The Organic advantage through the lenses of the Eco-Index – Waste
The story so far: Last week we began to look at organic cotton through the lenses of the OIA’s Eco-Index. I made the comment that an industry-led sustainability framework that ranked raw materials by their sustainability credentials was a good thing. And a great opportunity for organic cotton to shine.
In my previous blog we started off by considering the impact of cotton growing compared to the other phases of a textile product’s lifecycle. Most researchers agree that the ‘consumer use’ phase has the greatest environmental impact overall as a result of all the energy and water used and greenhouse gases generated during washing and drying. Of course there is a large discrepancy between countries, as well as differences between the ways individuals choose to take care of their clothes. However, it’s fair to say that consumers in the global North tend to have a higher turnover of clothes and use more energy, chemicals, and water in the maintenance of them.
Compartmentalising a holistic system We also discussed how the very nature of organic agriculture makes it quite difficult to unpick into component parts. That it is this systems complexity that makes the sustainability credentials of organic more profound. In order to examine organic cotton through the eco lenses however we have to unravel and compartmentalise each element to measure it up against other fibres and raw materials, whilst at the same time appreciating the inter-connectedness of organic agricultural systems. Last week we tried to do this and examined organic cotton through the lenses of water and energy use/greenhouse gases (see earlier blog).
Today we will consider waste during the cotton growing phase.
Waste is any substance or object that needs to be discarded. Waste can occur at any stage of the production line and subsequently waste reduction measures can be implemented at each stage. The Eco-Index separates waste into hazardous and non-hazardous and can be classified as solid, liquid, or sludge.
The Eco-Index states that textile waste ranges from excess non-reusable, non recyclable raw materials; to by-products in processing; to excessive, non reusable or recyclable packaging; to harmful and hazardous substances used in a variety of processes from extraction and farming—waste is prevalent throughout the lifecycle. This lens intends to capture this impact so that it may be associated with the finished product.
Supply chain members are expected to record metrics in terms of the unit of product they produce. Therefore, for cotton fiber production it will be per units of seed cotton (kg or mt) or cotton lint if ginning is carried out on site.
Organic cotton agriculture aspires to be a closed-loop system
If we zoom in on the potential waste sources in cotton production, and the waste reduction measures that exist within organic cotton growing, once again we can acknowledge the organic advantage.
Bulk organic matter The cotton crop is cultivated for its fiber (and seed), the stalks, leaves and other biomass is considered the waste. In regions of small scale farming, India for example, the stalks are sometimes taken home by farmers to be used as firewood, the rest is often burned in the field. Burning of biomass can result in substantial releases of GHGs (carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and hydrocarbons). In India, on average 0.85 mil. mt of CO2 eq. is released into the atmosphere per 1 million mt of cotton stalks burnt (ICAC).
Organic agriculture does not allow the buring of plant residues. Organic promotes the recycling of plant material on the farm. Although this is not always perfect in practice, or exclusive to organic, the recycling of the waste biomass as mulch or compost saves carbon and nutrients exiting the farm. Schemes such as carbon crediting may make on-site carbon management even more of an incentive.
Nutrients Excess nutrients are lost through volatilization (when nitrogen vaporizes in the atmosphere in the form of ammonia), surface runoff, and leaching to groundwater. On average, about 20 percent of nitrogen fertilizer is lost through surface runoff or leaching into groundwater (MA 2005).
Well-managed organic farms are a closed loop, they maximise the use of locally available inputs, such as farmyard manure and green manure for soil fertility and rely on locally grown botanicals, such as Neem, to keep pests and diseases at bay. Closed loop systems reduce nutrients escaping outside of the system (and are more appropriately referred to as by-products or inputs). Wastes overloaded with nutrients, containing nitrogen and phosphates, are often associated with fertiliser use– and can result in groundwater contamination and surface water algal blooms (eutrophication). Farm animals are a good source of fertilizer but waste products, if not managed carefully, can also be problematic i.e. cows produce methane and nutrients from manure can end up in waterways.
On-farm chemical wastes This one’s easy. If synthetic chemicals are not used on the farm, neither will there be the disposal issues of hazardous waste; such as obsolete pesticides, plastic fertiliser bags, and pesticide containers. Not to mention the left over or unused toxic chemicals themselves. Additional issues include the risk of environmental contamination from chemical waste products, their disposal, run-off, spills, container leaks, and spray drift can be avoided through organic agriculture, and so can accidental or intentional (suicidal) poisoning.
Measuring waste beyond the farm gate
Indirect sources When considering waste (as with carbon) it is important to know where the boundaries or 'footprint' of the product impact are drawn. Organic cotton agriculture tends to use natural, locally sourced inputs therefore removing the need for importing industrially produced agrichemical inputs (such as pesticides and fertilisers) that need to be shipped to the point of use. Thus, also reducing the amount of associated industrial waste, and process and transportation emissions.
Gin 'wastes' – cotton seeds While not strictly a waste, cotton seeds, are definitely a by- product of cotton fiber production. The seed is removed from the cotton fiber at ginning and enters its own supply chain. If the cotton is grown in countries such as the USA, India, China, South Africa and many more, it is likely to be from genetically modified seed. Often we don’t think about the fact that we do actually eat cotton! Cottonseed oil can be found in many of the products we eat such as mayonnaise and cooking oil. Plus, cottonseed is relatively inexpensive and is increasingly found in processed foods, including cereals, breads and snack foods. Cotton seed ‘cake’ – the ground up hulls etc - is fed to livestock (therefore indirectly entering the human food chain). So whether you are concerned about eating GMOs or not it’s something to keep in mind when considering the potential health impacts of GMO cotton. Organic and Fairtrade cotton bans the use of GMO seed.
Visit the Eco-Index website for further details of the waste metrics and methodology agreed by the Eco-Index Working Group. And come back tomorrow when we consider organic cotton through the Eco-Index toxics lens.
Further reading and references
FiBL, Development of carbon-offset methodologies http://www.fibl.org/fileadmin/documents/de/news/2012/calas/9_CaLas2011_Muller.pdf
Soil & More, Carbon Credits through controlled microbiological composting http://www.soilandmore.com/index.php/Composting
IFOAM, FAQs http://www.ifoam.org/sub/faq.html
PAN UK, Pesticide Waste http://www.pan-uk.org/waste-pesticides/blog
WRI, Sources of nutrient pollution http://www.wri.org/project/eutrophication/about/sources
Naturland, Basic Principles of Organic Agriculture http://www.naturland.de/fileadmin/MDB/documents/Publication/English/a_principles_organic_farming_01.pdf