Sustainable Ethical Fibres and Fabrics

Dyed Yarns

The whole issue of sustainability and ethics in relation to fibres and fabrics is very very confusing and constantly changing. This post started as a paragraph in a post about ethical clothing but as I learned more and more about the area it was clear that it warranted it’s own post. I’ll keep updating this post as i find more and  more information so i encourage you to revisit so that you stay up to speed on what’s happening in this area.

Lets start with bamboo. This fibre was originally heralded as the wonder fibre when it came to market but now we’re hearing that farmers in China are clearing native forests to grow bamboo and that most bamboo is processed using chemicals know to be harmful to health.  Also there have been concerns over the authenticity of ‘organic bamboo‘ so i would suggest that the only way to ensure your bamboo clothing is sustainable is to check that the garment has been certified by reputable independent organisations as organic, sustainably grown and free from harmful chemicals.

Cotton has been my go-to fabric for years because i know it’s recyclable and biodegradable. Price has been the main reason that I haven’t move towards organic cotton but as budgets improve it’s something I’m buying more of. This will help me avoid feeding into an industry where genetically modified (GMO) cotton seeds now account for 95% of the cotton market in India. GMO seeds lock farmers into a never-ending dependency on a GMO seed supplier, which some are claiming has led to more than 270,000 Indian cotton farmers committing suicide since 1995. Cotton has often been claimed to be the ‘dirtiest’ crop in terms of pesticide usage. Even the GM cotton, which is supposed to be more resistant to pests, must be sprayed by chemicals that are banned in the west. And if all that wasn’t bad enough child labour is often used at various stages of the cotton production process, and after the plants have been harvested, the conditions under which workers refine and process the raw cotton can amount to bonded labour.  Buying fairtrade or organic cotton is a better option but we still need to treat it as a precious resource, particularly because of it’s heavy dependency on water to grown. In India alone, a country where 100 million people have no access to safe drinking water, the water used in cotton production would be sufficient to provide 85% of the country’s 1.24 billion people with 100 litres of water every day for a year.

Hemp is often cited as a sustainable fibre and is very popular with ‘sustainable / ethical’ clothing brands for it’s durability and ‘sustainability’. Firstly it’s said to require less water to grow than conventional cotton and some brands claim that it needs no pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers to grow. If this is the case then I don’t understand why it seems impossible to get certified organic hemp fabric anywhere. On their blog the company O Ecotextiles has a very interesting post on why they use certified organic linen in lieu of conventional hemp.

A new fabric that quite a few of ‘sustainable, ethical’ companies use is Lyocell. It is a plant-based fibre that uses raw material sourced from trees grown in sustainable plantations and on land that is unsuitable for agricultural cultivation. One of the well-know brand names of Lyocell is Tencel. It is made as follows; wood is harvested, processed into chips, pulped and dried into sheets ready for processing. Next, the sheets are then broken up and dissolved in a non-toxic amine oxide solution, turning into a clear, viscous liquid. The long Tencel fibres are created by forcing this liquid through spinnerets dotted with tiny holes. These are then set in a bath of dilute amine oxide solution before being washed in demineralised water. The entire manufacturing process to produce Tencel takes just 2 hours and it is practically a ‘closed loop’ system with approximately 98% of the amine oxide solvent recaptured and recycled back through the process. A lot of webpages are suggesting that plant based fibres, like Tencel are biodegradable but research into microplastics in our oceans has shown that Rayon – another supposedly biodegradable fibre – contributed to 56.9% of the total fibres recorded by the research team. You can read more on the sustainability of Tencel and the sustainability of Modal Rayon here.

I’m undecided about clothing made from recycled plastic. On the one hand it seems like a sensible way to address the mountain of waste we seem to be continually creating but it seems that breaking a plastic bottle into millions of fibrous bits of plastic might prove to be worse than doing nothing at all. In 2016 researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara reported that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash and that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. “These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website. Gregg Treinish, founder and executive director of Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation, which oversees the research linked to above, said studies have led him to stop eating anything from the water!

I’ve also seen some companies offering garments in Soy, which according to the 1 Million Womens’ A-Z Glossary of Sustainable Fibres is a by-product of soy foods (like tofu) that undergoes chemical manipulation be converted into fabric. Although soy fabric is essentially a natural fibre, toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are used in the production process.

Some ‘sustainable / ethical’ brands use silk make no reference to ethical harvesting of the fibre. Traditionally when silk is harvested the poor silk worms are boiled alive as part of the process and currently Irish owned Ethical Silk Company is the only company that i’m aware of that offers silk made without killing the silk worms – called peace silk or vegan silk.

Nowadays a lot of fabric is a blend of fibres, which to date hasn’t been recyclable. This is because fibres in blended fabrics are so tightly bonded that mechanical separation is impossible and can only be separated with difficult and environmentally damaging chemical treatments.  However recently researcher in Deakin University in Autraslia have developed a simple process to separate polyester-cotton fabric blends into their individual components, a major breakthrough for textile recycling. This process isn’t currently widely used so for now aim to buy fabric made from only one fibre type if you can.

If you’d like to read more on the sustainability and ethics of fabrics the Australian based organisation Good on You has very useful and informative Material Guides on their website. Also 1 million women have a very comprehensive A-Z Glossary on Sustainable Fibres

And if you’re inclined to make your own clothes check out Irish company Ms Daisy for patterns and tutorials or All Free Sowing for tutorials on how to make a pattern from existing clothes. And if you’re really going all out Green Fibres have organic cotton thread on wooden spools.

E

PS – check out our guides to Sustainable Ethical Nightwear, Mens Clothing, Yoga Active and Leisure Wear, Underwear, Women’s Clothing, Swimwear

 

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A Guide to Composting & Composters

Wicker Compost Bin

Composting is so easy peasy it’s a shame that more people don’t do it. It can also save you a fortune in waste charges and in garden compost. It’s also the only zero-waste way to get peat-free compost.  Honesty once you follow a few simple rules you’ll be away in a hack. The rules are as follows;

  • no cooked food*
  • no dairy, including egg shells*
  • no meat*
  • no perennial weeks, like dandelions or bindweed. If in doubt leave it out or you’ll be spreading weeds all over your garden.
  • alternate dead material (brown) – twigs, leaves, newspaper with fresh material (green) – vegetation from the garden, uncooked vegetable & fruit scraps from the kitchen. I keep a bag of dry leaves or shredded paper beside the composter to add in between lawyer of kitchen scraps / garden waste.

 

* some compost bins say that they can take these items. I don’t have one so can’t verify this claim.

Some Tips for Composting
In my experience the smaller the compost bin the finer the stuff needs to be. When we had a compost cone the stuff had to be quite fine but now that we’ve 1.5m x 1.5m, bins we’re getting away with not having to shred or break stuff down at all. That said the finer the material you add to the compost heap the quicker it’ll decompose.

A compost bin needs oxygen to work. If the heap gets compacted then no air can circulate and the bacteria that breaks the material down into compost will die off giving off a foul stench and halting the composting process. If you’re worried this is happening turn your compost to add in oxygen.

The hotter your compost bin the quicker the materials will compost. In my opinion it’s a fine balance between temperature and air flow and personally I’d rather have great compost over a longer period than risk anaerobic (no-oxygen) hot mess by insulating too much. We don’t bother insulating our compost bins and so they take about 1 year to break down 80% off what’s put in them. If you want to speed-up the composting process then consider getting a thermal compost bin (see below).

You need at least two sections / bins. In my experience the hatch at the bottom of compost bins it completely useless for removing composted material. So we have two bins and when we’ve filled up one we cover it with some timber and start on the second one. We’ve big bins (1.5m x 1.5m) so it typically takes us a year to fill each one. This means that when one is full it’s about time to take the compost out of the other one, and then the process starts all over again. If you have a third bay you can use this to rotate your compost thereby speeding up the composting process.

Types of Composters
Before I launch into a list of the various options for compost bins I would like to clarify that having one is not essential. If you want you can just toss your green waste and brown waste in a corner of your garden and it’ll work away fine. If you don’t fancy doing that and would like to invest in a compost bin then here’s an overview of the types on the market.

Joraform jk270 Compost Tumbler

Rotating Composters / Compost Tumblers – These are great because they’re resistant to attack from rodents, take up very little space and allow for easy rotating of composting materials, which results in faster composting.

At the top of the list is the Big Pig by Joraform at a whopping €495 (see pic above). The makers of this 270 litre compost bin claims to turn waste into compost in as little as 6-8 weeks and says that it can take cooked meat and fish waste.  You can also get a 200L rotating composter for €110 from Fruit Hill Farm although it doesn’t have two compartments like the Joraform models so you’d need two.

Composphere Composter

There’s also this very fun rollable composter by Composhere, which is made from recycled plastic and holds 315 litres. It’s a very reasonably priced £119 but as it only has one compartment you’ll also need two of them.

Timber Compost Bin

Timber Compost Bins – A timber compost bin can be homemade from wooden pallets or deck boards or be a proprietary one like this Timber Compost Bin from Quickcrop for €119. You can put lid on it on it if you like but we leave ours open in our back garden. If you can afford to spend a bit more I’d advise buying a kit that comes with removable front board like this one, it makes removing compost way easier. A timber compost bin would be by far my preferred choice as the material used to make it is in itself compostable!

Timber Beehive Composter_blue

If you’re compost bin is going to be on show then perhaps an uber-cute timber beehive bin will tickle your fancy. This version is made in Ireland and comes with removable sections to help with compost removal.

Green Compost Cones

Compost Cones – This tends to be the iconic form for compost bins in Ireland and England primarily because they’re the cheapest kind to buy. I really don’t like these bins and I think they’re the main reason people give up on composting. We used these in our previous garden and we found it very hard to ensure enough air got to the compost, although this can be helped by drilling holes in the side of the cone. As I’ve said above the little hatch at the bottom is completely useless for extracting compost and we also found that the only way to rotate the compost was to tip the entire contents out onto the ground and put it back in. A nasty job indeed! Quickcrop has a compost cone with air vents at the bottom and a larger than average bottom opening but personally I’d still recommend a square or rectangular timber compost bin over a compost cone any day.

Green Johanna Hot Composter

Thermal Composters. Although it looks like a traditional compost cone the Green Johanna Composter is designed to retain heat in the compost head thus speeding up the composting process. You can even purchase a special lagging jacket for it to keep temperatures up during the winter. The Green Johanna is said to be able to take cooked food, meat, dairy, bones and fish. Another model on the market is the Thermoking Composter Maker, which is made from foamed HDPE (plastic) which traps bubbles of air in the plastic offering greater insulation than non-foamed plastic. It cannot take cooked food, meat, dairy, bones and fish.

Composting Inside
If you don’t have a garden you can still compost either using a wormery or the Food Cycler. Wormeries can take cooked and raw food but the worms don’t like food waste that’s too acidic so you need to be careful about adding citrus fruits, garlic and onions to it. It’s also suggested that you avoid adding fish waste as this can cause a smell. You can located wormeries outdoors but the worms are much happier in a warm house / apartment than outside and will work much more effectively as a result. Wormeries come in a variety of sizes from counter-top stainless steel versions to floor mounted models. You can read more about how wormeries work here.

Food Cycler

The Food Cycler is a counter top unit that heats up and agitates food causing it to decompose over a very short space of time (3-4 hours). It can take cooked food, meat, dairy, fish and chicken and fish bones. A review on Amazon, said that they’d buy it again even though they found 1) the unit noisy, 2) some recognisable food bits at the end of the process, which might attract rodents if used directly in the garden, 3) and that waste entered must be balanced to avoid a sticky mess. Also one wonders if using electricity to break down food waste is the most sustainable option plus the fact that the unit needs replaceable filters.

Food Digesters
Unless you have bought a composter design to take cooked food, meat, dairy or fish you’re going to have to handle this waste separately from your uncooked fruit and veg waste. This is where digesters come in.  Digesters process food waste so that it’s easier to dispose of it, by either burying it or adding it to your traditional compost heap.

The Green Cone Digester

The Green Cone Food Digester uses solar energy to break down food waste such as vegetable scraps, raw and cooked meat or fish, bones, dairy products and other organic kitchen waste e.g. tea bags, bread etc. According to the manufacturer the unit utilises solar to create heat between the inner and outer layers of the cone, thus promoting air circulation, and converting food waste into water, carbon dioxide and small amount of residue that only needs to be removed every few years. I haven’t used one of these so can’t verify these claims.

Bokashi Bin

Bokashi bins are often used by people to process cooked food waste indoors. The name ‘bokashi’ is Japanese for ‘fermenting organic matter’ and the system uses a bran-based material that has been activated with micro-organisms (friendly bacteria) and molasses. I’m told that the process doesn’t (shouldn’t) produce any odours and that it is capable of handling cooked and uncooked food including meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Once the food waste is suitably fermented you are meant to dig it into your soil or put it on your compost bin. The model shown above is called the Urban Composter and is the most stylish bokashi bin I found. You can read more about Bokashi Bins here.

Keeping Rodents out of your Compost Bins
One of the main concerns with compost bins is the possibility of them attracting rodents. We have a stream and a line of houses running along the back of our house and you can bet your dollar that there are rodents in that area. Having grown up in the countryside I’m very use to wildlife being outside my back door this doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I don’t know if our compost heap has been visited by rodents but it’s at the bottom of our garden so over the past 8 years it hasn’t been a problem. They’re probably more likely that they’d visit my neighbours who chuck stale bread out on their back lawn! If you’d like to minimise the risk of rodents then try the following;

  • Buy a sealed compost bin
  • Sprinkle chilli powder on the compost heap
  • Sprinkle Peppermint oil on the compost heap
  • Place some ferret droppings near the heap
  • Put a sturdy lid on the compost bin and lay some chicken wire under and around the heap

 

Our Compost Bins
My approach to life is to get maximum output for minimum input and composting is no different. We don’t insulate our compost heap, we don’t cover it and we don’t protect it from rodents and for the past 15 years it’s been working a charm. We have two 1.5m x 1.5m bins that we fill with un-shredded garden waste and uncooked fruit and veg peelings (green material). We keep a bag of dry leaves, collected in Autumn, or shredded paper near the compost heap to use as the brown material in between the green material. Once a bin is full we cover it with some timber, only because we have it, and start filling up the second bin. We don’t use an accelerator and it takes approximately 1 year for the material in one bin to compost once it’s full.

Le Kit Eco Compost

The compost bins we have are made from pressure treated timber boards and galvanised metal formed corners. We bought the timber boards from a builders merchants and the corners came from French company Jardin Eco, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like they sell them anymore. I picked this because I liked the overall look of the finished unit and that we could use my own timber boards.

E

Love is in the Air

heart cut out of old timber

I know that Valentines is a bit of a way off at the moment but I always like to give some lead-in-time for craft projects. You may think that Valentines is just another excuse to get us spending money, and you’d be right, but it doesn’t have to be. I heard something a long time ago that stuck with me. Love is spending time and energy to make someone’s day better. It might be ironing a shirt for them when they’re in a rush, or sending them a good luck text before a big meeting or cooking their favourite meal when they’ve had a hard day or week. That’s real love. It not glamorous or schmaltzy enough to go on a Hallmark card but it’s what makes life worth living. That said if you do a card to write something schmaltzy on here are my favs for this year!

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Ethical Sustainable Business – Fair Threads

Organic Cotton Baby toys

I’m starting to hear about more and more eco businesses in Ireland, which is such a great development. I appreciate that the cornerstone of zero waste is shunning new purchases where possible but sometimes we need to replace those essentials and if we can buy from a company that is doing their bit to ensure we have a planet to live on.

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Why I don’t like Biodegradable / Compostable Plastics – updated 21st January 2018

Grass in Soft Focus

In recent months there’s been a lot of talk about plastic waste in Ireland. I’m hoping that this is a sign of things to come and that we’ll soon be waving bye, bye to unnecessary, excessive use of plastic. I think this interest has party been spurred on by the growth of the Zero Waste community and the Chinese deciding to no longer take some of our plastics for recycling. Thank you China!

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There’s no Present like Time

Watch Bracelet

I have been blessed with good organisational skills, or cursed depending on your viewpoint. Being organised in Ireland is like being loud in Japan, it’s just not culturally appropriate. People in Ireland don’t seem to like things to be well organised, it takes the fun out of it – ‘Sure it’s only a bit of fun it doesn’t really matter if it starts on time / ends on time / achieves any of the agreed objectives’.

Of course this view is never actually expressed, it’s just something that Irish people seem to ‘know’, which is why I think I’m genetically German or Japanese. Now those people know how to organise! Interesting that they both ended up on the wrong side of World Wars, wonder what that means for me ……

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Review of 2017

2017 and 2018 written in the sand

Before I set off with my new year’s resolutions for 2018 it’s worth taking stock of how last year’s experiments went. I’ve always tried to live sustainably but it wasn’t until 2017 that i had the time and energy to invest in it. At first i was overwhelmed by the conflicting information out there and at just how much we’d need to change, but like everything in life, when done bit by bit it gets easier and easier and before you know it you’ve reached your target. That’s not to say that we are now totally sustainable, there are still many things that i’d love to change in our house but I’m part of a family not a dictatorship and so i continue to nudge people towards better choices and practice gratitude for the positive changes that we have made. Here are some of the planet positive changes that we’ve tested in 2017 and how they fared.

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Our Christmas 2017

Brown Paper Wrapping Ideas

Well I had, and am continuing to have, a wonderful Christmas. I’ve purposely done less preparing this year and it’s paid off in terms of lots of downtime to slob around the house in my pj’s eating lots of delicious cheese and chocolate and binge watching Christmas TV and movies. I am generally a very active person with a million things to do so i’m genuinely impressed at my ability this year to spend hour upon hour doing absolutely nothing. I can’t even be bothered to think of some New Year’s resolutions!

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A Lasting Christmas Gift

Evening Sky in Clare

I am writing this post with a note to myself to read it next November. Have you noticed how preparing for Christmas can drive you away from what it’s all suppose to be about? It takes gargantuan effort to resist being pulled towards the myth of a perfect Christmas and all the work that involves. On a rational level I understand that it’s just a marketing ploy to get us to buy one more thing to plug the gap between reality and fantasy, but emotionally you feel like the Grinch if you opt out of any element. It’s not just that striving to deliver gastronomic delights, carefully curated gifts and outstanding entertainment in a showhouse standard setting leads to horrendous waste – just look in your bin before and after – it’s that all of this extra work often makes us more tired, less patient and too frequently less kind.

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Christmas Wrap Eco-Style

Furoshiki Wrapped Presents

This Christmas there is a new enemy in town; swaths of single-use wrapping paper. Why? Sure isn’t it recyclable? If you’ve read my post ‘Why Recycling isn’t the Answer‘, you’ll understand that recycling typically leaves us with an energy / resources deficit and isn’t a silver bullet to our waste problem.

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