According to the Lenzing group, the world’s textile consumption was at 95.6 million tons in 2015.
62.1% of which were oil-based synthetic fibres like polyester, 25.2% cellulosic and protein-based fibres like cotton, 6.4% wood-based cellulose fibres, 1.2% wool and 1.5% other natural fibres.
It is well known that the textile industry is a large consumer of water, energy and chemicals required to produce fabric at several different stages of production.
To produce fibre, about 2 trillion gallons of water and 145 million tons of coal are consumed. If you consider the environmental impact of coal, as just one of the several energy sources in the textile industry, the harmful effects are enormous. Coal is also responsible for air and water pollution, as well as land use and waste management issues.
Through the various stages and processes of textile production, waste is produced and the environment is polluted. As such, the textile industry is responsible for producing different waste streams including; gaseous, liquid and solid waste most of which are quite hazardous.
What makes the textile industry one of the largest polluters?
The textile industry in terms of scale, output and production is one of the largest industries around the globe. Theindustry is a big contributor to the economic welfare of several economies around the world owing to the fact that there is an insatiable demand for clothing, as well as a need for the garments to be produced at the lowest cost.
Since the textile industry comprises of several different stages of production, pollution happens in many different ways depending on; the processes used, the level of technology used to produce fabric, the type of textile facility, the type of chemicals used and fibres used and so on.
It is therefore not a coincidence that the textile industry is considered to be the second most polluting industry in the world. The main environmental problems caused by the textile industry include; water pollution, air pollution and solid waste pollution.
Water Pollution Typically, to produce 1 kg of fabric, 200 litres of water are consumed. This is because a lot of water is used throughout the fabric production process including; washing the fibre, bleaching, dyeing and then cleaning the finished product. All this is separate from the fact that plants like cotton consume at least 5000 gallons or 19,000 litres of water to produce just one t-shirt.
In 2010, the China Environmental Statistical Yearbook cited that the Chinese textile industry produced two and a half billion tonnes of waste water.
The high volumes of water used and discarded in the fabric producing process are responsible for aquatic life toxicity from sources including: toxic organic chemicals, toxic anions, salts, ionic metals and metal complexes, biocides and surfactants.
Surfactants and other compounds like detergents, dispersants and emulsifiers are used in almost each stage in the textile production process and cause a lot of foaming and effluent aquatic toxicity in the waste water produced.
Gaseous emissions in the textile industry have been sighted as the second largest pollution problem in the industry after water pollution especially since most processes in textile production produce atmospheric emissions.
Generally, there’s very little data on air emissions in the textile industry since it is difficult to sample, test and quantify air pollution in audits. However, the concern is quite widespread because the effects are felt by populations that live and work near textile industries.
Air pollutants produced by the textile industry include: Nitrous oxides and sulphur dioxide produced in the energy production stages; Volatile organic components (VOCs) produced in coating, curing, drying, waste water treatment and chemical storage; Particulates produced in cotton handling activities, and; Aniline vapours, carrier Hydrogen sulphide, chlorine and chlorine dioxide produced in dyeing and bleaching stages and so on.
Air pollution in the textile industry can be categorised into 2 main groups according to the nature of the source of the pollution:
1| Diffusive sources: include solvent based pollution, spills and waste water treatment
Oil based fibres, like polyester and nylon, constitute the largest majority of fibres produced in the textile industry and these fibres are quite energy and chemical hungry.
Cotton is the largest natural fibre produced and consumed in the global textile market after oil based fibres, and it is produced using lots of water, chemicals and energy.
When you get to later stages like the dyeing and bleaching processes, enormous amounts of chemicals and water are again used. It is estimated that about 1 million tons of chemical dyes are used every year.
2| Point sources: include pollution from ovens, boilers and storage tanks
Drying ovens and high temperature curing processes which sometimes also include the use of mineral oils, produce hydrocarbons like formaldehyde, acids like acetic acid and other volatile compounds. Furthermore, boilers produce sulphur and nitrogen oxides that smell quite foul.
Solid waste pollution
The textile industry also produces lots of solid waste which ends up in landfills and water bodies, which can cause environmental issues. Globally, each year, about 90 million items of clothing end up in landfills.
Some of the pollutants that end up in landfills include;
Fibre lint, fibre scraps, trimmings and packaging waste produced in the fibre preparation, slashing/sizing, weaving, knitting and tufting processes
Vegetable matter, waxes, dirt, and wool produced in wool fabrication processes
Paper and paper sheets, scrap metals, oily rags general domestic waste used and produced in domestic textile workshops
Wasted and retained sludge in waste water treatment
Flock, chemical and dye containers used in dyeing and finishing of woven fabrics and so on
When solid waste pollution ends up in landfills, over time, it begins to let off methane into the environment which directly contributes towards global warming.
When solid waste pollution ends up in water bodies, it can pollute water bodies as well as kill marine life. This directly impacts animals as well as human beings who reside in the region.
There are several ways that the amount of environmental degradation caused by the textile industry can be reined in. Through recycling and up cycling of fabrics, the need to produce more and more fabrics can be greatly reduced. Additional measures to control pollution caused by the textile industry should also include clean textile production. A cleaner approach has already been implemented by some with success and therefore there is no reason why these efforts should not be expanded industry-wide.
A cleaner approach has the benefit of reduced cost of production with improved quality of textiles and what’s more is that it also improves the industry’s and company’s images in its efforts to protect the environment.