In promoting the vegetarian lifestyle, activists always insist that everyone should switch to plant foods for nutritional, ecological and moral reasons. Why? Evolutionary, my dear Watson.
A counter argument to the vegan gospel that no animal foods, fiber or other products should ever be used ignores the fact that humanity’s eons-long history — indeed, the very biological development of our species — was fueled by a nutrient-rich diet of animal foods. That reality is blithely dismissed by veggie activists with the catch phrase, “But we’ve evolved beyond all that.”
In other words, we should turn away from what has always been considered “natural” and embrace what can only be described as “technological.”
Instead of beef, pork and chicken, we can eat processed soy protein.
Instead of milk and butter, we can consume soymilk and vegetable-oil margarine.
Instead of wearing leather shoes and garments, we can purchase synthetic alternatives.
All of those choices are positioned as better for us, better for the animals and better for the planet.
Only they’re most decidedly not.
Let’s consider wool, as an example, a material long utilized to make warm, durable clothing and outerwear. No matter: There’s not a self-respecting vegan alive who’d be caught walking around in a wool hat, shirt or coat. That would be an endorsement of animal cruelty.
“While the practice of taking wool off a sheep does not immediately require killing,” as the website www.Vegankit.com phrased it, “sheep are still property. This means they are bred and enslaved to be products for humans.”
Besides, we’ve “evolved” beyond the need to be shearing enslaved sheep, veggies are quick to contend. There’s a better alternative: Synthetic fabrics, using materials manufactured from polyvinyl chloride, polyurethane and/or textile-grade polymer-composite microfibers.
Clothing and outerwear made with these synthetic fabrics are promoted and marketed by numerous pro-vegetarian groups, touting their durability (although they don’t outlast wool), their breathability and most importantly their status as a “cruelty-free” choice about which vegans can feel oh-so righteous.
There’s a problem with that so-called principled stance, however: Those synthetic alternatives are much worse than wool, both in terms of animal abuse and environmental impact. Here’s why.
The micro-pollution problem
A new study of water quality in the Great Lakes revealed an alarming new source of contamination: tiny bits of plastic from the synthetic fibers used to make garments and other products.
“When we launder our clothes, some of the little microfibers will break off and go down the drain to the wastewater treatment facility and end up in our bodies of water,” Sherri Mason, a chemist with the State University of New York at Fredonia, told the Associated Press.
These microfibers are “exceedingly fine filaments” typically made from petroleum-based polyester and nylon that are woven into fabrics. However, the fibers are so minuscule that a single fleece jacket can shed thousands of them every time it’s washed, a phenomenon previously documented in a 2011 study published the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Mason and her colleagues with the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant have documented the extent of this “microplastic litter” in the Great Lakes. Some of the litter is comprised of microscopic plastic “beads” used as exfoliants in facial creams and body washes, some are fragments of larger plastic items, such as disposable water bottles, and some are shards of Styrofoam and other plastics.
(By the way, this plastic litter is hardly confined to the Great Lakes. There is a notorious floating “trash island” in the Pacific Ocean — composed of acres of plastic waste — that is twice the size of the state of Texas! A yachtsman famously decided to take a “shortcut” through this mass of trash a few years ago, and it took him seven days to reach open water again.)
The microbeads used in health and beauty products have already been banned in several states as obvious pollutants and can be rather easily replaced by natural substances, such as ground-up fruit pits.
But in her study, Mason and her team discovered that about 12% of the plastic pollution in southern Lake Michigan consists of plastic microfibers.
These fibers get trapped inside fish in ways other microplastics don’t, the AP story related. Microbeads and other plastic fragments typically pass through the fish and are excreted. But the microfibers become enmeshed in gastrointestinal tracts of fish, not to mention inside fish-eating shore birds.
There are also concerns that microfibers are present in drinking water piped from major water sources, Mason said, noting that most plastics contain toxic chemicals. Scientists already reported last fall that two dozen varieties of German beer tested contained microplastics.
What’s the solution? Microbeads can be phased out of health and beauty formulations and people can (and should) switch to refillable containers, rather than disposable plastic beverage bottles.
But how do we deal the threat of microfiber pollution? There’s only one answer. Stop buying and wearing clothing made of synthetic fleece and polyester fabrics.
Because as it turns out, maybe we’ve “evolved” a little too far for our own good. □
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.