Microplastics

Microplastics: A Danger to the World Environment and Human Health
A study of microplastics in the Great Lakes in North America published in September of this year provides additional evidence that polyester fibers in clothing pose a previously unacknowledged risk to the environment and human health. Researchers looked for microplastic particles (0.33 to 1 mm) in samples of water, and the most common forms found were plastic microfibers from clothes, diapers and cigarette butts.

http://www.plasticsnews.com/article/20160915/NEWS/160919900/microplastics-found-throughout-great-lakes-rivers-in-new-study#utm_medium=email&utm_source=pn-daily&utm_campaign=pn-daily-20160915&email_pndaily

https://www.usgs.gov/news/widespread-plastic-pollution-found-great-lakes-tributaries

The research shows that microplastics are harmful to animal health and potentially to human health. Ingested microplastics can cause digestive and reproductive problems, as well as death, in fish, birds and other animals. Unhealthy additives in the plastic, including flame retardants and antimicrobials, have been associated with cancer and endocrine disruption in humans. . Also, pollutants such as pesticides, trace metals and even pathogens can accumulate at high concentrations on microplastic particles.

Scientists have found microplastics nearly everywhere. Aside from rivers, microplastics are also common in lakes and oceans, in freshwater and marine fish, oysters and mussels, and in sediment. They are deposited onto land and water surfaces from the atmosphere.

More broadly, all forms of plastic, not just microplastics, pose threats to the environment. As quoted from, “Bottles, bags, ropes, and, toothbrushes: the struggle to track ocean plastics,” by Daniel Cressey in Nature, 17 August 2016 < http://www.nature.com/news/bottles-bags-ropes-and-toothbrushes-the-struggle-to-track-ocean-plastics-1.20432>,

“From Arctic to Antarctic, from surface to sediment, in every marine environment where scientists have looked, they have found plastic. Other human-generated debris rots or rusts away, but plastics can persist for years, killing animals, polluting the environment and blighting coastlines. By some estimates, plastics comprise 50–80% of the litter in the oceans.”

The issue of plastic and microplastic pollution is rising on the agenda of the international community. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) passed a resolution at its Nairobi meeting in May 2016, stating that “the presence of plastic litter and microplastics in the marine environment is a rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”.

Even retailers, who are usually the last to be aware of science or to care about empirical reality that might impede their sales or sales margins, are beginning to acknowledge the negative impacts of microfibers from synthetic apparel. For instance, the clothing retailer Patagonia funded a study of pollution from synthetic microfibers, a subcategory of microplastics consisting of fibers shed from clothing or other textiles. The study, “MICROFIBER POLLUTION and the apparel industry,” by Bruce, Hartline, Karba, Ruff and Sonar, with Faculty Advisor Holden of the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara, found that synthetic apparel contributes substantially to microplastic pollution when water is discharged from washing machines. < http://brenmicroplastics.weebly.com/project-findings.html>

In addition to pollution from the microfibers themselves, research indicates that hazardous chemicals are transported into the environment along with the fibers. Aquatic organisms throughout the food chain consume microplastics and microfibers, causing harmful impacts ranging from starvation to reproductive impacts. Microplastics and microfibers have also been found in marine organisms consumed by humans, with unknown effects.

Fashion Trends Encourage Micro Particle Pollution

The most significant advances by the polyester fibers industry over recent decades have all been linked to the development of finer, more delicate products made from finer deniers. Therefore, manmade fibers seem to have migrated in a direction which precisely amplifies the production of microparticles. Polyester’s progress in these new fiber types has been particularly rapid, and this is the key engine that has allowed it to gain market share from other fibers. One logical response to the micro particle challenge is stronger polymers and heavier dpf (denier per filament) products, which would roll back 20-30 years of aesthetic improvement.

Implications for Cotton

Cotton has been demonized for decades because of the self-interests of advocates of organic cotton and retailers seeking brand differentiation. (Demonization is defined as describing practices decades out of date as being current, giving statistics without context or perspective, and alleging linkages between cotton and harm without scientific basis.)

Because cotton is a perennial, broad leafed crop, it is inherently technology intensive, meaning that cotton cannot be produced on a commercial scale without using fertilizer and pesticides. In addition, cotton is a water efficient crop and so is grown in arid and semiarid regions, like West Africa, Central Asia and Maharashtra. Incredibly, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and other environmental groups criticize cotton for being grown in areas of water scarcity, as if farmers would be better off growing other crops in such areas instead.

Other agricultural products also face criticism from environmental groups for a variety of factors, ranging from antibiotic use in poultry, to biotechnology in corn and soybeans, to nitrogen fertilizer runoff from corn production in the Midwest of the United States. Cotton might get extra scrutiny because it is labor intensive, and so prone to labor abuses, and because it is a cash crop, not a food crop, and so it is easier to criticize small holder production.

However, the new research on the presence of microplastic particles in the environment from polyester in clothing may begin to change the structure of incentives that encourages the demonization of cotton. For all of cotton’s problems, at least it all is biodegradable, and all the inputs used in cotton production are themselves natural products or biodegradable products. At some point, environmentalists and retailers, whose criticism of cotton has always been an implicit endorsement of polyester, will have to begin to weigh the realities of tradeoffs in fiber use.

Roles of Govt

The Role of Governments in the Cotton Industry: First, do no Harm

Terry Townsend, PhD
Cotton Analytics
Houston, TX USA
Terry@CottonAnalytics.com

Cotton is a great industry employing hundreds of millions around the world and providing products touched by almost every person on the planet every day. In any industry this large and important, governments will be involved in a multiplicity of ways, from approving seed varieties, to funding research, to regulating labor standards. Most of these interventions are both necessary and positive. We all realize that chemicals need to be regulated, that workers need to be protected, that research must be funded, that markets need to be transparent. Indeed, the very existence of ICAC implies that the role of governments in the cotton industry is necessary.

However, while governments always mean well, they do not always do well, and some forms of government intervention have highly deleterious effects. The inefficiencies and harm associated with government measures that directly distort cotton production and trade have been well-discussed in ICAC meetings for decades. However, other forms of government involvement in global fiber markets have received less attention, even though their cumulative impacts may have great negative implications for the livelihoods of millions of people.

In particular, government industrial policies that subsidize the production and use of synthetic fibers, and government agencies whose publications and programs disseminate falsehoods, or enable others to disseminate falsehoods, about cotton production practices, are doing great disserve to consumers and great harm to producers around the world.

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Peak Cotton May Have Passed

In the Age of Sail, all lines and sails on ships were made of natural fibers, mostly hemp and sisal for ropes, and linen for sails, and millions of tons of each fiber were produced each year. Today, with the exception of museums, all ships’ lines and sails are made of nylon, polypropylene or polyester, and world production of natural fibers used in lines and sails has fallen to just a few hundred thousand tons.

Prior to the advent of “fast fashion” and “casual Fridays,” wool was a major apparel fiber. In the 1960s, wool accounted for 10% of world apparel fiber use. Today, wool accounts for 1% of world fiber use.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, cotton probably accounted for 75% of world fiber use, and in the 1960s, cotton still accounted for two-thirds of all fiber use. By the 1980s, cotton’s share had fallen to half, and today, cotton’s share of world fiber consumption is less than 30%, and falling.

World cotton consumption reached 26.6 million tons in 2007, but nine years later in 2016, despite population growth of 11% or 760 million, and cumulative world real GDP growth of 10% or US$3.1 trillion, world cotton consumption is still approximately 3 million tons, or 10%, less than it was at its peak. Just as with hemp, sisal, flax, wool and other natural fibers, the world may realize years from now that ‘Peak Cotton’ has passed.

Unity Needed

The world economy is highly competitive, and all industries face strategic threats. However, natural fibers, more than most other agricultural commodities, face competition from manmade alternatives. The modern cotton industry based on international trade in saw ginned upland cotton is approximately 200 years old, and over most of that time governments could intervene in markets and critics could demonize the industry, secure in the knowledge that no matter how much harm they did, the world cotton industry itself would recover. However, the loss of market share to polyester during the 21st century has been so rapid and so severe that cotton has reached a point where its survival as a major fiber is in question.

As of 2016, cotton appears to be an industry in decline, trapped between low prices for polyester and huge stocks of cotton, and under attack from government agencies that wish to limit cotton production because of perceived environmental and social harm. The governments of countries concerned about the health of the cotton economy must unite to confront these threats.

Polyester is a Product of Industrial Policy, not Market Forces

The underlying story about world cotton consumption can only be understood in the context of polyester production in China. As China started to industrialize in the early 1980s, textile production was a leading area of investment. In 1990, polyester fiber production in China was about 1 million tons, but by 2015, polyester production in China had grown to approximately 35 million tons, equal to 70% of the world total . The 35-fold increase in polyester production in China in 25 years is the single biggest factor reducing world demand for cotton today .

There are no comprehensive statistics on the number of polyester fiber production plants in China, their ownership, sources of financing or operating costs. However, the growth in polyester production in China has been so rapid, so enormous and so incongruous with investment patterns in other countries in Asia, that it is impossible to believe that industry expansion is a result of competitive, private sector investment.

The cost of construction of a polyester plant with a capacity of 250,000 tons per year is estimated at about US$150 million. It has been widely reported that the national, provincial and local governments in China encourage industrial expansion through loans that are never repaid made by government-owned banks. There are numerous stories in China of “ghost cities ” and industrial plants producing only for inventory because they have no customers . Given the emphasis by all levels of government in China on textile production since 1990, it is highly likely that much of the expansion of polyester production capacity occurred with the help of loans that have become grants. It would be naïve to think that the expansion in polyester production in China occurred because Chinese consumers were demanding more polyester or that other market forces encouraged such growth. The expansion resulted from the industrial policies of the Government of China.

The loss of market share for cotton has been largely the result of policies of the Government of China following China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and the end of the Multifiber Arrangement (MFA) in January 2005. Unless governments with an interest in the health of the world cotton industry unite in the WTO to oppose China’s subsidization of polyester production, in the same way that governments have waged a campaign in the WTO to reduce direct government measures that distort cotton production and trade, cotton’s loss of market share will continue, and the livelihoods of cotton producers will be further compromised.

Technology Denial Strangles Cotton

The denial of agricultural technology by government agencies is contributing to the strangulation of the world cotton industry and the loss of competitiveness to polyester. In order to compete with polyester, cotton yields have to rise and the cost of production must fall; this is a fundamental reality of a competitive world economy in which consumers exercise choice based on fashion, fit, color, feel, price, availability and other factors. If cotton cannot supply market demands at prices consumers will pay, cotton will go the way of wool, linen, silk, ramie, hemp, sisal and other fibers whose markets were once measured in millions of tons and are now niche fibers.

It is technology that will enable yields to rise. It is technology that will enable farmers to produce more cotton with less resource use, thus lowering real costs and environmental impacts, and it is technology that will enable an improvement in intrinsic fiber quality parameters to meet consumer preferences. However, regulators and trade officials in many countries, and especially in Europe, often reject the science underlying modern agricultural production technologies.

The Partnership for Sustainable Textiles <https://www.textilbuendnis.com/en/> is a current example of government action that reinforces campaigns of demonization against cotton.

The Partnership is an initiative of the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, Government of Germany. The catalyst for the start of the Partnership was the collapse of a building called Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in 2013. The underlying premise of the Partnership is that deficiencies in the cotton, textile and garment value chain can be corrected by encouraging retailers in Germany to only source products made from cotton that is “sustainably” sourced.

Within the structure of the Partnership, a Working Group on Natural Fibres has developed a preliminary set of recommendations for adoption by the Partnership that would use moral suasion and public criticism to pressure German retailers to avoid sourcing consumer textile and apparel products made from cotton that is not produced under an identity program such as organic, Fair Trade, Cotton made in Africa or BCI. Cotton grown outside these programs, including almost all cotton produced in ICAC member countries, would face discrimination in international trade by retailers sourcing products for sale in Germany, and eventually the entire European Union.

If the Textiles Partnership were an entirely private sector activity, such actions would be outside the interest of the ICAC, and it would be the responsibility of cotton producers to counter the claims made by those who would avoid purchasing their product. However, the Textiles Partnership is funded, organized and enabled by a government agency. Accordingly, this is a matter for ICAC concern.

Under the preliminary recommendations developed by the Working Group on Natural Fibres, even cotton grown in Greece, Spain and Turkey (Turkey is a member of the EU customs union) would face discrimination in Germany. Even if the definition of “sustainable” cotton eventually adopted by the Textile Partnership is ultimately broadened to include cotton grown outside the identity programs, it will still communicate to consumers that only “certain cottons” should be allowed.

The danger of the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles is not that it will ever amount to anything, because it is so impractical it can never be implemented. The danger is that a government agency is lending it’s credibility to the demonization of cotton, and this will hurt all producers.

Conclusions

Cotton and its sister natural fibers have long and romantic stories as some of the most important commodities in the history of mankind. However, just as horses have been supplanted by cars, so are natural fibers threatened by synthetic alternatives, particularly polyester. To survive as more than just a niche fiber displayed in museums and to remain commercially relevant, cotton must compete with polyester on both price and technical performance characteristics.

Among the major threats to cotton’s long run viability as a commercial fiber are government policies that encourage polyester production and prevent cotton prices from being competitive with polyester, government policies and regulations that inhibit adoption of technology, and government programs that reinforce consumer attitudes born of ignorance that reject agricultural science.

To combat these threats, the cotton industry, and governments of countries with an interest in cotton, must unite and advocate for government policies that, “first, do no harm.” Governments must oppose subsidies to polyester production just as vehemently as they have campaigned against subsidies in the cotton sector. Governments must also premise policies and programs on sound science so as to enable cotton producers to innovate, adopt and implement latest technologies that produce increased yields at lower costs so as to provide fiber to textile mills at prices competitive with polyester.

Islamabad

From roses given to each participant on arrival at the airport in Islamabad, along with assistance through immigration and customs, through a week of fashion shows, an elegant dinner with the President, receptions and lunches, to a final handshake at the airport on departure, the 75th Plenary Meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) since 1939 was a triumph of hospitality by Pakistan.

The agenda was substantive, and the meeting was well organized. Topics of discussion ranged from the threat of subsidized polyester production, reducing cotton’s water footprint, expanding the use of SEEP indicators to define sustainability, and an explicit acknowledgment that government measures for cotton must avoid distorting the market.

Those who missed the 75th ICAC Plenary Meeting, missed a good meeting.

A Triumph of Hospitality

From roses given to each participant on arrival at the airport in Islamabad, along with assistance through immigration and customs, through a week of fashion shows, an elegant dinner with the President, receptions and lunches, to a final handshake at the airport on departure, the 75th Plenary Meeting of the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) since 1939 was a triumph of hospitality by Pakistan.

The agenda was substantive, and the meeting was well organized. The purpose of a plenary meeting is to move forward through agreements to cooperate and through the identification of best practices appropriate for national adoption. The 75th Plenary Meeting accomplished this purpose in a number of subject areas. Topics of discussion ranged from the threat of subsidized polyester production, reducing cotton’s water footprint, expanding the use of SEEP indicators to define sustainability, and an explicit acknowledgment that government measures for cotton must avoid distorting the market.

The 76th Plenary Meeting will be held in Uzbekistan, presumably in conjunction with the annual Cotton Fair in Tashkent in October 2017.

Polyester Subsidies

Almost all the growth in world fiber use has been in polyester in recent years. It is self-evident that hundreds of millions of consumers are not clamoring for more polyester in their clothing and home furnishings. Rather polyester has gained market share because of low prices, and while lower oil prices have contributed, the overwhelming reason for low prices of polyester is subsidized production in China. By 2015, polyester production in China had grown to approximately 35 million tons, equal to 70% of the world total. The 35-fold increase in polyester production in China since 1990 is the single biggest factor reducing world demand for cotton today.

There are no comprehensive statistics on the number of polyester fiber production plants in China, their ownership, sources of financing or operating costs. However, the growth in polyester production in China has been so rapid, so enormous and so incongruous with investment patterns in other countries in Asia, that it is impossible to believe that industry expansion is a result of competitive, private sector investment. Based on discussions in Islamabad, the ICAC Secretariat will expand its studies of the polyester market to include government support for polyester that have stimulated overcapacity in polyester fiber.

Unless governments with an interest in the health of the world cotton industry unite in the WTO to oppose China’s subsidization of polyester production, in the same way that governments have waged a campaign in the WTO to reduce direct government measures that distort cotton production and trade, cotton’s loss of market share will continue, and the livelihoods of cotton producers will be further compromised.

Water Management

Globally, 71% of water withdrawals are used in agriculture, and cotton is often associated with water scarcity because it is a desert crop usually grown in arid and semi-arid conditions (annual rainfall below 900 mm). Issues of resource use optimization, including water management, have been a concern of the cotton industry since at least the 1960s.

Experts in water management noted at the ICAC Plenary that cotton is a water-efficient plant (a point often missed by the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and other environmental NGOs). Free or nominal water prices do not encourage efficient water use, and water should be priced according to volume (quantity) applied and not area planted. Measurement of water use is key to management of water use.

Biotechnology in Cotton

Since commercial introduction in 1996, the use of biotechnology in all crops has increased by 3% per year. As of 2013, 18 million farmers in 27 countries planted crops with biotech traits on 175 million hectares. Therefore, it is not surprising that the use of biotechnology has begun to affect the pattern of insect infestations around the world.

Chart courtesy of Khalid Abdullah, 75th ICAC Plenary Meeting

India and Pakistan account for almost 50% of world cotton area, and the pink bollworm caused huge losses in yields in both countries during 2015. The situation is better in the current season, but this pest still requires vigilance. The pink bollworm has developed resistance to the first insect-resistant biotech gene. Consequently, farmers in some countries are returning to older pest control methods based on insecticides. In contrast, where the regulatory environment allows, farmers have access to second and third generation biotech events that remain effective against the pink bollworm.

Biotech cotton events providing resistant to the whitefly are at advanced stages of development. When commercialized, these new events will bring large benefits to growers. Similar progress on transgenic cotton resistant to the leaf curl disease is in development in Pakistan.

Adoption of biotechnology is a measureable indicator of overall technology adoption. A lack of biosafety protocols, high technology fees, a lack of incentives for public sector development of biotech events and inadequate public funding for research inhibit development of biotechnology in developing countries.

Contamination: Incentives Needed

The key to reducing contamination is to provide incentives. However, the marketing system in Pakistan and most other developing countries undermines efforts to provide incentives to growers. In Pakistan, farmers sell to intermediaries (middlemen or country merchants) who aggregate lots of seed cotton from multiple small holders for delivery to gins. Consequently, it is difficult to identify sources of contamination and reward delivery of clean seed cotton upon inspection at gins. In addition, picking costs are already relatively high, making the payment of additional incentives to pickers for cotton without contamination untenable. Machine-picking may be the ultimate solution to reducing contamination.

Reducing Corruption Through Electronic Documentation

Paperwork linked to the movement of cotton is associated with trade restrictions, including tariffs, quotas, import and export licenses, subsidies, local content requirements, and embargos. Many of these requirements are associated with conformity and pre-shipment requirements, plus inspection and certification procedures on arrival. Each exchange of papers, each required stamp or signature, each face-to-face interaction, creates the opportunity for corruption. There will always be individuals who will be willing to pay to speed or slow or to facilitate or block. By eliminating the involvement of the human hand, electronic documentation can enhance efficiency and lower costs, and make corruption more difficult.

road

Photo Courtesy of Peter Wakefield, 75th ICAC Plenary Meeting.

Eliminate Phytosanitary Documents from Shipment-to-Shipment

One document that is required for all cotton shipments is a phytosanitary certificate. On the recommendation of the Private Sector Advisory Panel, the ICAC has been urging countries to adopt the FAO model phytosanitary certificate for trade in cotton since 2009. However, an even more effective reform would be to recognize that phytosanitary practices in each exporting country do not vary from shipment to shipment. Accordingly, individual phytosanitary certificates for each shipment are unnecessary and could be replaced with a “confirmation of compliance” with harmonized standards for fumigation and phytosanitary practices. Thus any shipment originating from a country in compliance with such a harmonized standard would not need an individual piece of paper for each shipment.

Compliance Benefits

There are 16 separate trade agreements registered with the WTO that affect agriculture and textiles, ranging from the Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) negotiated during the Uruguay Round of GATT to the Information Technology Agreement. Cotton production and trade has increased since 1990 in developing countries that observe these agreements. The lesson is obvious, compliance with trade norms leads to increased trade.

Ginning for Profits, Rather than Ginning for Volume

Fiber length distribution is always damaged by ginning. Operational choices facing ginners include processing speed and fiber moisture content. Slower speeds result in better fiber properties but increase energy consumption and ginning costs per kilogram. Moisture affects fiber strength and elongation, but moisture management is expensive. Ginners with moisture management capabilities should increase the moisture percentage in seed cotton entering the gin stand, reduce moisture during pre-cleaning and ginning, and then increase moisture again as lint enters the bale press.

Small improvements in length distribution result in big improvements in yarn performance, but accurate and fast instruments to measure length distribution in gins is not available. Therefore, management of gin speeds and moisture are based on average or expected fiber quality results, combined with expected price premiums for improved quality. If the cotton marketing system does not reward improved fiber quality, ginners will have no incentive to optimize ginning speeds and moisture content. Cotton suffers in competition with manmade fibers because quality premiums are poorly communicated to farmers and ginners by most marketing systems.

Roller Ginning vs. Saw Ginning

There has historically been a tradeoff between saw ginning and roller ginning, with roller ginning being slower and more expensive but producing higher quality fiber. However, new high speed double-roller gins with capacities of 400-600 kilograms of lint per hour can bridge the difference with saw gins. The operating costs per kilogram of new high speed roller gins operating at 600 kilograms of lint per hour are half the cost of previous roller ginning systems. Rotary knife roller gins are suitable for use on Upland cotton and can be cost competitive with saw ginning while maintaining the traditional fiber quality advantages of roller gins. High speed roller ginning may begin to supplant saw ginning for medium staple Upland cotton varieties.

ginning

Photos provided courtesy of A. Engin Dirik, 75th ICAC Plenary Meeting

HVI Requires a System, not just an Instrument

The use of High Volume Instrument systems for testing cotton quality involve much more than just buying a machine. HVI systems must be part of national classing systems with 100% bale sampling. When national HVI systems are implemented, marketing systems must be revised to provide quality premiums to growers and ginners in accordance with market results. Such marketing systems necessarily involve permanent bale IDs and national bale numbering systems to enable bale quality to be assigned accurately to gins and producer groups. Reliable, high speed internet connectivity is a must.

Organic Cotton: Zero Comfort Advantage Over Conventional

Regarding textile and apparel products made from organic cotton fibers, a specialist in testing fabric for properties associated with comfort reported that there is absolutely zero physical difference between products made of conventional cotton, including biotech, and organic cotton.

Photo provided courtesy of Tanveer Hussain, 75th ICAC Plenary Meeting.

Conclusion

If you were not there, you missed a good one.

Pakistan proved a wonderful host country, the ICAC Secretariat did its customary good job supporting the meeting, and delegates not only learned a lot, they achieved a lot. I enjoyed myself.