Stuff ... and Day 3
I'm on the third day of taking care of my nieces (2 and 4) while their parents are out of town. Grandma came over to help out and asked me if there's anything I'd like to get done while she watches the girls ... immediately I requested uninterrupted time on the computer! I don't know how you bloggers who are parents find the time to do it! I can barely find time to shower, dress, or feed myself. There always seems to be something that needs doing. I still make sure to take the time to just hang out with them too. Yesterday I had a long session in the rocking chair with the 2-year-old. I know she misses Mommy ... but hugs from Aunt Burrito (as I am known) help a little bit.
Anyway. I've recently finished a book entitled Stuff, by John C. Ryan and Allan Thein Durning. It's not new - it was published in 1997 - but it's absolutely relevant to what I'm trying to understand about consumerism and the environment. It follows a "day in the life of an average North American" and explores the "secret lives" of a few choice items: coffee, a newspaper, a t-shirt, shoes, a bike (and a car), a computer, and a fast food meal. There's some useful and extremely disturbing information to be had. For the purposes of this blog I will choose one item and list a few of the highlights of that item's journey. I paraphrase from the book below.
The polyester in the cotton/poly blend started as a few tablespoons of petroleum, derived from deep underground in Maracaibo, Venezuela. The drill found the petroleum deposit with the help of "drilling muds" (diesel fuel, heavy metals, and water) which flushed away rock deposits and cooled the drill bit. Pumps brought the oil and gas to the surface, leaking some crude oil and drilling muds into the soil. An oil refinery in Curaçao, Netherlands washed and processed the oil into various grades of fuels and raw materials for petrochemicals like ethylene and xylene, used to make polyester. A plant in Delaware used catalysts to convert these substances into PET (polyethylene terephthalate), which is one of the most common petrochemicals, found in clothing and a variety of plastic products. In 1994 the U.S. produced more than 64 billion pounds of plastics (more than 250 lbs. per person) ... and almost a third of this became packaging. At the Delaware plant, the PET resin was drawn apart to form polyester fiber, while tiny amounts of catalysts and other toxic compounds escaped into the air.
The two ounces of cotton in the shirt came from 14 square feet of cropland in Mississippi. Aldicarb, one of the most toxic U.S. pesticides, was applied to the plants while the wind carried some of the pesticide and soil into the air and nearby streams. Cotton accounts for 10% of the world's annual pesticide consumption. The cotton seed was also dipped in a fungicide. As the seeds germinated, a tractor with a spray rig was used to douse the field with a soil steriland to kill off everything but the cotton plants. Five more times before harvesting, pesticides will be sprayed, mostly organophosphates, which damage the human nervous system. Cotton also requires heavy irrigation, because of poor water runoff in soil where beneficial organisms like earthworms have been exterminated. Finally, a defoliant was sprayed to prevent the leaves from staining the white cotton bolls, and a large diesel-run stripper will picked the cotton. A cotton gin separated the fibers, and the leftover seeds were used to make cooking oil and feed livestock. A textile mill in North Carolina carded and blended the fibers with polyester, and spun them into yarn, treated with polystyrene to make for easier handling.
Another textile mill knitted the yarn into fabric, which was then washed, bleached, dyed, and finished with industrial chemicals, including chlorine, chromium, and formaldehyde. Cotton resists coloring, so one-third of the dyes didn't take and were carried off in the wastewater. Textile dyes are regulated as hazardous substances by the EPA.
The fabric was shipped to Honduras, where women in a Taiwanese-owned factory cut and sewed the shirt for about 30 cents an hour. The shirt was mounted on a cardboard sheet (pinewood pulp from Georgia), wrapped in a polyethylene bag (Mexico), and stacked in a corrugated box (Maine). The box went by freighter to Baltimore, train to San Francisco, and truck to Seattle, where our imagined consumer resides. Just one session of washing and drying the shirt, using a conventional washer/dryer and detergent, will demand 1/10 of the energy used to manufacture the shirt. Laundering will also create the vast majority of solid waste in the shirt's lifetime.
So - you get the idea. This is just bare-bones information presented here ... you could expand your question to ask, what about all the parts the go into the equipment used to treat, harvest, process, and deliver? What about the chlorine, and effects of other chemicals? The authors are aware of this and include what they feel will present the broadest picture, but without creating a book too large to lift.
Stuff is informative and interesting. It's short and a quick read. I was disappointed that the authors attempted to "lighten up" some of the text with jokes ... because I find it all far from funny, and I want the hard core facts with no sugar coating. Near the beginning of the book, the authors warn readers: "Reviewers of early drafts reported feeling overwhelmed and depressed after learning the true stories of how things are made ... so we lightened the text: editing out technical details and highlighting alternatives, fun trivia, and even a joke or two." At the end of each chapter is a "What to Do" section ... which I appreciate, but I think they could have gone further with their suggestions. For instance, in the t-shirt chapter, I would have made this suggestion: DON'T BUY A SHIRT, even a used one, unless you have weighed the decision heavily and decided you really need it. If you already have a couple of t-shirts, I can't think of a single logical reason you'd need another.