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Will Synthetic Fabrics Be Remembered As the Nuclear Waste of Our Time?

Posted by Matt Power, Editor-In-Chief

Feb 28, 2017 10:00:00 AM

New research finds that synthetics are a primary cause of invisible ocean pollution. But getting rid of them safely is an unsolved challenge.


WE ALL KNOW (OR SHOULD) THAT THE OCEANS ARE FULL OF FLOATING PLASTICS. But the visible stuff is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It's the microparticles that are really scary. And floating plastic eventually becomes microparticles. There's even evidence that some fish now PREFER these tiny plastic particles to plankton. Sort of puts you off blackened snapper, eh?

I recently wrote about new research showing that the laundering of our synthetic clothing is contributing huge amounts of microplastics into the oceans, damaging sea life and ultimately poisoning all of us. But as I began to explore the life cycle of synthetics, the situation took on new gravity. Like nuclear waste, arsenic-treated wood and industrial paints and cleaners, there's simply no "away" into which we can toss millions of tons of synthetic clothing safely. Yes, it is possible to recycle some of the content of synthetic fabrics, but here's where it gets really scary.

Antimony, A Human Health Anti-Matter

Most synthetic fabrics use something called antimony as a catalyst to create the PET. But this compound is a very nasty heavy metal carcinogen. Here's how O Ecotextiles describes it:global fiber demand 2015.jpg

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

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

It gets worse. When synthetics are recycled, antimony trioxide is released into wastewater. And if you send it to the incinerator to burn it, antimody trioxide is released into the atmosphere. This compound is classified as a carcinogen in California, along with several U.S. agencies.

As O Ecotextiles adds, "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."

The reference cited for this fact is not definitive, and is a topic for a separate article. We have looked at fly ash occasionally at Green Builder, and remain open minded about whether it should or should not be used as a building materials additive. It's important to note that fly ash comes from different sources, each with its own chemical residues. I.E. not all fly ash is created equal. It's possible to make PET synthetics without antimony. At least one company  is doing so. But they are the rare exception, and this doesn't solve the plastics in the ocean problem.

The Landfill Leak Issue

A new report  from USGS found that pharmaceuticals and BPA  are among the most common dangerous compounds found in landfill leachate. Other reports have found microplastics as well. Although the levels of toxins actually released into the environment were lower than those found in "pre-treatment," plenty of unhealthy stuff still gets through. And these are among U.S. landfills that are relatively well managed and young enough to monitor.

But according to some engineers, most landfills in the U.S. were built with single-liner systems, which will inevitably leak. As Fred Lee notes,

"The US EPA Subtitle D "dry tomb" landfilling approach as adopted in 1991 at best only postpones groundwater pollution by a few decades from what would have occurred in the classical unlined sanitary landfill. Further, the FML in the single composite liner makes monitoring of liner leakage and groundwater pollution highly unreliable."

Dirty Little Secrets

The EPA reports that the U.S. has about 3,100 active landfills, plus another 10,000 closed municipal landfills. This figure does not include local "town dumps." That's an already large burden of potential toxic leachate escaping into waterways. But the global production of synthetic fabric carries on apace.

According to TextileWorld.com, "In 1980, polyester demand was only 5.2 million tons globally and by 2000, it had reached 19.2 million tons. In 2014, demand is put at 46.1 million tons. Looking at the period from 1980-2014, total fiber demand growth has been 55.7 million tons — 73.4 percent of which is down to polyester."

How much of that polyester is recycled? The EPA released a report in 2011 that offers some insights. Textiles overall represent 5.2% of our landfill waste (13.1 million tons). But this waste, unlike plastics and other materials is almost never recycled. A total of about 2 million tons of clothes are recycled annually from that waste annually. Many companies use some percentage of recycled PET content, and as noted above, the release of antimony is a major concern. The process is quite intensive, per Wikipedia:

"The first step is to remove the buttons and zippers; then the garments are cut into small pieces. The shredded fabric is then granulated and formed into small pellets. The pellets are broken down polymerized and turned into polyester chips. The chips are melted and spun into new filament fiber used to make new polyester fabrics."

Course Correction

If all these facts and percentages sound daunting, you begin to see why no one has yet made the public aware of the ticking time bomb that PET-based clothing synthetics represent. At present, there are no "closed loop" companies that can claim to keep 100 percent of plastic microparticles and antimony out of the oceans.

Even the most progressive manufacturers are wrestling with this problem. For example, Patagonia just this month released a statement saying it is aware of the issue and looking into it. They've commissioned research, including investing in ocean research and are "Investigating ways to minimize fiber shedding by improving fabric construction."

Let's hope their earnest effort actually goes somewhere and is not a greenwash. Ultimately, every new piece of synthetic clothing they sell while they're figuring things out is part of the problem.

It may be that a techno-fix is possible. Perhaps researchers will find a way to create fibers that don't shed when laundered, made without antimony (or something equally toxic to replace it), that don't break down into microparticles in landfills over time, and are taken back for recyling with near 100 percent recovery.

At present, that sounds like a pipe dream, but any step in the right direction is welcome. In the meantime, I won't be buying any permanent press shirts, polyester sheets or a new rain jacket. But what do I do with the polyester, rayon and nylon clothes I already own? I can't throw them away. My local recycler won't take them. I can't hand them down. That's just delaying the end-of-life problem. At this point I have to treat them like nuclear waste, stuff that seemed like a good idea once, that's now so toxic that nobody can safely destroy it. It's all natural fabrics from now on. I'd rather be able to swim in a healthy ocean surrounded by creatures I haven't poisoned with my consumption choices.

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