Photo courtesy of Shea Hazarian.
I have always been a fan of companies such as Terracycle, which take our trash and create usable products. But when I reflect on what wonderful work they are doing, I have to wonder is this a band-aid until we realize the products we are upcycling are not necessarily good for the environment?
I have honestly been in denial about the environmental costs of upcycling of PET plastic water bottles, which is made into carpet, polyester fabric, bags, and fleece. You know the Aquafinas of the world? I will be the first to admit, I have applauded the efforts of companies who have made useful products out all of those discarded water/soda bottles rather than the bottles ending up in a landfill. Sometimes I was indignant at times when I was challenged as to why I supported the plastic bottle upcycling I always argued people are going to use the bottles regardless of what we say or do, so at least there is an alternative so they do not end up in a landfill.
Some of you probably agree with me. Plastic bottles makes our lives convenient. It is light weight, reduces freight costs, and not breakable like glass. And as I mentioned earlier, you can recycle it. The downside of plastic is , for starters, in order to create plastic, petroleum, a natural resource, is being depleted. And what about all the plastic bottles that are not recycled which end up in our waterways hurting aquatic life or in a landfill for centuries? To make matter worse, toxic chemicals leach from the bottles.
In 2006, Shotyk et al. reported elevated antimony levels in drinking water bottled in PET containers. According to the article, “Antimony (Sb2O3) is used as a catalyst in 90% of PET manufacturing world- wide.” Despite their findings,the levels of antimony leaching were considered below EPA maximum contamination levels in water. However, in an 2007 Arizona State University study revealed that the amount of antimony that leached exceeded the EPA levels while being stored or used at higher temperatures like in a garage in the summer or in the microwave.
Then this year, a study by Martin Wagner and Jörg Oehlmann from the Department of Aquatic Ecotoxicology at the Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main, Germany found estrogenic compounds leaching out of the plastic water bottles.
However, given my view of the benefits of upcycling, I continued to ignore the problem. Plastic PET botttles. I even re-upholstered by falling apart couches with recycled polyester looking for durability from my rug rats who view my couches as war zones. When I questioned the manufacturer about whether there was antimony used in the process, she replied that she had never heard of that words before. So, I thought I was safe. Just doing my part for the environment.
My whole ideals on recycled plastic water bottles came crashing down the day when when my husband bought home a Eco-pure pillow which foam is made out of recycled polyester. I wanted him to take them back since they may have been processed with antimony.
That night, I went looking for more information about the pillows and stumbled upon O Ecotextiles’ blog questioning the environmentally friendliness of recycled polyester. I have always been a fan of the founders of O Ecotextiles, who create eco-friendly fabrics. I have written about them before lauding their due diligence in creating truly exceptional environmentally friendly products. Their blog has been a source of information and opened my eyes to how bamboo fabrics were made.
As I read the article, my eyes opened wider and wider. How stupid was I? The article and ensuing discussion explained:
- Plastic can not be recycled indefinitely. After it become unstable to be used in any product, it will end up in a landfill. I just thought you could keep recycling plastic to make it into new products.
- Antimony is released as a gas when PET plastic bottles are incinerated.
- Both Polyester and recycled polyester contain antimony. Recycled Poly is made out of recycled plastic bottles which themselves contain Antimony. (For that matter, all products that are made from recycled soda bottles have Antimony in it.) So, did my couches contain Antimony? Only Eco-intelligent polyester is Antimony free but made from virgin polyester. How many barrels does it take to make virgin polyester? How eco is that?
- The energy consumption to make recycled polyester is more than conventional cotton, organic cotton and hemp. (But less than virgin polyester.) I opted for recycled polyester for durability since I did not think organic cotton or hemp would last with four active children.
- Creating recycled polyester can causes toxic chemicals to leach into our waterways unless the facility treats its wastewater.
- The demand for post consumer bottles has increased so much that companies are sourcing new unused bottles from the bottle manufacturers.
What I love about the O Ecotextiles ladies is everything they write is not merely opinion. They research what they write and provide their resources. The bottom line, it seemed anything to do with new or recycled uses for PET plastic bottles is just plain bad for the environment.
To make matter worse, now I questioned was Antimony spun into the fibers a bad thing? Was the chemical inert at that point?
The Department of Health and Human Services, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not classified Antimony as a human carcinogenicity. On their Antimony FAQ site, it states,
“Lung cancer has been observed in some studies of rats that breathed high levels of antimony. No human studies are available. We don’t know whether antimony will cause cancer in people.”
However, in the work place section, the Agency states,
“Breathing high levels for a long time can irritate your eyes and lungs and can cause heart and lung problems, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach ulcers.
In short-term studies, animals that breathed very high levels of antimony died. Animals that breathed high levels had lung, heart, liver, and kidney damage. In long-term studies, animals that breathed very low levels of antimony had eye irritation, hair loss, lung damage, and heart problems. Problems with fertility were also noted. In animal studies, problems with fertility have been seen when rats breathed very high levels of antimony for a few months.”
So, do I have anything to worry about? Call me hysterical but do I want to find out 10 years down the road that Antimony in carpets, fabrics, and clothing will be present in my body like flame retardants? I did not even go into the argument that bottle water is no better than tap water. That is a whole article in itself.
The bottom line? Stop making plastic bottles. Period. No need to upcycle. No need to expose workers to antimony. No need to expose us, the consumer to toxic chemicals. At the very least, readers, stop using plastic water bottles. If you stop, there will not be nothing to recycle.
So, readers here are my questions:
Would you continue supporting companies that upcycle these plastic bottles into other products? How do you feel about this?
Do you buy products made out of recycled plastic?
Could the use of new bottles (pre-consumer) to make “recycled products” be the new greenwashing ?
Is Antimony in bottles harmless when created into something different?
Any suggestions to stop the madness of plastic bottles?
Update 9/25/2010 This post is part of the Green Moms Carnival about clothing being hosted at the Big Green Purse. How eco-friendly are your clothing purchases? You know my feeling about recycled polyester.
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