About the blog: What Things Are Made Of


The United States relies on imports for dozens of commodities in everyday use. Often enough, that reliance is 100%. In this book I aim to provide awareness of the hidden geology and mineralogy behind common things, and to develop an appreciation for the global resource distribution that underpins our society. While concerns about oil import reliance are in the news every day, our needs for other minerals are comparable and are typically unknown even to technologically aware Americans.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My t-shirt

My t-shirt reads “If it can’t be grown, it has to be mined.” And while that’s a mantra of the mining industry, it’s also completely true.

This particular shirt is 100% cotton, and “Hecho en Mexico.”  For a future post, I’ll write about 50-50 blends of cotton and polyester, but for now I want to address the mineral underpinnings of this cotton, something that is grown.

Even things that are grown require minerals. Think soil and fertilizer and pesticides. Yes, I know there is a small and growing movement toward “organic agriculture,” including cotton farming, but it is tiny compared to the industrial scale of most textile crops. World-wide, 25% of all chemical pesticides and fertilizers contribute to cotton’s growth.

China is the world’s largest cotton grower, but the U.S. is the #1 cotton exporter. China is our #1 customer, with Turkey and Mexico next in line. Mexico relies on the US as its greatest supplier of cotton. So although my shirt is hecho (assembled, sewed) in Mexico, at least some of the cotton probably came from fields in Texas or California. Just as you can’t boycott Arab oil by boycotting any (and I really mean almost any) U.S. gas station, you can’t “buy American” simply by avoiding a product “made” elsewhere. Cotton farmers, potash miners, natural gas producers in the U.S. have all contributed to my “Made in Mexico” t-shirt.

Ninety percent of the cost of nitrogen fertilizer is in the cost of the natural gas that becomes ammonia and ultimately the nitrogen component. Some comes from coal, but natural gas, mostly from the U.S., is the feedstock for most of it. Potash, another mineral vital in fertilizers (the source for potassium) is mined in New Mexico and extracted from brines in Utah and Michigan, adding up to a 686-million-dollar business employing more than 1,000 workers. But the U.S. fertilizer industry is so big we also import 73% of more than three million tons of potash each year. Most of it comes from Canada, but Belarus supplies about 5% of our potash imports.

Pesticides have a well-deserved negative reputation. They are, after all, killers, and they have negatively impacted humans and beneficial animals and plants as well as pests. Whole books and advertising campaigns champion and condemn their value and their evil. For now, suffice it to say that they are ultimately made from chemicals derived from minerals, from oil and natural gas to arsenic and chlorine. And love them or hate them, they are used in agriculture on a huge scale world-wide.

Farming of course requires other mineral-based equipment and supplies, from tractors and their fuel to water-supply systems. My primary point in this post is to highlight the extreme interdependency on a global scale of the things we take for granted. And to point out that a label like “Made in Mexico” or “Made in USA” isn’t a black-or-white statement.

My t-shirt’s imprint boasts at least six colorful dyes. I’ve posted previously about the deep blue color ultramarine, and again the topic of mineral pigments fills more than one book. That’s enough for now.

Photo by Lady von Gaga-Gaza.

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