The truth about cotton ...

or, How buying an EarthFair t-shirt can help save the planet

by Kari Gray
ach Earth Day, millions of people wonder what they can do to ensure a healthy and environmentally sustainable future. Here at San Diego Earth Day, we look for ways to improve our environment, as well as the EarthFair. In 1990, when we started the EarthFair, we began recycling all aluminum, glass and paper generated at the Fair. In 1991, we began recycling PET plastic, too. In 1993, we began insisting that all food vendors only offer vegetarian fare. And in 1994, all our electricity was solar powered.
This year, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Earth Day, we are offering t-shirts made of 100% organic cotton and printed with a natural, vegetable-based screen printing ink.

Chemical intensive

Commercially grown cotton is one of the most chemically intensive crops grown. For United States cotton production of 13 million acres, an estimated 20 million pounds of pesticides, 30 million pounds of herbicides and 1 billion pounds of fertilizers are used every year. Twice the amount of damaging chemicals are used to grow commercial cotton than are used on all other U.S. crops combined.
Worldwide, cotton comprised just 3% of the world's total cropland in 1989, but consumed more than 25% of all pesticides. Of the more than 660 million pounds of pesticides used by third world countries each year, 50% is for cotton.
These chemicals - some of which are known carcinogens ­p; have severely contaminated our water supply. New research indicates excessive levels of herbicides and pesticides have been discovered in the tap water of at least 14 western states. Some tests indicate dioxin levels are 48 times greater than the standard set by the EPA. Since 1984, cancer clusters have been documented near California's cotton fields. The chemical treatments also make the soil infertile and allow it to erode at a rate seven times faster than nature can replenish it.
Organically grown cotton is produced without the use of synthetic chemicals. The soil is fertilized by cycling nitrogen from the air into the soil through alfalfa, a natural soil builder. Cotton is grown in these fields for about three years before it is returned to alfalfa for a year. Insects are controlled by providing desirable habitat for beneficial insects. Weeds are controlled mechanically. Organic farms are certified and monitored.

Dangerous process

Processing cotton into cloth also presents serious environmental problems. Various toxic bleaching, dying and wrinkle-reducing agents (such as formaldehyde) add to the pollution and health risks. Organically processed cotton is washed and softened with citric acid and soap and water, not chemical washes. No chemical bleaching is done, although hydrogen peroxide can be used as a whitening agent (it degrades rapidly into water and oxygen). Shirts are dyed with low-impact dyes which do not use the traditional metallic compounds.
According to Gary Oldham of SOS Cotton, the purchase of just one t-shirt eliminates the use of approximately 4 ounces of concentrated pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers - about 50% of the weight of a finished 8-ounce shirt!

But the shirt is only half of the problem.

Presently, almost all screen printing is done with plastisol, a complex mixture of vinyl resin, a plasticizer and one or more pigments. Plastisol is not biodegradable and screen printing generates waste ink which contains solid hazardous materials, creating disposal problems.
Fusion or "setting" of freshly printed plastisol into a dried film requires exposure of the fabric to temperatures exceeding 300 degrees Fahrenheit, consuming precious energy.
A new (ink) solution
When Shari Shiffrin of High Cotton was pregnant, she began looking for a more environmentally safe method of t-shirt printing. "I was around all these chemicals all day and I was worried what sort of effect that might have on my baby," she explains. "I started to look around for a safer way to print t-shirts, but there really wasn't a safe alternative at the time. So we developed Planet Ink."
Planet Ink is a natural, vegetable-based screen printing ink that is free of hazardous materials and can be air dried or "set" at room temperatures. Its manufacture, use and disposal avoids environmental contamination and saves thermal energy. It consists mainly of water and naturally occurring colloidal polysaccharides with added binders from renewable plant and mineral sources. This process has no harmful effects on the printer, wearer or the environment. It remains colorfast through bleaching, scouring and detergent washings. T-shirts printed with this process can also be directly ironed.
In spite of the added costs of organic cotton, these environmentally-sound souvenirs can be purchased for only $12 at a San Diego Earth Day booth at the EarthFair on Sunday, April 23 (see the design on Program Guide cover, page 17). By buying a San Diego Earth Day t-shirt, you are taking action for a sustainable, healthy future ­p; and supporting our cause. It's not just a shirt - it's your future.
For more information about organic cotton, you can call Gary Oldham at (806) 256-2749 and High Cotton, (813) 995-7680.

Kari Gray is the San Diego Earth Day office manager and event coordinator and co-producer of EarthFair '95.