Sunday, November 3, 2013

Eco-Friendly Fiberfill: Fact or Fiction?

 A lot of people are stating they use eco-friendly fiberfill in their toys and household products. But as yet, there is no measurable standard for the term eco-friendly. There is no carbon footprint marker. There are no maximum levels of waste produced in air, water, and landfills. And there is no requirement for biodegradability. Eco-friendly is a colloquial term only. There is no "there" there.

But there are products that are not harmful to the environment. So how should we choose? Here are some natural fibers and products.
  • wool
  • cotton
  • down and feathers
  • buckwheat
  • kapok
  • fabric, thread, and yarn scraps
  • recycled denim insulation
  • silk
  • corn-based
  • thistle down

Just because a product is natural does not always make it an eco-friendly choice. Case in point: NatureWorks corn-based fiberfill, while biodegradable and basically natural, is openly made from GMO corn products. For those for whom the GMO industry in general and Monsanto in particular is a red flag, corn-based eco-friendly fiberfill is simply not eco-friendly.

Bamboo has found a lovely following but now it has come to light that some bamboo harvesting is done unethically although there is a great deal of ethically managed bamboo as well. Additional concerns include claims of having naturally antibacterial properties, which bamboo has until it is highly processed and then it loses most of its antibacterial properties. This has led to companies adding synthetic antibacterial agents without reporting this to users of the product. Your bamboo stuffing may be clean and ethically made or it may be harvested improperly affecting local fauna adversely and coated with chemicals you didn't know were there.

Of course, plain old cotton isn't going to get away scot-free. Cotton is usually bleached which leaves a huge level of dioxin polluted waters in its wake. The cotton itself may have been grown saturated with pesticides. Natural cotton is not white. It may be yellow, brown, or green. Manufacturers heed your call for a clean-looking product and process and bleach and treat with toxic chemicals. But if you live near a cotton producer, chances are good you can purchase raw organic cotton for your crafts.

Mexico is a large producer of shredded denim insulation. This stuff is brilliant if not a complete mess to cut and use. But if you can get ahold of a bat or two of it, you could try it out.

PLA (polylactic acid) is the new watchword on eco-friendly fiberfill. read this Made from E. coli - I kid you not - PLA seems to use a much less polluting polymerization process than using oil waste. Still, it is new on the market and fermentation of E. coli as a renewable resource makes me wonder how much bacteria is entering the water table, but I'm hoping to see good results with this as long-term studies come in. CORRECTION: PLA is the same thing as the corn-fiber mentioned above. PLA is made from corn sugars. However, there is a new PLA material being made from E.coli.

Here's the ONE eco-friendly claiming fiberfill that will never be eco-friendly. Polyester fiberfill and/or recycled polyester fiberfill. Some people love the fact that poly fiberfill can be made from single use plastic water bottles. Some people think it is eco-friendly to manufacture plastic water bottles and then use and pollute the same amount of water to recycle those bottles into something else. Either way the carbon footprint is ridiculous and completely unnecessary.

Isn't it good to recycle? The question is faulty. It was a bad idea to use so much energy and throw so much pollution into air, water, and landfills to even make single serve plastic water bottles in the first place. We're not doing the world a favor by increasing the market for a polluter only to create nearly the same pollution a second time by reprocessing that synthetic and toxic substance. Eco-friendly would be to never have damaged the ecosystem in the first place. The only eco-friendly poly fiberfill is poly fiberfill that was never manufactured.

This brings me to my personal toy filling of choice: wool. Wool ignites at higher temperatures than cotton and synthetic fibers and has a lower rate of flame spread. It does not melt or drip causing burns or release highly toxic gasses into the air when burning as synthetic fibers do. 

Wool is considered to be naturally hypoallergenic because it is naturally mold resistant and is not as friendly an environment for dust mites which are the actual cause of many allergic reactions in people. Synthetic materials retain your sweat and encourage mold and dust mites and their droppings. 

Wool is an insulator and warms up next to the body making dolls comforting to hold and snuggle yet it moves moisture away naturally, without holding it to become a bacterial or fungal breeding ground. Wool is completely renewable. Sheep need shearing.

Wool alcohols in lanolin can be irritating to some people, that's a fact, but poly fiberfill can also cause skin irritation. Nothing is right for everyone. But sheep and organic cotton fields don't pollute our planet the way plastics manufacturing does.

Conclusion?  Plastics are the alternative. They were introduced less than 100 years ago. You don't have to look for "natural alternatives". Nature is the norm, not the alternative.
Cotton and wool have long been fibers of choice. Easily renewable. Can be organically produced. Bleaching not necessary. Warming in the hands and next to the skin. There are many natural, truly eco-friendly, and available sources for toy and pillow stuffing. We can be selective in our choices and not believe the lies of the oil and plastics industries.

We've always had the means to fill toys and dolls safely. There are existing cloth dolls from the 1st century. (Roman doll above.) This proves it isn't necessary to use something that will NEVER degrade to create a lasting product.

This online shop has eucalyptus stuffing, hemp stuffing, kapok, wool, cotton, and GMO-free corn stuffing. It is based in Australia. It's a woman-owned and run home business.

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Poly Fiberfill: Real-life Monster in Your Child's Toys

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I've been having this problem lately. It's a mental problem, a frustration, a sadness. It comes up when I look at friends' beautiful toys and dolls and patterns. It happens when I gawk in awe at art dolls made of wool and linen, with carefully hand stitched elements and embroidery. It forces an Armageddon-powered "why gods why" cry of despair to come flying out of my mouth like demons from craft-hell.


Poly Fiberfill is my main nemesis. My skin crawls when I see art plush dolls made from wool and linen with carefully handmade accessories and then stuffed with polyfill. ESPECIALLY when those dolls sell for $250. Polyfill feels cheap. It has no heft. It feels weightless. It feels dead. It has no physical warmth.

And while the abstracts on the finished products state it is inert in its finished form, they also state that protective measures must be taken when using such fibers. Contradiction? You bet! There are other abstracts that clearly state the consequences of ingesting or inhaling these fibers (more below).

Yet our infants suck on these fibers daily, breathing and ingesting fake fur and leaking fiberfill which are coated with silver colloid and Triclosan antibacterial agents and other plastics meant to keep the plastic toxins from leaching out of the fiber.

Plastic fibers are just that: plastic. Taiwanese manufacturing calls these chemical fibers. In truth they are petrochemical fibers. They are made from oil waste. They are the poop of oil production. And we are covering our nakedness with them and hand sewing cuddly toys from them. They pollute on a grand scale and we take no responsibility for that as the end-user of these fabrics and fibers made in other countries. If they were produced in our own backyard, we might have a different opinion about their safety.

  • It is made from polyethylene terepthalate. Poly fiberfill is registered in the US Toxic Substances Control Act. This would not be necessary if the product were considered completely non-toxic. 
  • Fibers are coated with additional chemicals, pesticides, and bactericides to seal in toxins and kill natural elements.
  • EPA studies show chemical fiber manufacture creates "significant emissions" while "particulate emissions from fiber plants are relatively low, at least an order of magnitude lower than solvent VOC emissions". read here
  • Engineers such as Anguil have been contracted to create better toxic by-product recapture machinery because "the oxidation and carbonization furnaces and ovens emit hydrogen cyanide, ammonia, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)...some of which are extremely dangerous to human health, even in very small quantities. Other pollutants of concern for carbon fiber producers include harmful gasses such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide." 
  • Studies in countries engaged in "chemical fiber manufacturing" show extremely high levels of carbon pollution and carcinogenic particles in local water and air. read here
  • In manufacturing poly fiberfill, three known carcinogens are produced in excess of occupational safety limits. (Health and Safety - UK)
  • Polyfill is deemed to cause no respiratory distress, yet according to many sources, manufacture AND USE of these fibers require proper ventilation and respiratory protection. read this
  • Polyfill decomposes with heat and emits hazardous gasses (vinyl acetate and acetic acid). read here
  • Hazardous gasses are produced when burned: carbon monoxide, organic gasses, aldehydes, alcohols, and calcium salts. read here
  • While ingestion and inhalation of poly fiberfill is considered "unlikely", safety warnings are: "Prolonged exposure may cause skin irritation." AND "If ingested may cause abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea." AND when inhaled can "cause irritation to upper respiratory tract, nose, and throat and can result in coughing, chest discomfort, and headache." read here
So there's my rant and there's the evidence. Polyester fiberfill is not the faultless angel of toymaking and neither are plastic fiber fabrics. They have consequences in our world. They are not clean and harmless. 

And here are some of the many other original choices for toy and doll stuffing. 
  • Wool
  • Cotton
  • Kapok
  • Buckwheat
  • Syriaca (milkweed)
  • Corn (not generally GMO free according to the manufacturers) read here
  • Down and feathers
  • Your fabric, thread, and yarn scraps
  • Denim insulation
This is where I get my wool fleece stuffing. If you are in Australia, I highly recommend this woman-owned home business:

CHALLENGE: Polyfill is the alternative so the challenge is to go back to a natural toy and doll stuffing option. For toy pattern makers, make your next sample doll out of cotton fleece or flannel or linen and stuff with any of the above non-plastic stuffing materials. Note what materials you used to make your doll and give materials options that enable the maker to choose for themselves but also educates them to the possibility of using a natural, less-harming product. If you make and sell toys, consider a natural fibers product to expand your customer base.