Getting the Balance Right.
A few years ago I went to a discussion about sustainable fashion, one of the speakers was Katherine Hamnett. Back then the organic cotton manufacturing industry was in all sorts of conundrums about authenticity; from growing the cotton to its destination of shop rail; from training to be a designer to retail ethics. Katherine made it clear that the only way she could guarantee a truly fair trade organic product was to oversee the entire process herself.
Katherine being who she is was able to do this. She sold her successful business and started E.Hamnett. She purchased a farm in India and hired local staff. She booked containers to carry the cotton, uncontaminated, to a factory which she also owned in the UK where the garments were then made up. And so receiving a genuine label of authenticity, rather than a nod in the direction of one. The labelling of which many companies were then using more than generously in their favour.
The details of these issues I had already covered at the time. But this week I found myself re-thinking this ethical sustainability issue in a completely different light.
Sand : Water Under the Sand twin : painting and sculpture
I had decided I wanted to create a piece of work connected to my Sand painting with a piece about dessert storms. I'd collected Saharan sand from one such storm while in Southern Spain. And to do this what better way than suspend it in clear resin. To be able see the particles free floating encapsulated in a resin cube. To use plastic was always my intention, I use all kinds of organic, in-organic and synthetic products in my works. So after researching on the web for the best possible clarity of resin-for-purpose I clicked and bought.
It arrived. It had Skull and Cross Bones on the labelling.
I visited my old University for advice, and not surprisingly had a re-think about the product I was about to use.
While I was in Spain I had also written my thoughts on plastic and landfill in general. But this particular product made me think again. I then started to look into using a resin which was more eco-friendly but was surprised at my results.
Rather than using a Petrochemical sourced resin I was now looking at a Bio-resin sourced from vegetable matter.
The biodegradable results were though as far from eco-friendly as they initially sounded. Both types of resin start in liquid form and both require a toxic “hardener” to be added. You can break the whole process down into three different categories.
The Source :
Petro – from fossil fuel – not sustainable in the long run hence recycling.
Bio – from vegetable matter like corn oil – dubiously sustainable in its demand-requirement of land clearance in order to grow. Along with pesticide usage, the pesticides themselves being toxic. The more we switch to bio-plastics the more demand.
The Process :
Both are either toxic (as with Petro) or hazardous because of use of the hardener, the Bio less so.
The End Result :
Recycling plants are industrial composting machines which heat the plastics and are a sustainable alternative to just dumping in landfill or oceans. These have been set up to primarily deal with Petro and are certainly not dealing with the vast majority of plastics produced of whatever denomination. However when a plastic does reach the plant a conundrum becomes apparent not least in abuse of actually labelling how degradable a product is.
In order to degrade quickly Petro has to be heated in the compost this then turns it into a “humus” like substance. Bio on the other hand does not respond to this composting process in the same way so even though it can be argued it has been composted it has not actually been fully degraded. It does on the other hand retain sustainable Carbon 14 which replenishes, Petro does not.
I had always seen the plastics industry as a simple case of Recycle, whereas actually it is far more complicated than that. Even the Standards Organizations cannot decide the exact labelling criteria (see below).
Katherine’s talk about cotton made me think a bit more about the plastics industry. And I am only throwing this open as an idea as this may be a little too simplistic to apply.
But at what stage does a manufacturer leave the responsibility of process? when it has been sold onto the supplier? and in turn with them onto the customer?. Governments and (true) industry have set up recycling plants. But maybe we need to see a Cradle to Grave approach to producing whereby the cost of disposing and recycling is an upfront cost of production in the first place. Unpopular sure, more expensive yes.
As an idea it would place the onus wholly onto those involved in the manufacturing process. The initiators in the chain of demand. No hiding or at least no putting on a commercial face-saving act with the fickle use of labelling.
A commitment from start to end of a products life.
When I was a child I saw no end to infinity – the world was huge the oceans vast. This is not so today. Aside from the vortex of plastic in the oceans the semi-degraded particles are now the size of plankton and are well and truly absorbed into the food chain. The dust and sand storms carry these same tiny plastic particles in the air. We are it seems surrounded by our own detritus of plastic – a massive industry that has grown around us and is engulfing.
I realised this week with a clarity I had not felt before that this is not just about a plastic shopping bag, a bottle of cola, eco friendly rhetoric or nods in the ethical direction. It’s not even about a dwindling fossil fuel industry. The sheer scale and toxicity of our use of plastic is mind boggling –literally everything that can be is made from the stuff.
I have made the choice to use a bio-resin as eco-friendly as possible for this piece – but I am now aware that one day the plastic produced – unless recycled Fully may well end up back in the Sahara or some other arid place devoid of top soil ready to be whipped up into a dust storm only to be dumped many miles away (and yes very probably in a town near you) and ingested by some poor unsuspecting person.
Check this animated Sand and Dust Storm forcast for the next 7 days from the Turkish Met Office
Explanation of Bio-degradable standards from a Wikipedia article on Bio-Plastics
Withdrawal of ASTM D 6002
In January 2011, the ASTM withdrew standard ASTM D 6002, which is what provided plastic manufacturers with the legal credibility to label a plastic as compostable. Its description is as follows:
"This guide covered suggested criteria, procedures, and a general approach to establish the compostability of environmentally degradable plastics."
The ASTM has yet to replace this standard.
Biobased – ASTM D6866
The ASTM D6866 method has been developed to certify the biologically derived content of bioplastics. Cosmic rays colliding with the atmosphere mean that some of the carbon is the radioactive isotope carbon-14. CO2 from the atmosphere is used by plants in photosynthesis, so new plant material will contain both carbon-14 and carbon-12. Under the right conditions, and over geological timescales, the remains of living organisms can be transformed into fossil fuels. After ~100,000 years all the carbon-14 present in the original organic material will have undergone radioactive decay leaving only carbon-12. A product made from biomass will have a relatively high level of carbon-14, while a product made from petrochemicals will have no carbon-14. The percentage of renewable carbon in a material (solid or liquid) can be measured with an accelerator mass spectrometer.
There is an important difference between biodegradability and biobased content. A bioplastic such as high density polyethylene (HDPE) can be 100% biobased (i.e. contain 100% renewable carbon), yet be non-biodegradable. These bioplastics such HDPE play nonetheless an important role in greenhouse gas abatement, particularly when they are combusted for energy production. The biobased component of these bioplastics is considered carbon-neutral since their origin is from biomass.
Anaerobic biodegradability – ASTM D5511-02 and ASTM D5526
The ASTM D5511-12 and ASTM D5526-12 are testing methods that comply with international standards such as the ISO DIS 15985 for the biodegradability of plastic.