Category Archives: Cotton and the Environment


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.

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 <>,

“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. <>

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.

“I Believe in Science”

“I believe in science,” said Secretary Hillary Clinton, candidate for president of the United States, in her acceptance speech in late July before the national convention of members of the Democratic Party who had gathered to formally endorse her nomination. Secretary Clinton was paraphrasing President Barak Obama who wrote in his book, “The Audacity of Hope,” that he believes in “evolution, scientific inquiry and global warming, …” Continue reading

The Five R’s of Environmental Responsibility: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, & ROT

By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, Jenna R. Jambeck and co-authors writing in the Journal Science estimated that 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated worldwide in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million tons entering the ocean (Science 13 February 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6223 pp. 768-771) The authors noted that world plastic production increased by 620% in the last 40 years. Continue reading

Availability Cascade, Information Cascade and Reputation Cascade: The Relevance of Cascades to Cotton

Summary: An “availability cascade” is a self-reinforcing process of belief formation, in which repetition of a belief triggers a chain reaction of additional repetition. Merely because the belief is repeated, it becomes widely accepted. In other words, a belief becomes irresistible simply as a result of its repetition.

Cotton is suffering from an availability cascade of demonizing allegations that have become so thoroughly interwoven into the consciousness of retailers, organic cotton advocates and environmental and social activists that objective information, no matter how powerful, contrary data, no matter how well researched, and historical perspective, no matter how valid, are automatically rejected as invalid, unacceptable and illegitimate.

Examples of availability cascades of negative information about cotton include the Aral Sea, pesticide use and water consumption.

13b. Availabilty Cascade

Uzbekistan and Cotton Production

Uzbekistan and Cotton Production
Cotton production in Uzbekistan is associated with the destruction of the Aral Sea, with child and forced labor, with pesticide poisoning and with autocratic government. It seems as if no allegation is too evil that someone hasn’t tied it to the cotton industry in Uzbekistan. As one example, an NGO recently asserted that the Uzbekistan government expanded the cotton industry after independence in the early 1990s and developed a massive irrigation system and diverted water destined for the Aral Sea (Innovation Forum Special Report, a Management briefing on Sustainable and ethical cotton sourcing, sponsored by CottonConnect). “Vast monoculture farms growing only cotton were established, with huge amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides ….” Continue reading

The Five R’s of Environmental Responsibility: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, ROT

7. Five Rs

By linking worldwide data on solid waste, population density, and economic status, Jenna R. Jambeck and co-authors writing in the Journal Science estimated that 275 million metric tons of plastic waste were generated worldwide in 192 coastal countries in 2010, with 4.8 to 12.7 million tons entering the ocean (Science 13 February 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6223 pp. 768-771) The authors noted that world plastic production increased by 620% in the last 40 years, and without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of ten by 2025.

7. Picture 3

A trash-covered creek in Manila, Philippines. Francis R. Malasig/U.S. EPA.

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Chemical Use In Cotton, Perspective Needed

Chemical Use in Cotton, Perspective Needed

The Associated Press reported on March 28, 2014:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Fire officials say an explosion involving a tank of nitric acid has injured nine workers at a Rolls-Royce plant near the Indianapolis International Airport.


This is one of many news stories that appear daily around the world regarding accidents involving chemicals. Chemicals used in industries are toxic. Workers are exposed. Injury, and even death, happens.

Cotton is often demonized because of injuries and deaths that occur from unsafe chemical handling practices, and advocates of organic cotton or recycled polyester argue that their products should be used instead. Such assertions  lack perspective on the context of an industry that employees about 250 million people.

The accident in Indianapolis occurred at an aircraft engine factory. No one argues that because of industrial accidents in the manufacturing of aircraft engines we should all start using organic transportation by riding horses and ships again. And, nobody demonizes airplanes because workers involved in their production are injured in chemical spills.