At just about every single point of production in the textile industry, there is a form of chemical pollution being released into the environment; from the time the base materials were planted and produced, through to spinning, weaving, dyeing and then finally transporting the finished goods. Each of these stages leaves a potentially devastating carbon footprint on our environment.
Chemical waste from fabric manufacture can be seen in three main forms. Let’s take a look at these main forms of pollution, where they fit into the textile industry and how they damage our environment.
The textile industry produces both toxic and non-toxic solid waste products.
Examples of non-toxic solid waste would be all the packaging, fabric off-cuts, machine parts that get replaced, spools, reels, and so on. These are not immediately dangerous to us or the environment and can be recycled to prevent future eco-damages. Toxic or hazardous waste such as bleach and sludge, however, causes us and the environment immediate harm and is anti-life.
Most solid waste gets emitted during fibre preparation, yarn spinning, slashing/sizing, weaving, knitting, tufting, finishing and occasionally, bleaching.
All of these except bleaching, produce pollutants such as packaging and fibre waste, off-cuts and fabric scraps and can be treated through innovative recycling. In many countries, such fabric waste is being recycled and used to create eco-friendly, yet highly fashionable clothing.
Bleach, however, is one clear example of the many hazardous solid waste pollutants produced from the fabric industry and how damaging they are for our Earth. It’s an incredibly dangerous pollutant which poses a huge threat to the future of life inhabiting our planet. When poured out into the sea, bleach kills a large variety of plant and marine life, as well as being highly toxic to the human body when in contact with it.
Water Pollution in the textile production process is caused in the form of heavy metal waste products being flushed out into our rivers, lakes and our oceans. Further, lubricants, detergents, salts and other highly acidic and corrosive substances are also released into these large bodies of water, contaminating them.
Several parts of the textile production process creates this kind of waste including finishing, printing, dyeing, mercerising, scouring, de-sizing and slashing/ sizing.
It can take as much as 200 litres of water on average to make 1kg of textiles2, about 20litres per apparel item. With over 11 billion pieces of clothing sold on average annually in the US alone, the amount of water we pollute and waste globally is incomprehensible!
The vast amounts of chemicals released into our water supplies create some of the most devastating effects on our environment.
Detergents and agents that oxidise easily can promote algal bloom, which creates an unsuitable marine habitat, destroying much marine life as well as harming the animal kingdom.
Another example of a toxic water pollutant from this industry is the oil used for lubricating machines in the textile process. Oil is often flushed out as waste once its function has been met, killing off more marine life and harming birds, seals and other larger creatures. Ways to recycle oil using innovative technology are being developed in the hopes to preserve our oceans for future generations.
Air Pollution in the textile industry is exuded in the form of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) which are released into the atmosphere. These VOCs can be glycol ethers, detergent, combustion gases, reactive components and volatile molecules amongst many more hazardous emissions2.
Processes involving harmful air emissions include slashing/ sizing, de-sizing, scouring, singeing, scouring, heat setting, dyeing, printing and finishing.
Air pollution has many side effects and is possibly the worst form of pollution for the environment. It poses serious threats to our environment, via contributing to phenomena such as acid rain, eutrophication (algal bloom), smog/haze and affecting the health of plant life and animals – not to mention the destruction of our ozone layer. Global health has also been hugely affected since industrialisation came into being.
Air pollution affects our health in many ways, such as worsening respiratory conditions like asthma, contributing to nervous system damage and can even result in creating birth defects in pregnant women. These emissions contain many carcinogens such as benzene-derived compounds, which promote the growth of cancer!
As a demand for textiles grows, it’s important to know the cost of a larger industry to our environment, the animals we share Earth with and – eventually – our own health.