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Sustainability and Life Cycle Information

There are many misconceptions appertaining to the environmental responsibility aspects of US cotton production. These are addressed by the facts outlined as follows:

 

Life Cycle Assessment

The Life Cycle Analysis (“LCA”) is a vehicle used to ascertain the environmental impact of a product, process or activity throughout its life cycle – from the extraction of raw materials through to processing, transport, use and disposal with an ultimate goal of developing sustainable policies and programs. True Cotton is a 100% natural US cotton product exhibiting sustainable and responsible growth and production and an inherent biodegradability at the end of its useful life. Through the diligent work of Cotton Incorporated, the initial step in the LCA process, know as the Life Cycle Inventory, has been completed. This substantial amount of data has been sent to the appropriate LCA databases, Gabi and EcoInvent. The full analyses of this data should be available to the public in the coming months. 

 

True Cotton - Sustainability

The following applies to the US cotton industry:

  • The cotton industry today is well on its way to fulfilling one of the most important goals all industries must strive for – sustainability.
  • To achieve sustainability the cotton industry is developing and putting in practice new technologies, methods and new uses for the cotton plant that meet our current needs for productivity and profit without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
  • Sustainability is not a goal our industry takes lightly. Our earth's very survival is at stake. Achieving this goal requires our full and continuous attention to reducing environmental impact throughout every link in cotton's long supply chain – from the seeds from which we grow cotton, to the processing and manufacturing practices we use for finished goods.
  • To meet the needs of the earth's growing population, projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050, we must, as we reduce cotton's environmental impacts, simultaneously increase its productivity. With virtually all of the world's arable land already under cultivation, clothing the earth's people with natural fiber textiles in 2050 means fiber production on existing farmlands must triple.
  • The engine that will drive us to full sustainability is our research. The cotton industry's dedicated scientists lead us to new technologies and methods that are steadily being applied across the global supply chain.
  • Already our research has enabled cotton growers to reduce their reliance on pesticides by 50%; to cut back 45% on their use of irrigated water; and to produce substantially greater amounts of fiber without expanding acreage. Research has also played a significant role in developing uses for the cotton plant, including its ginning by-products, thereby reducing and eliminating what had once been considered to be bio-waste. And in the future, research happen today on drought-resistant cotton plants, and plants that naturally resist pests shows great promise for the future of the industry and its relationship to the planet.
  • These environmental advances, and many more like them, are enabling the cotton industry to fulfill the demands of present – and future – generations, making the cotton industry a key player in a fully sustainable tomorrow. (1)
  • In terms of water management and cotton, existing natural water resources can sustain cotton production in many areas of the world with a minimal environmental impact. Cotton has been incorrectly cited as a water intensive crop, when in reality it is very drought tolerant. In fact, in many regions of the world, cotton gets all of its water from rainfall — water that would be used by whatever vegetation is present. Quoting from the 2004 Agricultural Statistics Annual from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, in the US, about 64% of the cotton crop is produced without irrigation, and irrigation is used in most of the remaining 35% of U.S. cotton crop only to supplement crop needs.  A cotton plant's water requirements are less than annual rainfall from central Texas to the East in the U.S.

 

True Cotton vs. Other Fibers

The majority of fibers in use today are plastic materials derived from the petroleum industry. These materials possess a huge raft of problems in their safety with eco-systems, their disposal and in their sustainability. These problems are excellently elucidated in a paper published by the Royal Society (2) which states: "However, concerns about usage and disposal are diverse and include accumulation of waste in landfills and in natural habitats, physical problems for wildlife resulting from ingestion or entanglement in plastic, the leaching of chemicals from plastic products and the potential for plastics to transfer chemicals to wildlife and humans. However, perhaps the most important overriding concern, which is implicit throughout this volume, is that our current usage is not sustainable. Around 4 per cent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics and a similar amount is used as energy in the process. Yet over a third of current production is used to make items of packaging, which are then rapidly discarded. Given our declining reserves of fossil fuels, and finite capacity for disposal of waste to landfill, this linear use of hydrocarbons, via packaging and other short-lived applications of plastic, is simply not sustainable." Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies. Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects and plastics buried deep in landfills can leach harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.(3)

Plastics in the United States make up more than 12 percent of the municipal solid waste stream, a dramatic increase from 1960, when plastics were less than one percent of the waste stream. The largest category of plastics are found in containers and packaging (e.g., soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles), but they also are found in durable (e.g., appliances, furniture) and nondurable goods (e.g., diapers, trash bags, cups and utensils, medical devices). The recycling rate for different types of plastic varies greatly, resulting in an overall plastics recycling rate of only 8 percent, or 2.4 million tons in 2010. However, the recycling rate for some plastics is much higher, for example in 2010, 28 percent of HDPE bottles and 29 percent of PET bottles and jars were recycled.(4)

As a natural, renewable fiber, cotton (and hence True Cotton) has obvious environmental and sustainability advantages over non-renewable petroleum-based synthetic fibers.  Furthermore, unlike these petroleum-based fibers, cotton is energy self-sustaining, and does not contribute to net green house gas emissions. Cotton uses sunlight and converts it directly to a fiber without intermediate processing steps. Cotton has a “negative” energy footprint, capturing more solar energy in the seed than is used to produce it. This is highly significant since processing other fibers, even those from biological sources, requires a large amount of energy both from feed and in subsequent processing to produce useable fiber. Furthermore, fibers that are based on natural cellulosic resources require intermediate processing and additional chemicals to create for example, rayon. These do not show the direct plant-based production of an immediately useable fiber as seen with greige True Cotton.

In connection with the carbon footprint associated with the growth and ginning of cotton, the US cotton industry is focused on improving the air quality associated with the production of cotton fiber. By addressing soil sustainability by using reduced tillage practices which are now in place in US cotton growing, dust emissions are reduced in the field and following this growing stage, many air quality controls are practiced at cotton gins. Reduced tillage practices also and very importantly increase the sequestration rates of soil carbon — by as much as 400 pounds of carbon per acre per year. (5) The use of new types of genetically engineered cotton strains in the US are allowing for effective and efficient growth with drastically reduced levels of tillage. (6)  In the US, these genetically engineered cottons, like every other biotech product, have been subjected to a rigorous regulatory evaluation by the EPA, the USDA and the FDA for their safety  by comprehensive environmental and human safety studies to rule out the possibility of harm to existing plants, non-target organisms and humans. (7)  The carbon footprint from the traditional planting of cotton through ginning is fairly small, approximately 300 pounds of carbon equivalent emissions per acre. (8)  In a no-tillage production environment, if credit is taken for the 400 pounds of carbon in the soil (5), cotton production actually stores 100 pounds more carbon than its production emits. Taking additional credit for the carbon in the fiber (9), an acre of no-till cotton actually stores 450 pounds more of atmospheric carbon than is emitted in its production.(10)

Taking further figures to expand this argument:

  • Growing a hectare of reduced tillage cotton removes 3.4 MT of CO2 from the atmosphere every year (10).
  • The amount of CO2 removed by cotton plants worldwide is equivalent to taking over 7 million cars off the highways (12).
  • The 5.1 MT of cotton consumed in the U.S. sequesters 7.7 billion kg of CO2 into textile products per year (11).
  • It takes less energy to produce a cotton crop than the energy produced by the cotton crop…..because of the energy embedded in the cottonseed (13).

 

True Cotton - Pesticides, Cotton Growth and Air Quality

In connection with pesticides, in the US cotton is considered a food crop (cotton seed oil, linter cellulose in numerous food products).  In fact, for every kg of cotton fiber produced there are 1.5 kg of cotton seed produced. This means that all cotton plant protection products are strictly regulated by the USEPA and the FDA under the provisions of the US Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA) in the same way as other foods such as fruits and vegetables. (14) (15) Since 1991, the globally respected Bremen Cotton Exchange in Germany has very rigorously tested raw cotton on an annual basis from a minimum of 16 countries for over 228 toxic substances, including heavy metals and pesticides according to Oeko-Tex Standard 100. In 18 years there have only been 4 instances, none from US cotton, where substances were detected in quantities exceeding the most stringent level of the standards. (16)  Further in connection with pesticides and cotton growing, air quality is a major concern for the US cotton industry and agriculture in general. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) establish National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), and to review and revise them every 5 years. Primary NAAQS (National Ambient Air Quality Standards) established by the EPA (US Environmental Protection Agency) are set at the level that is "requisite to protect the public health," and secondary standards are set at the level to protect public welfare from known or anticipated adverse effects. This Act has set new requirements for federal operating permits, for attainment of particulate matter and for ozone requirements (criteria pollutants) and for hazardous air pollutants. US cotton production, ginning, cottonseed crushing and textile processing have all had their operations adjusted to meet these regulations. (17). Work has also been reported in connection with genetically engineered crops which indicates that generally, GE crops had fewer adverse on the environment than non-GE crops produced conventionally. The use of pesticides with toxicity to non-target organisms or with greater persistance in soil and waterways has typically been lower in GE fields than in non-GE, non organic fields. (18)

 

Production of True Cotton fiber

Further to the sustainability and environmental credentials appertaining to the growth and harvesting of cotton, in the unique system to produce True Cotton fiber:

Water Consumption

  • The production of True Cotton requires no water whatsoever

Chemical Consumption

  • No chemicals whatsoever are used in the production of True Cotton

Energy Consumption

  • Since no drying is needed, the energy costs in producing True Cotton are limited to the simple mechanical systems used.

 

Conclusions:

  • True Cotton exhibits no water or chemical consumption or effluent quality concerns
  • In the production of True Cotton, extremely low energy costs are very apparent over any other cellulosic or synthetic fiber type, and over scoured and bleached cotton
     

And True Cotton is:

  • Certified to ISO 9001
  • Certified under Oeko-Tex Standard 100
  • The fiber fully complies with the USDA BioPreferred® program and is certified at 100% BioBased

 

True Cotton - Inherent Biodegradability

As a natural product, cotton is completely biodegradable, which means that it breaks down when put into a composting pile or bin. Approximately 60 percent of all harvested cotton fiber is used to produce yarns and threads, which in turn are used in the manufacture of fabrics for clothing and indoor or outdoor furnishings. (19) Because of cotton's biodegradable properties, all-cotton clothing can also be recycled and used in the manufacture of useful materials.
Further, at present, the waste management of commonly used nonwoven products made with synthetic fibers largely relies on land-filling and incineration, which cause serious environmental pollution and related problems. USDA scientists based at the Southern Regional Research Center (SRRC) in New Orleans working in collaboration with the University of Arkansas, have shown that True Cotton based nonwoven fabrics, compared to those made with synthetic fibers, biodegrade much more rapidly when subjected to aerobic soil. Analyses have shown that cotton fabrics degraded in 14 days and almost totally disintegrated within 21 days of aerobic soil burial, whereas the fabrics made with synthetic/manmade fibers showed little or no biodegradability even 140 days of the burial. This may lead to 'composting' as an efficient and eco-friendly alternative for safe disposal of cotton-based nonwovens. (20)

 

REFERENCES:

  1. Cotton Incorporated at  http://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/sustainability-about/Sustainability-Ove...
  2. Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends Richard C. Thompson, Charles J. Moore2, Frederick S. vom Saal and Shanna H. Swan Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 July 2009 vol. 364 no. 1526 2153-2166
  3. Plastic Not-So-Fantastic: How the Versatile Material Harms the Environment and Human Health, Jessica A Knoblauch and Environmental Health News, Scientific American July 2, 2009
  4. Wastes - Resource Conservation - Common Wastes & Materials, US Environmental protection Agency
  5. H. J. Causarano, A. J. Franzluebbers, D. W. Reeves, and J. N. Shaw. 2006. Soil Organic Carbon Sequestration in Cotton Production Systems of the Southeastern United States: A Review. J. Environ. Qual. 35:1374-1383
  6. Clayton W. Ward, Archie Flanders, Olga Isengildina, and Fred C. White Efficiency of Alternative Technologies and Cultural Practices for Cotton in Georgia University of Georgia; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign  AgBio  Vol 5 #1 Article 3
  7. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/biopesticides/regtools/biotech-reg-prod.htm
  8. Richard G. Nelson, Chad M. Hellwinckel, Craig C. Brandt and Tristram O. West, Daniel G. De La Torre Ugarte, and Gregg Marland. 2009. Energy Use and Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Cropland Production in the United States, 1990-2004. J. Environ. Qual. 38:4
  9. The cotton fiber is 42% carbon. Wakelyn, P.J. et al. 2007. Chapter 3 - Chemical Composition of Cotton in Cotton Fiber Chemistry and Technology. CRC Press, New York.
  10. Based 2004 to 2008 average yield as reported in: Leslie Meyer, Stephen MacDonald, James Kiawu, COTTON AND WOOL SITUATION AND OUTLOOK YEARBOOK. Washington, D.C.: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, November 2008 of 833 pounds of lint per acre. 833 pounds per acre *0.42 [fraction of carbon in the lint] = 350 pounds of carbon per acre.
  11. *Causarano, H.J., A.J. Franzluebbers, D.W. Reeves, and J.N. Shaw. 2006. Soil organic carbon sequestration in cotton production systems of the Southeast USA: A review. J. Env. Qual.35: 1374 1383.
  12. Jordan, A. 2007. Cotton carbon footprint. Cotton Incorporated
  13. Matlock, M., Greg Thomas, Darin Nutter, Thomas Costello. 2008. Energy Use Life Cycle Assessment for Global Cotton Production Practices. March 15 Final report to Cotton Incorporated by the Center for Agricultural and Rural Sustainability, University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, Fayetteville, AR.
  14. http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/regulating/laws/fqpa/
  15. http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ffreguid.html
  16. http://www.baumwollboerse.de/index.php?l=2&n=16,0,0
  17. http://cottontoday.cottoninc.com/natural-resources/air-quality/
  18. "Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States" by the Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability; Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources (BANR); Division on Earth and Life Studies (DELS); National Research Council at http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12804
  19. “Natural Fibres – Cotton” at http://www.naturalfibres2009.org/en/fibres/cotton.html
  20. Research Project “Cotton-based Nonwovens” 2012 Annual Report at http://ncccwa.ars.usda.gov/research/projects/projects.htm?ACCN_NO=419872...

Please contact T J Beall for further information on True Cotton's environmental credentials.