Cotton industry reducing contaminants The bad news about cotton contamination is that it remains a problem for the cotton industry. The good news is that real progress is being made to eliminate the problem.

"Improvements are being made in the United States by producers, ginners and merchants. U.S. cotton is the least contaminated in the world. Efforts being made on the farm and in the mills and gins to reduce contamination are working, and vast strides have been made in the past four years," says Rick Holder, president of Harvey Gin and Cotton Company in Kinston, N.C.

Cotton conference Holder and Vern Tyson, director of cotton operations for National Textiles in Winston Salem, N.C., discussed the issue of contamination at the recent Southeast Cotton Conference held in Raleigh.

"But we have to work every day to reduce cotton contamination," says Holder. "We can't let our guard down. It's just like practicing safety on the farm - we must always keep it on our minds. Every segment of the cotton industry works together, and we must do everything possible to keep U.S. cotton competitive."

This past year, he says, a North Carolina spinning mill announced that it would stop buying North Carolina cotton because of contamination. In response to that announcement, other mills in the state stepped in and bought the cotton, he adds.

"We lost out on yields because of the hurricane and other weather problems, but we didn't lose out because of contamination. On the farms and in the gins, we were doing everything possible to reduce contamination," says Holder.

According to numbers compiled by the National Cotton Council, 55 percent of contamination complaints resulted from plastic bags such as those used in retail stores. "If these bags are caught in the head of a picker and ground into seed cotton, they can't be removed in the ginning or milling process.

"It's a problem that can be eliminated through the use of common sense. If you're a grower, remove bags and other trash from your fields before picking cotton. In gins, many workers carry food in these plastic bags. Don't allow these bags on the floor of the gin," advises Holder.

Twenty-five percent of contamination complaints arise from other fibers being present in the cotton, he continues. "Some of this comes from workers who remove clothing or gloves. In our modern gins, no one will see a jacket or other material in a module."

Fifteen percent of contamination problems, says Holder, are caused by straps, covers or tarps associated with covering modules. Growers, he says, should be careful about what they use to put around modules and what they use around the module covers themselves. Cotton covers and cotton tie-downs might be options.

In a survey of 13 U.S. cotton mills, representing more than four million bales of cotton annually, or 43 percent of U.S. production, the majority of mills see contamination as a minor issue, says Vern Tyson.

Survey results "Forty-three percent of the mills surveyed saw contamination as a minor issue, 31 percent saw it as a moderate issue and 26 percent saw it as a major issue," says Tyson. "Three or four years ago, the number viewing contamination as a major issue would have been much higher. Growers have been very helpful in reducing cotton contamination."

The survey also questioned mills on how much contamination costs them annually, he says. "Most of them - 57 percent - don't know how much contamination costs them. Eleven percent responded that it cost nothing to $100,000, 10 percent said $100,000 to $500,000 and 22 percent said the cost was $1 million-plus," says Tyson.

Turning to the causes of contamination, 35 percent of the mills cited module covers or tie-downs for module covers as the major culprit. Thirty-two percent blamed farming practices, 21 percent said ginning practices and 10 percent said mills were the major cause of cotton contamination. Two percent suggested that warehousing was a major cause of contamination.

In answer to the question, "Does contamination alter buying patterns?" 76 percent of the mills said no while 24 percent said yes, notes Tyson.

The next question on the survey, he says, was, "How do we eliminate contamination?" "Education - at 28 percent - was listed as the Number One thing we can do to eliminate contamination in cotton. Cotton ropes on modules was a close second at 25 percent. Eighteen percent of the mills thought we should have economic penalties for contamination and 14 percent thought we should have some certification process to award those with good quality performance. Bale packaging integrity was mentioned by nine percent of the respondents and six percent said cleaner fields would help eliminate contamination."

Fifty-one percent of the mills said contamination could not be tracked by bale in their facilities while 47 percent said that it could be tracked. Two percent responded that contamination sometimes could be tracked by bale in their mills. "My company is very well automated, and we don't look at bales on an individual basis. We don't have the ability to track contamination by bale."

At the end of the survey, mills were asked for general comments, says Tyson. Thirty-two percent said that a task force is needed in the industry to study the issue of contamination. Eleven percent said that the industry had improved on the issue of contamination in cotton while four percent said that cotton ties were needed on modules.

Cotton contamination still is a major issue for mills, he says, but it has improved in recent years. "The impact of cotton contamination varies by product lines. In addition, causes of contamination are varied and change with each season to some degree."