By Julianne Hodges, Jiayi Sun and Jennifer Murphy
A baby alpaca called Jenny hopped, skipped and jumped to Rhonda Deschner. She took a moment to caress its belly’s fur.
“Alpaca fur is the most environmentally friendly material in the world,” said Deschner, the 58-year-old owner of Tierra Prometida Alpaca Ranch, 15 miles west of San Marcos. “That’s the reason why I raised alpacas instead of goats or cows.”
According to World Population Clock, there are 7.6 billion people living on earth right now. By 2050, the population is expected to reach 10.5 billion. The growth rate of the population may soon outnumber necessary resources. Novel solutions to environmental stressors, such as alpaca fur, are becoming increasingly common. Therefore, alpaca fiber is poised to be on the shelves of everyday stores to luxury boutiques because of its low impact on the environment.
Alpacas’ manure benefits the soil. According to Alpaca of Montana Association, it is considered nature’s best time-release pellet fertilizer as it is brimming with nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Nitrogen promotes plant growth as it is associated with leafy, vegetative growth, according to Noble Research Institute. Nitrogen is part of the chlorophyll molecule, which gives plants their green color and is involved in creating food for the plant through photosynthesis.
Phosphorus promotes root development, crop maturity and seed production. And potassium is important for a plant’s ability to withstand extreme cold and hot temperatures, drought and pests.
“We composted their poo and put it back on the soil,” Deschner said. “And they help improve the soil here, much better than synthetic fertilizers.”
Synthetic fertilizers consist of varying amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. They also contain a large majority of the heavy metals such as mercury and lead, according to Organic Consumers Association. Therefore, fertilization may affect the accumulation of heavy metals in soil and plant system. Plants absorb the fertilizers through the soil, and they can enter the food chain.
When synthetic fertilizers come to the soil, they kill beneficial microorganisms in the soil that convert dead animal and plant remains into the nutrient-rich organic matter.
When synthetic fertilizers come to the water, they reduce the amount of oxygen in the water. The result is oxygen depletion causing the fish to die.
Alpacas also weigh less than other fiber-producing livestock. An adult healthy alpaca usually weighs 100 to 150 pounds, while the number for a sheep is 200 to 450. Therefore, alpacas cause less soil compression, which tends to lead to infertility in ecosystems.
According to Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences, aerated soil grows vegetation more effectively than dense soil because ventilated soil allows gases to be exchanged with atmosphere, which is important for photosynthesis and respiration.
Light and fluffy soil can support vegetation, earthworms and other creatures that add to soil health. In turn, more grass is available to retain water, reduce runoff and ultimately, nourish alpacas.
Alpacas’ two-toed feet with soft pads on the bottom also benefit the soil. The pads allow them to tread grasslands with little impact and do not contribute to erosion like other livestock, according to Deshner.
“Other fiber animals such as goats and cattle have hooves, which can dig into the turf and tear the ground up,” Deschner said.
Meyla Johnston, the owner of Alcapa Culture, said goats and cattle not only have sharp hooves which can cut through the soil surface, their eating habits also damage the plants.
“They voraciously rip up plants by their roots,” said Johnston. “This makes it impossible for grass to thrive and makes rangeland recovery longer and more difficult.”
But alpacas lack upper teeth and chew grass against their palate. This special structure of their teeth makes the way they eat grass protective of grassroots.
Alpacas also eat little. According to Alpacas Of Montana, alpacas consume 20 to 40 percent less feed per unit of metabolic body weight that sheep do on the same diet.
“This helps us save grains and reduce production cost because they don’t eat a lot,” Deschner said.
Alpacas not only consume less food than sheep and goats, they also utilize their food more efficiently than others. Their specialized three-stomach digestive system metabolizes most of what they eat with little waste.
Alpacas come in 16 different color groups with many other shades and hues, according to Alpaca Owners Association.
“You don’t have to dye it to get a broad variety of colors,” Deschner said. “This makes alpaca a perfect ready-made candidate for eco-lines of yarn, textiles and garments.”
According to Scientific Research, the textile dyeing industry has created a huge pollution problem as it is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth and the No. 1 polluter of clean water. The industry is using more than 8,000 chemicals in various processes of textile manufacture including dyeing and printing. More than 3,600 individual textile dyes are manufactured by the industry today.
Use of synthetic dyes has an adverse effect on all forms of life. Presence of sulfur, naphthol, vat dyes, nitrates, acetic acid, soaps and heavy metals like copper, arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, all collectively makes the textile effluent highly toxic.
The World Bank estimates that 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and finishing treatment given to fabric. Some 72 toxic chemicals have been identified in water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which cannot be removed.
“This represents an appalling environmental problem for the clothing and textile manufacturers,” said Rita Kant, an environmental science professor at Panjab University, India.
The production of synthetic materials, such as rayon, can also create problems for the environment, according to Jonathan Chen, a textiles and apparel professor at the University of Texas at Austin who researches the use of natural materials such as plant fibers.
Rayon comes from cellulose, an organic compound found in plant cells and fibers, which is then dissolved and spun into uniform filaments. However, the cellulose must be dissolved in strong acidic and basic chemicals. The resulting chemicals are very hard to treat before being released back into the environment.
“Although modern technology has created new ways of producing rayon without using as many chemicals,” Chen said. “These new methods are not yet widely used.”
Despite all of the eco-friendly advantages that natural fibers such as alpaca wool have over synthetic fibers, Chen said synthetic materials have the economic advantage. Synthetic fiber can be produced cheaper and at higher quantities to meet the growing demands of an increasing population.
“Right now, it’s very hard for plant fiber and animal fibers to compete with the synthetic fiber market because today, the synthetic fiber is becoming the mainstream fiber application production for textiles, and other non-textile applications,” Chen said. “It cannot compete at the cost, at the quantity, and also in quality in general.”
However, there is still a market for alpaca wool. Deschner said she sells it to different people who make fleece. The number of the companies she works with is increasing every year. This year, they provide the yarn to Ralph Lauren to make the Olympic sweaters and uniforms.
“Alpaca will become recognized as the most appealing natural fibers,” Deschner said. “They are the hope for the future of textiles.”