninety per cent of [the] clothing [that] people buy these days ends up as landfill within two years.” He also noted, however, that high-end brands defy this trend, offering repair facilities to ensure that natural fiber garments last several years or even generations.
Commented an environmentalist to the Daily Mail, “Unlike a real fur coat which can be refashioned and may last a lifetime, a fake fur jacket is likely to be thrown out at the end of the season” to end up in a landfill.
Heavy carbon footprint for synthetics versus natural fur
A recent study on heat-insulation materials sponsored by the Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt noted that most are developed from fossil fuels and inorganic substances such as plastics.
The Fiber Economics Bureau determined that approximately 55% of the fiber in US landfills was synthetic in origin.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assigned an average carbon content of 70% to synthetic fiber using the production-weighted average of the carbon contents of the four major fiber types (polyester, nylon, olefin and acrylic). A carbon content of 85% was assigned to synthetic rubber and leather.
The EPA notes that, “As a biogenic material, the combustion of leather is assumed to have no net carbon dioxide emissions.” We would assume the same would hold true for real, natural fiber fur products (which are simply leather with the animal hair retained for warmth), not that you’ll find any in your local landfill!
What the experts say …
From Biodegradable and sustainable fibres, edited by R.S. Blackburn, Woodhead Publishing, 2005.
The main problems with synthetic polymers are that they are non-degradable and non-renewable. Since their invention, the use of these synthetic fibres has increased oil consumption significantly, and this continues today; arguably, polyester now is the most used of all fibers, taking over from cotton. Oil and petroleum are non-renewable (non-sustainable) resources and at the current rate of consumption, these fossil fuels are only expected to last for another 50-60 years; the current petroleum consumption rate is estimated to be 100,000 times the natural generation rate.
The Energy Information Administration projects that world conventional oil production will peak somewhere between 2021 and 2112, depending on the annual production growth rate (0-3%) and resource estimates (2248-3896 billion barrels). A maximum production growth rate (3% a year) combined with a low resource estimate (2248 billion barrels) gives a peak production year of 2021. For the expected (mean-resource) USGS case (3003 billion barrels) the peak will be somewhere between 2030 and 2075. This means that the raw material for fibres will change.
An even more important problem with the use of fossil energy is the huge translocation of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere accompanied by emissions of sulphur and nitrogen oxides as well as all kinds of hydrocarbons, and heavy metals. Fossil fuels are also the dominant global source of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHG). Of even more concern is the ability of polymeric fibers to remain unchanged in the environment as polymers do not degrade readily, which has exacerbated the already existing ecological and environmental problems of waste building; the volume in waste disposal and landfill is very high.
Most of the fibers and resins currently available on the market are derived from petroleum. There are two major problems associated with using petroleum as feedstock for polymers. First, it is a non-renewable (non-sustainable) resource and at the current rate of consumption, by some estimates, it is expected to last for only 50-60 years. Also the current petroleum consumption rate is estimated to be 100,000 times the rate of natural generation rate. Second, most fibers and resins, made using petroleum are non-degradable. Although this is desirable in many applications from the durability point of view, at the end of their life, they are not easy to dispose of.
Of course, natural fibers like wool, cotton and natural fur are broken down through biotic process. Microorganisms have evolved enzymes that attack key bonds in these natural polymers, thereby releasing monomers that can be used as carbon and energy sources for microbial growth. In contrast, microorganisms lack enzymes to break down many synthetic fibers, thus these materials persist and accumulate in the environment.
This article utilized information from an article first published in 2009.
1) reusablebags.com keeps statistics on plastic bag use. See also www.discountbiodegradablebags.co.uk for information on bio-“plastic” created from organic sources such as plants, as opposed to “traditional” plastics produced from inorganic and non-renewable sources: oil.
2) By ‘bagging it,’ Ireland rids itself of a plastic nuisance, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, New York, Times, Jan. 31, 2008.
3) Complementing an excellent article, Plastic bags are killing us, by Katherine Mieszkowski, for Salon.com, Aug. 10, 2007, is a video tour of San Francisco’s Norcal Recycling with a quote from the manager, “They’re made from oil. How much more do you need to hear?”
4) An interesting book on how long everything would take to break down and biodegrade (or not, in the case of plastics) is The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman, 2007.
5) See for example, Continent-size toxic stew of plastic trash fouling swath of Pacific Ocean, San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 19, 2007, and Floating, Texas-sized garbage patch threatens Pacific marine sanctuary, ARS Technica, Oct. 23, 2007, which includes an inventory of the waste. While much plastic in the ocean eventually fouls beaches where it can be collected, the Pacific gyre highlights the importance of waste management for plastics.Ê
6) According to the action plan of the Plastic Debris, Rivers to Sea Project, about 100 million tons of plastic are produced each year of which about 10% ends up in the sea where about 70% sinks to the bottom. Fully 80% of the ocean’s litter originated on land.
7) “In the last few years the Republic of Ireland declared that they no longer had any space for landfill, imposing large taxes on the use and disposal of polymers.” From the introduction to Biodegradable and sustainable fibres, edited by R.S. Blackburn, Woodhead Publishing, 2005.
8) No one appears to be counting the billions of plush toys now being sold, including by zoos, aquariums and even “green” groups that should know better! Shouldn’t products bearing conservation messages come from natural fibers that are renewable and biodegradable? A perfect example of this irony comes from the Virginia-based National Wildlife Federation, which in one breath bewails the impact of global warming on polar bears while urging the public to “adopt” (i.e., buy) plush synthetic bears to help fund conservation!
9) A short history of manufactured fibers, American Fiber Manufacturers Association.
10) The yield is three synthetic jackets per gallon of oil. To its credit, in 2005 Patagonia, Inc., one of the world’s largest producers of synthetic clothing which it has long promoted as eco-friendly, started a recycling program to collect discarded garments at its stores and recycle them into more clothing products. The bulk of Patagonia’s clothing is made from recovered plastic soda bottles (another oil product) which are not biodegradable and hence its products are not biodegradable.Ê
11) This and the following statistics are from Summary report: Sustainable clothing roadmap stakeholder meeting & next steps, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Sept. 5, 2007.
13) The synthetic clothing industry is encountering “feedstock problems”. In other words, the raw material, oil, has become more expensive. See for example, Prices of petrochemical feedstock and synthetic fibres and filaments in the first half of 2004, Fibre Chemistry, Sept. 2004.
14) Should you be faking it? Are you wearing fake fur and feeling just a tiny bit smug? Daily Mail, Nov. 22, 2004.
15) The US military has banned the wearing of synthetic clothing off base in Iraq due to serious burn injuries since such clothing melts, just like plastic, when soldiers are injured. See Synthetic clothes off limits to Marines outside bases in Iraq, American Forces PressÊService, Apr. 12, 2006.
16) Personal communication between Diane DeZan of the Fiber Economics Bureau and Joe Casola of ICF Consulting, Aug. 4, 2000, as cited in Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990 – 2001, Environmental Protection Agency, Apr. 15, 2003.
17) Fur garments are made from leather treated lightly (dressed) to retain the hair, and with proper care can last for generations. If this is no longer feasible, they can be composted, and are included in “o.k. to compost” lists and will biodegrade back into the Earth. (Petrochemical synthetics cannot be composted and will simply pollute your garden’s soil.)
- FCUSA special feature: Sensitive and Smart – You too can be a sensitive and smart consumer!
- The plight of the green fashionista. By Joanna Weiss, Boston Globe, Dec. 19, 2009.
- Nothing to fear but fur itself. By Nathalie Atkinson, National Post (Canada), Oct. 31, 2008.
- Designer Mariouche turns controversial fur green. By Delia Montgomery, for Green Options Media, Aug. 30, 2008.
- Free grocery bags targeted for extinction in California. By Jim Downing, Sacramento Bee, Aug. 25, 2008.
- Sustainable fashion & textiles (review). By Kate Fletcher, 2008.
- Eco-chic: The fashion paradox (review). By Sandy Black, 2008.
- The World without us. By Alan Weisman, 2007. See the chapter “Polymers are Forever.”
- FutureFashion white papers. By Earth Pledge, 2007.
- Biodegradable and sustainable fibres. Edited by R.S. Blackburn, Woodhead Publishing, 2005.