Fibers & The Environment

Products to Protect the Environment

Manufactured fibers are used in many products that protect the environment, ranging from geotextiles for land stabilization and erosion prevention, to filtration materials that clean air and water, to special absorbents designed to remove spilled oil from waters and wetlands.

Fibers from Recycled Plastics

Some of the polymers used in common consumer plastics are the same as those used to make fibers. In these cases, recycled plastics can serve as a source of raw material for fiber production. One successful example of this is the production of polyester fiber from soda bottles — particularly good for recycling since they are almost always made of poly(ethylene terephthalate), usually referred to as PET, or simply, polyester. Plastic soda bottles are also easily identified by consumers for separation and recycling. They are available in large enough quantities to justify building recycling facilities.

Recycling works well in this case, but choices about alternative products, and alternative ways to reduce them impact on the environment are not very often this straightforward. As a general example, the choice between paper or plastic in a given situation can be a complicated matter. For an excellent analysis on the point go to the website created by the Plastic Bag Information Clearinghouse to see their review on Paper or Plastic?

Life Cycle Assessments

A meaningful analysis and evaluation of any product’s relationship to the environment must include a broad array of criteria including low-impact production, low-impact maintenance, and its classification as recyclable, reusable or incineratable. Primary considerations are low impact on plant and animal life, conservation of limited resources, and waste minimization.

Evaluating these criteria at all stages of a product’s life cycle is a very complicated process. Environmental impacts associated with both production and maintenance, as well as end-of-life options, must be included. Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, is the accepted analytical method for doing this.

The best current LCA methods call for a complete inventory of the inputs and outputs from all phases of a product’s lifetime. The results can then be used to set priorities for efforts to reduce environmental effects.

Life Cycle Assessment of a Typical Fiber Product

As a demonstration of the applicability of standard Life Cycle Assessment methodology to consumer textile products, the American Fiber Manufacturers Association sponsored an LCA on a typical woman’s knitted blouse made from polyester filament yarn. This garment was chosen as the test because it could be designed without materials (zippers, buttons, etc.), and it’s manufacture is relatively simple. To read the complete report click here.

LCA studies usually look at very specific energy sources, raw materials and production processes in a defined geographical location, but this project was conducted as a generic study of a garment made from a weighted industry average of inputs and outputs, for a particular fabric construction, dye and garment design.

Although the primary purpose of the polyester blouse LCA was to evaluate the application of the methods to a typical fiber-based consumer product, some of the results have some general application. The importance of considering the consumer use and maintenance was particularly striking. Although the results were magnified by the light weight of the garment studied, it was clear that laundering was responsible for far more pollutant emissions than all other phases of the life cycle combined.

Life cycle energy consumption was found to be the key factor in determining air and water emissions, as well as solid waste. Acquiring fuels (mining for coal, drilling for oil, etc.) and burning them to produce energy accounts for large amounts of greenhouse gases (primarily carbon dioxide) and other pollutant gases. Mining and drilling wastes, together with ash, soot and residue from cleaning stack emissions at power-generating facilities, are major solid waste producers. It followed that, water temperature and drying time were found to be the most important controllable factors. A consumer choice to switch from hot washing and machine drying to cold washing and line drying greatly reduces the environmental impacts associated with the garment.

To learn more about Life Cycle Analysis, check out the following sites:

Woman’s Knit Polyester Blouse Life Cycle Analysis
Life Cycle Assessment methodology applied to a consumer textile product.

LCA Guide & Principles
Information on an authoritative reference published by CRC Press.

Academy of Natural Sciences
Discussion of the role of LCA in evaluating the environmental friendliness of potential purchases.

Flemish Technology Research Institute
Basic LCA information and summaries of case studies.