9. Nature's Filaments

 

The roots of technology — Forests and cultural memory — Bytes and brains — The biggest leverage is downstream — Multiplying savings — A factor 26 gain — Small trees, big beams — 400 million pallets a year — Field-grown paper


It is appropriate that a textile company like Interface should be in the vanguard of the next industrial revolution. As late as 1830, the words "industry" or "factory" applied only to one endeavor: cotton mills. Industrialism was propelled by textile technologies: James Hargreaves's spinning jenny, Sir Richard Arkwright's spinning mill, and later the water frame and the power loom. Among the first applications of the coal-fired English steam engine, besides pumping out the coal mines, was running the "dark satanic mills" that produced textiles. The spinning jenny and mill together increased the output of a spinner by a factor of eight, then sixteen, and eventually by a factor of two hundred. A jenny with forty spindles cost £6, less than wages for one worker for one year. The advantages to the British from these productivity advances were enormous. The lower costs increased sales at home, displacing imports from India. Conversely, where Indian hand-spun calicoes were once cheaper and of higher quality than their English counterpart, English textiles made on mechanized equipment gained the upper hand, devastating India's industry. In other colonies, English textile imports reigned supreme, and if they couldn't, naval battles and wars were fought (usually with the French) to ensure they did. After Hargreaves's and Arkwright's inventions were commercialized in the 1760s, cotton manufacturing quadrupled in twenty years. By 1800, production increased another tenfold; fifteen years later, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, production had tripled again. In just fifty-one years, English textile production increased 120 times over.

The history of textiles is intimately linked to child labor and slavery, to colonialism, and to world trade and conquest. Slaves, often taken from Africa in exchange for European textiles, were imported to the American South in vast numbers to pick cotton once Eli Whitney's cotton gin made large-scale cotton farming cost-effective. The West Indies got rapidly colonized to increase cotton exports to England. The modern organic chemistry industry, and many of the chemical companies like BASF that dominate the industry today, got started making aniline dyes for cloth. The very root of "technology," the Greek techne, refers to "weaving." The misery and suffering that textile mills occasioned became the seeds of social discontent, spawning the then radical political ideas of democracy, republicanism, and eventually the proletariat-based theories of Karl Marx.

Fibers stretch not only through the history of industry but through cultural and biological evolution: Biologist Peter Warshall describes fibers as the "longish, tough, flexible filaments that connect nature to itself and to human life." The history of the use of fibers is in many ways the history of human development. Early in their cultural evolution, humans began to rig remarkably strong natural fibers, often a coproduct of food production, to create clothes, baskets, ropes, sinews, houses, and many other artifacts. Over time, inventors figured out how to break the chemical bonds of wood to create paper, and then how to turn cellulose into resin and thence into many industrial products.

Fiber comes from many sources. The fiber products of forests include paper, lumber, tire-cord, rayon, and cigarette filters. Non-tree plants give us fiber in the form of cotton, flax, vegetable plastics, fabrics, ropes, et cetera. Livestock provide wool, skins, silk, and so on, while even minerals supply fibers of metal, asbestos, and glass. The oceans and tidal zones give chitosan and wound-healing chitin-based fabrics. All these natural products combine and compete with the vast range of fiber products derived from petroleum, natural gas, and asphalt. As Warshall states, "The market system for fibers is now global with petrochemical fibers (hydrocarbons) supplying the majority of textile, upholstery and industrial cloth, cordage, and related products. Only paper and, in some places, building materials remain somewhat immune from hydrocarbon competition."

Producing any fiber has consequences. Most "natural" fibers are grown in unsustainable ways. Half of all textile fibers come from cotton, whose cultivation uses one-fourth of all agrochemicals and of all insecticides. Conventionally producing a pound of cotton fiber takes about two and a half tons of water, and in rainy areas, causes the erosion of about forty-four pounds of topsoil. From the American South to Kazakhistan, intensive chemical-based cotton-growing has done serious and lasting harm to regions and societies. Similarly, unsound ways of raising sheep and goats have left millions of acres desertified around the world. Sustainable ways of growing wool, flax, hemp (the strongest plant fiber), and even cotton are both familiar and practical. Since 1996, Patagonia, a $165 million-a-year outdoor clothing company, has used only organic cotton for its merchandise, but despite increasing usage by such larger firms as Nike and Levi Strauss, such practices are still far smaller-scale than the soil-mining, subsidized, chemically dependent methods.

The petrochemical industry, which makes the building blocks for synthetic fibers, is also a notable polluter and uses a nonrenewable resource. However, its environmental performance can be (and often is being) considerably improved. Also, as Warshall points out, the advent of "petrochemical fibers undoubtedly postponed the cutting of huge acreage of trees, as well as the clearing of land for cotton." A 300-acre petrochemical plant, plus a rather small acreage of natural-gas facilities, can match the fiber production of 600,000 acres of cotton.

A detailed comparison or even description of the impacts of all fibers, and the opportunities available to offset those impacts, is beyond the scope of this book, but it is worth looking at one form of fiber production, forests, as an example. The forests that produce wood fiber illustrate the issues well, and they form a significant part of the economy: The annual forest harvest is more than twice the weight of all U.S. purchases of metals. While sustainable harvesting and forest management practices are known and often commercially viable, they are not yet widely practiced, so conventional forestry remains a prominent cause of widespread harm to natural capital, degrading natural forests' more valuable ecosystem services.

Forests are cut primarily to produce paper products and lumber in roughly equal volumes, although the former is growing faster while the latter use fetches two to five times higher prices per unit of wood volume (and even more for veneer logs). From the early 1960s to the mid-1990s, as per-capita U.S. consumption of timber products held constant or even sagged a bit, per-capita paper-product consumption nearly doubled. The world consumes five times more paper now than in 1950. U.S. offices' paper use soared from 0.85 to 1.4 trillion sheets (about 4.2 to 7 million tons) just between 1981 and 1984, as early desktop computers and laser printers were being introduced.

Other countries did not lag far behind America's wasteful ways. From 1970 to 1990, paper production rose 4 percent a year in Japan, and in Southeast Asia, 8 percent, compared with 2.5 percent in the United States. To keep up with the vast volumes demanded, papermaking, like logging, has changed in many regions from a handicraft to an industrial commodity enterprise of almost unimaginable scale.

A traditional rural Nepalese paper factory is an outdoor area the size of a living room with a production process that is simple, labor-intensive, and cheap. The fibrous inner bark of a certain tree—analogous to the Chinese mulberry tree from which paper was developed nineteen centuries ago—is stripped, soaked, and pounded in wood-ash lye. The resulting slurry of fibers is treated and washed in a series of small ponds. Pieces of cloth stretched on wooden frames are dipped into and raised up through the slurry so they are coated with a thin layer of fiber, then are propped up to dry in the sun. The resultant rice-paper-like sheet sells for about a dime in Nepal or a dollar in New York art-supply stores. In the almost cashless rural Nepali economy, the paper is a precious product, reserved largely for religious and ceremonial purposes.

Modern Western paper factories are gigantic operations costing upward of a billion dollars. A big paper mill uses energy at the same rate as a small city. Paper mills turn entire forests—a seventy-five-acre clearcut per mill per day—into hundreds of different high-performance products by the freight-train-load. The logs are chipped and boiled in gigantic kettles of acid, or ground between huge plates run by thousands-of-horsepower motors, to release the cellulose fibers from the surrounding lignin and hemicellulose. Papermaking machines bigger than a house echo the Nepali hand-run process, but at a vast scale, forming a web of fibers that thunders through steam-heated driers and onto shipping rolls with the speed of a locomotive. All this supports a culture in which paper is universally available, priced at perhaps a penny a sheet, and rarely paid for or thought about by its users.

Paper accounts for about 2 percent of world trade and 2.5 percent of world industrial production; its U.S. shipments, over $132 billion a year, are comparable in value to primary metals and minerals, or to 90 percent of petrochemicals. Yet much of the paper produced is used only for a short time and then discarded: Only about a tenth of the global paper stream goes into "cultural memory"—long-term storage in such forms as files, records, and books. Much of the rest of printing and writing paper, which represented 28 percent of 1992 paper and paperboard consumption, finds its way into the office paper chase. The average American office worker is estimated to use a sheet every 12 minutes—a ream per person every two and a half working weeks—and to dispose of 100–200 pounds of paper per person every year. This paper accounts for as much as 70 percent of typical office waste. During the years 1972–87, America's discarded office printing and writing paper grew almost five times as fast as the human population, miscellaneous office paper over five times, and copier paper almost ten times—a 150 percent absolute increase.…

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