How green is fusible webbing?

In Part 1 of How Safe and Green Are Your Crafting Supplies?, I went on a quest to find out about the safety of my test case crafting product, fusible web. (As you’ll recall, it’s a synthetic product that’s like a cross between fabric and glue, and it works as an adhesive when you iron it.)

Though I was not 100% reassured by what I found, there are at least some safety regulations in place for arts and craft supplies, and fusible web does meet those standards. So let’s move on to my next challenge: assess the environmental impact.

The environmental impact of many products is pretty evident. Oil is a non-renewable resource and it creates toxins when you burn it, so I think it’s a no-brainer to bubble in “No” on the sustainability question in the answer booklet. Bottled water exchanges an efficient public delivery system for an inefficient private one and creates a massive pile of barely recyclable containers.

Fusible web, though, isn’t as immediately apparent to me. Obviously, any product that is manufactured (unless it’s Cradle to Cradle certified, Autumn reminded me) uses up resources and thus isn’t as environmentally benign as going without or re-using something that was already made. But beyond the issues posed by using any manufactured product, is there anything else going on with fusible web that is praiseworthy or less so?

Unlike what I found when I looked for safety information, I only found one online resource concentrated on environmental impact of using art and craft supplies. Pollution Prevention for Arts Education by the Pollution Prevention Regional Information Center, jointly operated by the Nebraska Business Development Center (NBDC) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO), contains tips and information on non-toxic and least toxic supplies and disposal issues. There are no federal laws yet requiring that arts and craft supplies, or anything else, be assessed for their environmental impact throughout the product’s lifecycle, so there’s no uniform standard. Unless the product has some kind of eco certification label on it, manufacturers probably aren’t addressing the issue, and even if it’s labeled you don’t necessarily know what that label means without additional research.So I set out to answer four basic questions on my own:

  • What is it?
  • How is it made? (What are the ingredients, process, and waste products?)
  • What happens when you throw it away?
  • Is there anything better we could use?

Though what I found is specific to fusible web, answering these four questions about any product should be a good start in understanding whether a product is green or not so much.

What is it?

First stop, the manufacturer’s websites. The Steam A Seam website yields no clues. The Stitch Witchery website offers this: “Stitch Witchery is a polyamide fusible web that permanently bonds two layers of fabric together.” Polyamides, says Wikipedia, can occur naturally but are also produced artificially. Polyamides are a type of plastic, and more specifically they are what’s known as a semi-crystalline plastic. One of the main synthetic polyamides is nylon, which leads me to believe that fusible web is fairly related to nylon. I found several other articles in various places that describe nylon as the trade name for polyamides, so I’m going to proceed under the assumption that I can evaluate fusible web by evaluating nylon.

How is it made?

If I were going to make fusible web, what would I buy? (Aside from a factory.) What process would I use to make it? What waste would be generated? I’ve always seen people saying that synthetic fabrics are less environmentally friendly than natural ones, but I didn’t really know what that meant.

The Chemical Heritage Foundation, “dedicated to preserving and promoting the progress of science,” has an educational website called “Spinning the Elements: Wallace Carothers and the Nylon Legacy.” It says this about the manufacturing process:

… adipic acid is mixed with hexamethylene diamine at room temperature… The nylon salt is then purified. This nylon salt is a crystalline solid. When the time to make nylon comes, one just has to heat the nylon salt to over 285 oC, and it reacts to become nylon polymer.

Back to Wikipedia. Adipic acid was historically made from fats, but now it’s made from cyclohexane. Cyclohexane “cannot easily be obtained from natural resources such as coal” and must be manufactured from benzene or petroleum using other chemicals. The International Chemical Safety Card for cyclohexane is really scary as far as health effects and risk of explosion, but the Australian fact sheet on cyclohexane seems to indicate that environmentally it’s not that bad. Hexamethylene diamine is “highly toxic and can cause serious injuries.” It’s made from adiponitrile. If follow adiponitrile back in the process, you’re looking at a petrochemical origin.

Anyone else having a sinking feeling?

After I did all of that Wikipedia-ing, I did a little more digging to see if I got it right. How “Green” is Your Gear? The Environmental Impact of Nylon by Geoffrey Skinner, written in the Spring of 2000, discusses an article in the National Outdoor Leadership School’s newsletter The Leader from 1999 and a 1998 article in the respected journal Science. Skinner reports that the manufacture of nylon, from petroleum products, involves the release of pollutant nitrous oxide. A method for reducing the nitrous oxide emissions had been developed, but at the time of his article it was more expensive and not in wide use.

UK website GreenChoices describes nitrous oxide as “a greenhouse gas 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide” and notes that nylon manufacture uses a lot of energy. A 1991 paper in Science estimated that manufacture of nylon may account for 10% of the increase in atmospheric nitrous oxide, which contributes to destruction of ozone.

Is this a rigorous scientific review on my part? No. Is it enough for me to get the gist? Yes.

What happens when you throw it away?

Nylon doesn’t biodegrade, and we know that’s bad. Nylon carpet has some possibilities for recycling, but I didn’t find any other examples of nylon recycling and it gives off toxic fumes when incinerated. Ugh. Granted, fusible web, like many arts and craft supplies, is made to be used up and not tossed out.

Is there anything better we could use?

I got rid of all my son’s plastic toys, bottles, and dishes this past weekend, because I had finally decided that it was worth my peace of mind to replace them with wood, glass, and cloth (preferably thrifted or handmade). I guess the question for each crafter, like each parent, is when a product is bad enough that you’re willing to give it up. Fusible web and nylon are made from petrochemicals and create toxic byproducts, which doesn’t count as sustainable in anyone’s book.

Applique was not born with the invention of fusibles, and people somehow made clothes before fusible interfacing was available. How much is the convenience of fusibles worth?

In my post about the Amish and green quilting, I mentioned that quilters often point to the t-shirt quilt as a great example of recycling. However, the dominant method for stabilizing t-shirts so they can be easily pieced into a quilt is to back them with fusible web. (It’s like in Autumn’s post about making a bag out of playing cards, when she observed that a major component of that “recycled” craft project was duct tape and laminate.) Not all knits are fused before they’re sewn, or my cotton tank tops would be awfully stiff, so I imagine that there would be a way to make these quilts without fusibles. It would just make the sewing (a lot) more difficult.

I have a t-shirt quilt in waiting upstairs, and I have already purchased the fusible web for it, so I’m going to make it. Throwing the stuff away won’t un-do the damage caused by its manufacture. But I’m going to think long and hard about whether it’s worth making another one.

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Main Research Source
What have we learnt?
  • Ecolabel index may be a resource to try
  • Accordng to the comments on this post, ‘The original interfacing were woven cottons, woven goat and horse hair and they’re still an important part of men’s tailored jackets.’
  • Some types of iron-on webbing are made from Polyester (#2 plastic)