Monday, 22 October 2012

Natural Synthetics

I heard recently that scientists in the Antarctic have discovered masses of microscopic plastic fibres underwater. Could this be the biggest environmental polution problem yet?

One of the main causes, apparently, is synthetic fibres from clothes coming loose in the wash, and being rinsed down the drain. The fibres then make their way into the sea, and for some reason (which I'm still unclear about) end up in the Antarctic. Here, they are swallowed by marine life, causing harmful effects. Again, I'm unsure how microscopic particles do this, although I do know that a whole carrier bag can kill if swallowed by, say, a turtle.

So there were a few gaps in the news article that was reporting this story, and I need to do some research of my own to fill the gaps. But what came next in the news story took me by surprise.

An "expert" gave their opinion that the problem would be much better if people stopped wearing cheap synthetic clothes, and bought clothes made from natural fibres, such as cotton and wool. On the face of it, this sounds like great advice. Natural fibres break down in the water, whereas synthetic fibres don't degrade.

I might have believed this a few years ago before I started doing my own research. The trouble is, this advice only looks at the problem from one side. While natural fibres are biodegradable, they also take a lot of energy to grow and process. The research I've seen shows that the energy needed for this is far more than the energy needed to produce synthetic fibres. And when you consider that most of the energy used to grow natural fibres comes from fossil fuels, the overall environmental impact of natural fabrics can be much worse.

There are some people who point out that synthetic fabrics cannot be made without oil. But they forget that modern intensive cotton farming also needs oil - not just for the farm machinery, but as ingredients in pesticides, herbicides and other agrochemicals.

So the fish might not be swallowing plastic shards, but the pesticide run-off from the cotton field that washes into the rivers might get them instead. Basically, you can't win either way. But synthetic fibres seem to have the edge, as they need less energy overall to make, and tend to last longer.

What we really need is a new fabric that is energy efficient to produce and lasts a long time, but breaks down when disposed of. I think this is technically difficult, and probably won't be developed while mass consumers are focused on price versus designer brands. However, some moves are being made, and bamboo fibres are looking promising.

Bamboo is quick and easy to grow, and can be spun into a stretchy, breathable, cotton-like fabric. I have a few pairs of bamboo socks, and they're very comfortable. What's more, they're about the same price as ordinary socks. Unfortunately, they're still not as biodegradable as cotton.

Other developments may take longer. I guess what it boils down to is that no-one wants to develop a product that doesn't make a profit. But sometimes there is no monetary profit in looking after the enivronment. This, I think, is the greatest environmental dilemma of all.

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