The environment is dying. There are empty soda cans at the bottom of the Marianas Trench! Like her or hate her, precocious or practical, the Swedish teen Greta Thunberg has focused global attention on environmental degradation.
One of the leading polluters is the synthetic fiber industry.
The issue which first came to light in the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and has been on the whole ignored for three decades must no longer be shelved.
When Was It Invented?
The Manufacture of nylon, the most well-known synthetic fiber, began in 1935. It is light, durable, and provides plenty of warmth at a fraction of the cost of wool. Overnight cardigans were thrown away, and polyester windcheaters took over.
Nylon became an instant favorite among couturiers and main street fashion designers alike by the 50s. This was followed by spandex, rayon, and polyester. The annual production of polyester now stands at 22 million tonnes.
What is Polyester?
Polyester is the shortened form of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a synthetic polymer. It is manufactured from ethylene glycol and terephthalic acid. We are familiar with PET bottles of Coke, and polyester yarns are thin strands of the same material. To put it simply, it is plastic.
Why is Synthetic Yarn So Popular?
- It can easily withstand the harshest detergents. This allows it to be cleaned more thoroughly than cotton.
- It does not shrink or stretch. It also does not wear out at knees and elbows and maintains shape.
- They absorb color very readily and are perfect for fashion.
- Synthetic yarns are incredibly cheap, being a byproduct of the oil industry.
The Environmental Impact of Synthetic Fibers
1. Global Warming
Plastics originate from the most polluting industry known to man – petrochemicals. To produce polyester yarns, 70 million barrels of oil are needed.
The extraction of crude oil and LPG, from which plastics are processed, is a “dirty” industry with an enormous carbon footprint.
What does this do? It destroys the atmosphere and allows global warming. The icecaps are melting, and sea levels are rising alarmingly.
All you have to do is consider just one fact – the Polar Bear would no longer be seen in the wild by the end of the century. Does this bring home the destruction caused by petro products closer home?
At all costs, we have to prevent the production of any commodity that accelerates this drastic process and hastens the end of hundreds of species.
2. Manufactured From Non-renewable Sources
The energy we expend to run everything we see around us is broadly classified into renewable and non-renewable.
Renewable energy sources are hydroelectric, solar, and wind power.
Non-renewable energy consists of coal, petroleum, nuclear power.
It is better to use renewable because the stock that we use is never-ending. Moreover, these are easily accessed at the surface, and neither mining nor drilling happens.
The manufacture of synthetic yarn depends ultimately upon drilling for oil. Not only does it vastly alter the landscape (unsightly drilling rigs and oil spills being the most common), but it also makes the region uninhabitable.
The extraction process causes groundwater to become toxic and filled with heavy hydrocarbons.
This is the biggest headache when it comes to polyester. The world produces over 20 million tons of the commodity. But it does not decompose at all.
When you send it to a landfill, it will probably stay there for millions of years. With fast fashion, the volume of used clothing that is replaced is more than 10 million tons a year.
We have a massive waste disposal problem if we use synthetics. One solution is to use old plastic to make new plastic. But that costs energy and the new plastic does not disappear when thrown away.
Much of it ends up in the ocean and causes pollution. 73% of deep-sea fishes have microplastics in their body.
What you throw away today ends up on your plate tomorrow as a salmon steak. Hardly, a desirable turn of events.
Is There a Way Out? Yes, it is called Hemp
Human ingenuity knows no bounds.
And in this case, that ingenuity stretches back at least several thousand years. The solution is to turn to hemp.
Don’t raise your eyebrows. Hemp is a product of the Cannabis Sativa plant. Yes, it’s the cannabis made famous by hippies in the 60s.
But wait, all Sativa plants are not the same. The hemp that is used for manufacturing fabric comes from a sub-species that contains a very minute amount of tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. THC is the stuff that makes cannabis so potent as a mind-altering drug.
By no means can you alter your mind by drying up hemp fiber and smoking it. It is also unusually strong, and sailors have used it to make rope for centuries.
Less use of pesticides
The hemp plant contains very strong oils known as cannabinoids. These are natural insect repellents.
Due to this reason, the amount of pesticides used for growing hemp is minuscule when compared to other natural yarns.
Not only this, but hemp can be grown closer together, and whatever spraying happens is more effectively spread, preventing leaching of insecticides into the soil.
Minimum use of water
Hemp is a very hardy crop. That is why it grows even in arid regions. Since it needs very little water to grow hemp, it is beneficial for the environment.
To grow a kilo of these means you need 2.7 tons of water. To grow hemp, only 50% of that vast quantity is needed. Though that still sounds a lot, remember that this includes water for growing the crop, processing it, dying, and the entire supply chain.
Small amounts of fertilizers
Since it is robust, hemp cultivation does not need a lot of added synthetic fertilizers. This not only brings down the cost of growing hemp but also impacts the environment positively.
Fertilizer manufacture happens from downstream products of the petrochemical industry. It is a derivative hydrocarbon.
The fewer fertilizers farmers use, the better it is for sustainability.
Hemp Over Synthetic Fiber – a Choice We Must Make
This is literally a no-brainer.
Do we want the ecosystem of which we are a part to die out? A dystopian future awaits us in that case.
With rising sea levels, 30% of the world’s large cities from New York to Melbourne would have to be evacuated in the next half-century.
Their inhabitants would become climate refugees.
Surely we should do everything in our power to fight back. And that begins with the clothes rack.
It is time that we stopped being on an endless carousel of spring and fall fashions fed to us by giant multinationals and fashion houses to fatten their bottom line.
Why is hemp disparaged? Because it has been used to make sacks and ropes in the past. But new enzyme technology has been able to produce hemp clothes that are soft and retain their shape for years.
Among huge brands, Levi’s has started using hemp to produce trousers. Footwear giant Nike has put hemp shoes on the front burner.
Hemp is undoubtedly the fabric of the future, and as the word spreads about its benefits, more consumers would adopt it and save this planet – the only home we have.