CRISIS IN OUR CLOSETS: THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF FAST FASHION

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Veronika Michels
Staff Writer

It is hard to argue against the notion that the Western world largely revolves around consumerism. Every billboard and advertisement we see urges us to spend money. We  buy goods and throw them out a month later to make room for more, keeping the wheels of capitalism turning and the garbage industry alive. We live in a fast world, but we can’t do so forever. The planet simply cannot regenerate itself rapidly enough to keep pace with the exploitation of its natural resources. It is well known that the oil industry is currently the largest polluter in the world and is heart and scapegoat for our environmental issues. But as we argue over the need for renewable energy, we are ignorantly clothed in the product of the second greatest polluting industry in the world – fast fashion.

The term “fast fashion” refers to the speed at which clothes are consumed and disposed. On average, each American throws out 82 pounds of textiles each year. Large fashion companies such as Zara, H&M, Topshop and Forever21 release as many as 18 collections a year which results in consumers constantly renewing their wardrobes in accordance with the latest trends. Inefficient production practices and the exploitation of workers in developing countries with capital-friendly labor laws allow these companies to produce clothing on a mass scale and sell them at extremely low prices. Many consumers are ignorant to the transnational flow of goods, exploitative labor conditions and environmentally corruptive production practices that result in the cheap prices we see on our clothing tags. Mass supply and affordability, combined with the incessant craving for novelty bred by consumer culture, has created a mindset of expendability when it comes to clothing that the planet is unable to sustain.

The detrimental environmental impact of fast fashion begins with the production of raw material, which mainly consists of cotton and leather. Cotton is used in around 40 percent of clothes but it requires vast amounts of resources to even be created. The production of a single shirt can require up to 2700 litres of water. Uzbekistan, being the sixth leading producer of cotton in the world, has suffered great consequences as a result of the cotton industry. The Aral Sea was once the fourth largest lake in the world and the main source of water for 1.47 million hectares of agricultural land used for cotton production. Now it has all but dried up and releases toxins and carcinogens into the air which negatively affect the neighboring communities. As laid out by the English fashion designer Katharine Hamnett: “Conventional cotton (as opposed to organic cotton) has got to be one of the most unsustainable fibres in the world. Conventional cotton uses a huge amount of water and also huge amounts of pesticides which cause 350,000 farmer deaths a year [in Uzbekistan] and a million hospitalisations.”

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Satellite images of the Aral Sea in 1989 and 2014

Another main byproduct of the clothing industry is the chemical waste produced from dyeing practices. In Indonesia, chemicals from the textile industry are disposed of into the Citarum River and the water has been contaminated with toxins like mercury, lead, and arsenic. As a result, the aquatic life in the region has suffered greatly and the polluted water often remains untreated as its flows into the ocean. One chemical used in dyeing clothes that is especially dangerous is nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE). NPEs have been banned in the EU but can still be found in clothes imported to the USA, especially in brands like Victoria’s Secret, GAP, Nike, Calvin Klein and Zara. This chemical leads to the feminisation of male fish when it pollutes water and can lead to various complications in pregnant women such as the development of breast cancer cells and damage to the placenta.

Almost every fiber in the material used to make these garments damages the environment during its life cycle. The production of polyester and nylon release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that contribute to global warming 300 times more so than carbon dioxide. These cheaply made fibers eventually end up in oceans and streams as microfibers that come loose during washing cycles. Microfibers and microplastics are then ingested by fish and other ocean life that make their way up the food chain and onto our own plates.

The negative repercussions from production practices aren’t the only harmful output courtesy of the fashion industry. Since most garments are produced in developing countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and Pakistan, they have to be shipped to large urban centers of mass consumption. The shipping industry is widely unregulated and it is estimated that a single ship can emit as many cancer and asthma-causing pollutants in one year as 50 million cars. Moreover, according to EcoWatch, “The low-grade bunker fuel burned by ships is 1,000 times dirtier than highway diesel used in the trucking industry.” Yet, the practices still persist without significant accountability for the damages being done to the atmosphere and oceans.

Unfortunately, just as with climate change, pollution and wasteful lifestyles have the greatest impact on those who contribute to the problem the least. In the Tiruppur district in India, the textile industry has become such a large source of pollution that it has completely destroyed the agricultural industry in the region. Unregulated dyeing practices have resulted in the pollution of the Noyyal river. Crops are now dependent upon rainfall, produce a much smaller yield and threaten the livelihood of local farmers. The primary consumers of these products are spared the negative repercussions that workers in the Tiruppur district must live everyday.

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Workers decontaminate cotton before it is processed at an Indian spinning mill

Fortunately, there is a way to make a difference with our own habits that can oppose the current state of affairs and the way that the fashion industry operates. When it comes to fast fashion, countermovements exist in two forms: quantity and quality of purchased clothing. Central power lies in the hands of the consumer. Quantity is controlled by one’s mindset. As consumers, we need to shift our habits toward investing in quality attire. We should buy clothing with the intent of wearing it for years to come and eliminate the desire to constantly renew the items in our closets. Each purchase must be backed by the consciousness of personal responsibility.

The likelihood of people following through with this on a mass scale unfortunately is not very high. Subsequently, the next solution lies in changing the production processes and business models of fashion retailers. Though some large brands such as H&M and Forever21 have launched campaigns to take in old clothes from customers to reuse, the truth is that only 0.1% of these clothes are actually recycled to be used as fibers in new clothes. This practice is referred to as “greenwashing” and is in no means exclusive to the fashion industry. Pumping money into reshaping a company’s public image to make it appear more sustainable and eco-friendly as a business, but not reshaping its damaging and exploitative business practices at its core, is a common technique used to take advantage of consumer guilt. Successful businesses based on ethical and sustainable models do actually exist though and cater to a range of fashion tastes. Patagonia, Noah, Organic Threads, Symbology, and Krochet Kids Intl. are just a few brands that pride themselves in their ethical and sustainable business models. They provide fair wages to their workers and use organic cotton and recycled polyester in their products. Even H&M is making a move towards sustainability with their new Conscious Collection, made from all recycled materials. It is clear that educating oneself on which shops offer quality items and choosing to invest in their products instead of cheap, short-lived alternatives can really make a difference in reducing the harmful footprint of the fashion industry.

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A thrift store run by the Humane Society in Vero Beach, Florida

We stand at a critical point in time where every decision on how we affect the climate can change the course of humankind’s future on Earth. Each day we get closer to the point of no return and there are certain damages which have already occurred that simply cannot be undone. The climate warms in a system of “amplifying feedbacks” where seemingly small changes in temperature and CO₂ levels create amplified responses that turn into a positive feedback loop. The earth is riddled with these feedback loops and complex ecosystems that are crucial to the overall state of the climate. It is crucial to remain educated and aware of our involvement with the planet’s finite resources. Becoming a conscious consumer within the fashion industry is a meaningful way to claim personal responsibility and is a significant step in combating the climate crisis that we are facing currently.

Images Courtesy of:
Bart Everson
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Commonwealth Scientific And Industrial Research Organisation

 

WELCOME TO AMERICA! WE RECYCLE

Joyce Sunday
Staff Writer

I will never forget the first time I learned about the scientific magic called recycling. As an African, I have a complete understanding that nothing should ever go to waste and every material should be reused until its “life cycle” is over. When I first moved to the United States, I couldn’t help but see all the blue trash cans which boldly stated “we recycle”. Even more ironic was that even the recyclable bins were made of plastic! Sometimes, the containers listed rules to follow teaching us how to recycle correctly. The moment you did not follow the rules of recycling, some people would look at you like you just committed a heinous blunder. With all this in mind, it is not to say that I am not in support of “going green”. I just think it is time that we understand the true consequences of our unapologetic plastic life with the excuse of recycling. Sometime ago, while I was trying to sell the idea of using reusable water bottles and tote bags rather than disposable plastic water bottles and bags to my friend, she said “Joyce, it is not like I do not recycle. I recycle every plastic that I use, so do not make me feel guilty. I am all for going green in America.” Those words, which echoed in my mind, could only helped me to believe that recycling helps people justify their actions when they use plastics.

According to the American Chemical Association, plastics are synthetic polymers that are made from several smaller molecules known as monomers. Different plastics contain different combinations of around 500 to 20,000 repeating units of monomers made using a polymerization reaction. In the 1950s, after the Second World War, plastics were seen as expensive and classy products only obtainable by the rich. Today, the production cost of plastics have greatly reduced, making them inexpensive commodities available to everyone in some form or another. In America, many products, including our cars, phones, clothes, utensils, homes and medical equipment, are made up of different types of plastic. While there are many good uses of this synthetic polymer, a key disadvantage is the creation of more non-biodegradable waste. In order to tackle this problem, recycling was introduced in society. Recycling promises a “great” alternative for us to use plastics while convincing ourselves that “because we recycle” we are not creating harm to the environment.

The truth, however, is that not all plastics recyclable. Just like molecules, different plastics have different melting points, meaning that they can only be recycled together if they contain the same type of synthetic polymer. According to Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), there are major classifications of plastics: low density polyethylene found in plastic bags, high-density polyethylene found in milk bottles, polyvinyl chloride found in shower curtains and medical IV bags, polypropylene found in Monobloc chairs, polystyrene found in hard plastics or foam, polyethylene terephthalate found in soda bottles, and polycarbonate found in hard clear plastics. All plastic materials are given an identification code issued by the SPI, in order to determine the type of organic compound used and how to better recycle them. For instance, polyethylene terephthalate has an identification code of 1, high-density polyethylene has a code of 2, poly vinyl chloride has a code of 3, low density polyethylene has a code of 4, polypropylene has a code of 5, and polystyrene has a code of 6. The American Plastics Council (APC) states that about 50% of the communities in the United States have recycling centers for plastics. Although these programs support recycling, some of them only collect certain types of plastics while others get disposed in the landfill. Cleanup organizations report that in most communities, only plastics with identification codes 1, 2 and 3 are recycled. Low density polyethylene (plastic bags) are rarely recycled because they can easily get stuck in the sorting machine, causing it to potentially break down.

Have you ever observed how the cap of the disposable water bottle is thicker that its body? According to the American Chemical Association, lids and bottle caps are not recycled with their significant bottles because they are not made of the same plastic that is used to make the body of the bottle. Another group of synthetic polymer that cannot be recycled is the polystyrene foam. While it is important to you to have that hot coffee in a polystyrene (Styrofoam) cup, always note that it is impossible to recycle it because the recycling process is not economically feasible. According to the cleanup organization, polystyrene can only be made into Styrofoam trays, and to make one tray, many foam cups will have to be used, leading to consumption of more resources and the creation of more pollution.

Another one of the major setbacks to recycling is contamination. When plastics are contaminated by food, cooking oil, and grease, recycling costs are affected as the contaminants have to be washed out before the plastic can be recycled. This can also affect the water usage in the United States, and seeing that California is in a drought, our water can be used for other, more important chores. Sometimes, contaminated plastics can pollute other materials in the recycling bin, which can lead to these materials not getting reprocessed. Disposable nappies and syringes are two other plastic based products which cannot be recycled as a result of contamination and processing costs. According to Good Housekeeping, polycarbonates and polylactides with code number 7 are not consistently recycled because they have a different organic composition from other plastics. Polylactide plastics are made from plants, so they are considered to biodegradable and hence not recycled.

Next time you walk over to a recycling bin to put in your plastic material, always remember that there are hidden rules that recyclable plastics follow, beyond those on the written on the bin. While we pat ourselves on the back every time we recycle, it is important to know that recycling will not completely solve the issue of our dependency on plastics. It is time we pay adequate attention to what we buy, use and recycle. As a consumer, we have the power to change what big corporations are selling. If we make a pledge to gradually switch from being plastic dependent individuals to investing in other non-plastic alternatives, companies will likely invest in the production of strong, reusable containers and plastic free materials. Also, while we are campaigning for recycling and feeling good about it, we should all be campaigners of “stop the plasticity” and “free the plastic” as well.

Image by csatch

 

Citations

Washam, Cynthia. “Plastics Go Green.” Www.acs.org. American Chemical Association, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.

The Society Of The Plastics Industry (SPI) Established A Classification System In 1988 To Allow. Different types of plastics and their classification (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

Plastics Recycling. Hartford: Connecticut Dept. of Environmental Protection, 1993. Web.

“What Plastic Recycling Codes Mean.” Good Housekeeping. N.p., 25 Nov. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

“LessIsMore.org: Santa Barbara County’s Recycling Resource.” Plastics Recycling. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.

SUSTAINABLE HEALTHCARE: A PLAN FOR A BRIGHTER FUTURE

Rendering of the Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais

By Param Bhatter
Staff Writer

Following the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince in Haiti and displaced over 1 million people from their homes, the people of Haiti were forced to move to poor off-grid rural areas around the city. However, the largest concerns for these rural areas are electricity and healthcare. There is only electricity available for about 20 percent of the country, and even for those who might have it, the power is often intermittent. Most of Haiti’s electricity generation is unsustainable, and based on imported diesel fuel from Venezuela. Most Haitians have to rely on charcoal and wood for fuel and energy, since they have no direct access to electricity. More importantly, this shortage of electricity creates an enormous challenge for attempting to run any hospital in the nation, as it jeopardizes surgeries, neonatal ventilators, basic cardiac EKG machines, and many other essential tasks and machines within the hospital. As famous Harvard School of Medicine Professor Paul Farmer noted, “it’s not great if you are a surgeon and you have to think about getting the generator going.”

Haiti however, with help from the nonprofit organization Partners in Health, was able to create the first ever fully sustainable teaching hospital anywhere in Haiti. Opened in 2013 in the city of Mirebalais, this hospital is the world’s largest solar hospital ever built, and the first of its kind in terms of sustainability. In just the seven months since opening, the hospital’s rooftop solar panels have generated enough electricity to charge close to 20,000 electric cars, attend to over 60,000 patients and operate six surgical rooms at full capacity. The hospital produces more than 100 percent of the electricity needed to operate during peak daylight hours. Using the solar panels slashed energy costs by close to $400,000 per year, which equates to an enormous amount of money in Haiti.

The sustainable innovation and creativity is evident in many parts of the hospital, and is consistent throughout its design. Most of the lighting is provided naturally through windows all around the hospital, minimizing the amount of artificial lighting necessary. In addition, there are many overhangs that create spots for shade, and healing gardens and courtyards as well. There is also an innovative plumbing system, which allows for efficient wastewater treatment. The natural ventilation allows UV light to enter many areas of the hospital, which kills many airborne pathogens such as tuberculosis (TB) and other infectious diseases that are often present in hospitals.

The hospital itself sees close to 500 patients a day, providing treatment ranging from primary health care services to more advanced treatment, often for patients without healthcare insurance or any other form of payment. Primarily however, Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais provides primary healthcare services for the county of Mirebalais and the 200,000 people who live in its surrounding community. Since close to 80 percent of Haiti’s medical infrastructure was destroyed during the 2012 earthquake, the hospital is essential for providing care for a large group of people, even some residents of Port-au-Prince, which is only 30 miles away from Mirebalais. Many of the hospitals primary care services include community health care services, care for HIV/AIDS, TB treatment, neonatal care and prenatal care. With its commitment to sustainability and the community, the hospital additionally serves as a school of medicine, employing over 1,000 residents of the local Haitian community.

As the first hospital of its kind to be seen in a Third World country, Hôpital Universitaire de Mirebalais sets a new standard for healthcare and development in developing countries. The lessons learned from the hospital will be invaluable for Partners in Health, its partners and anyone else who wishes to undertake such ambitious and sustainable projects in relation to healthcare.

Image by Partners In Health