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Are Synthetic Fibers Petroleum Guzzlers?

“Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” ~ DuPont Slogan, 1935-1982

1948--DuPont-news-about-nylon
Dupont News About Nylon Advertisement, 1948; Image courtesy of X-Ray Delta One on Flickr.com

 

When DuPont introduced nylon in the form of hosiery to the world in the late 1930s, American women embraced “the synthetics.”  Today, synthetic fibers–such as nylon, polyester, olefin, acrylic, and modacrylic– account for approximately 56% of worldwide demand.

The primary difference between manufactured regenerated fibers and manufactured synthetic fibers is the raw material used.  Manufactured regenerated fibers come primarily from cellulose (usually from trees) whereas synthetic fibers are usually made from petrochemicals.

Many people choose not to use/wear synthetic fibers because they are made from petrochemicals, a non-renewable source.  And that is fine.  I’m not here to tell you which fibers you should and shouldn’t use.  I’m going to trust you to make the decisions that are right for you.  That said, the amount of petrochemicals used each year to produce fiber is less than 1% of the total petroleum consumed in the United States each year (Sara J. Kadolph, Textiles, 1oth Edition).  So, to answer the question posed in the title of this post, synthetic fibers aren’t petroleum guzzlers.  In fact, they are actually made from the by-products of making petroleum.

Ironically, the environmental impact of creating synthetic fibers may actually be lower than natural fibers when water use, toxicity, pollution, and recyclability are taken into account (For example, China mills are notorious for polluting rivers with waste water from the manufacture of natural fibers).  The truth of the matter is that the process of creating fibers–natural or manufactured–is not an environmentally friendly process.  One reason there are very few textile mills left in the United States is because they cannot meet the strict environmental standards without having to charge more than Americans are willing to pay for their garments (there are other reasons, too, such as workers being cheaper overseas).

My purpose for writing this post is not to get people riled up and bad mouthing synthetic fibers.  My purpose is that I want you to be informed about the fact that there are no easy answers when it comes to the choice of using synthetic fibers or not.  But, realistically, with the price of oil trending upward, the arguments over natural versus synthetic may eventually be a moot point because of the cost to manufacture synthetic fibers.

Perhaps I’m just old and pragmatic.  I try to make choices that support sustainability but I am realistic enough to know that I can’t eliminate synthetic fibers from my life completely.  I have to do the best I can with the knowledge that I have while continually striving to learn more and do better.

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