Is nylon as green as cotton?

May 15, 1998

A challenge to the commonly held view that natural fibres are more environmentally friendly than synthetics is being mounted by researchers at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

Project coordinator Jacqueline Herald said the research will help designers make decisions about the environmental impact of their choice of material. The researchers are also creating fabrics that exploit the research findings, including ones that rely on mechanical rather than chemical processing.

One of the outcomes of the work so far is data for an interactive project at the Science Museum in London. The project is part of an exhibition, "Challenge of Materials", at which visitors can explore the properties of a host of materials that determine the quality of contemporary life.

A visitor engaging with the interactive exhibit will first be asked to consider whether it is possible to make an environmentally friendly T-shirt. Progressing through informative texts, aural and graphic prompts, the answer eventually provided will be non-committal.

"The truth is, every material has an environmental impact, but some are bigger and more visible than others," Ms Herald said. "You may save energy if you wash and iron your all-cotton T-shirt at a low temperature, but at 400C the mites in household dust, a common cause of asthma, probably have not been killed."

A major objective of the interactive display is to encourage visitors to consider the environmental impact of products throughout their life cycles. Such an analysis can include the cost of cultivating natural fibres, extracting and processing raw materials, manufacturing, use and disposal.

Analysis of an all-cotton T-shirt would, for instance, implicate the cotton grower, spinner, dyer, T-shirt maker, vendor, wearer, detergent and washing machine manufacturers. Later, there are recyclers and landfill agents to consider, too. Ms Herald said that these various stages will be responsible for the consumption of well over 500 litres of water per T-shirt, 40 grammes of pesticides, fuel for transport, dye, chemicals for finishes and detergents.

"It is important to realise that 80 per cent of the energy is consumed during use of the T-shirt through repeated washing, drying and ironing the garment," she said.

Football shorts in nylon result in a radically different analysis. The material is synthetic, being made from the by-products of oil refining. Colouring nylon is achieved with little toxic effluent. The material requires very low energy because it can be washed in low temperatures, dried very quickly and needs virtually no ironing.

"Such analysis challenges the notion that natural fibres are environmentally more positive than synthetic ones. There are few truths in the environmental game, only relative values," Ms Heraldsaid. By generating "unbiased and understandable" data on materials and processes and their ecological and cultural implications, Chelsea researchers hope to provide designers with a powerful decision-making framework for choosing materials.

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