Why does the Cape Town water crisis impact the textile industry?

7 03 2018

This blog post was taken largely from Leon Kaye’s article in The Guardian newspaper.

Day zero for the Cape Town water crisis is predicted to fall on May 11, 2018, according to an analysis of current usage patterns and dam levels. The drought-stricken city will have to cut off taps to all homes and most businesses, leaving nearly all of the city’s 4 million residents without access to running water.

Residents will then have to go to roughly 200 collection points scattered across the city to collect strictly rationed water. People will be allowed just 25 liters — about 6.5 gallons — of water a day. That’s all the water they’ll have for drinking, bathing, flushing toilets, and washing their hands. Some services, like hospitals, clinics, and schools will be exempt from the cutoff and will continue to have access to running water. But the overwhelming majority of the megacity’s residents will have to work with their tiny daily allotment.

Experts say the possibility of civil unrest is high.

Water doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Did you know that more than one-quarter of all bottled comes from a municipal water supply – the same place that tap water comes from.  And since the average faucet releases 2 gallons of water per minute, you can save up to 4 gallons of water every morning by turning off the tap while you brush your teeth.  There is about the same amount of water on Earth now as there was a million years ago.

And – it takes 2,641 gallons to produce one pair of jeans!  Textiles have one of the largest water footprints on the planet; some say it is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet (after agriculture).

Dyeing poses an especially big problem. Dye houses in India and China are notorious for not only exhausting local water supplies, but for dumping untreated wastewater into local streams and rivers.  Up until now the effluent from dye houses that can often be seen in rivers flowing through the textile manufacturing areas of India, China and elsewhere is a result of unabsorbed dyes, chemicals and heavy salts that are used during the dyeing process.

The industry’s challenge is to adopt more water-friendly technologies to dye cotton and polyester, the two most mass marketed textiles. So what can companies do to mitigate the effects of this timeless, yet toxic, dyeing process?

“There is no silver bullet,” said Kathy Hattori, who runs a natural dye manufacturing company Botanical Colors. “There are so many ways to reduce the impact of textile dyeing,” she continued, “because, for example, it’s not realistic to eliminate a product such as polyester.” Hattori explained many factories could start by tackling the wasteful dye-to-water ratio. A 1-to-30 ratio is common.

Reaching a 1-to-10 dye-to-water ratio is an accomplishment, Hattori explained, and when asked whether the manufacturer would then simply need more dye, she replied with an emphatic “you don’t”. Diluting a dye, she countered, simply means wasting more water: much of the answer in solving the waste involved in dyeing textiles lies in a factory’s mechanisation. Various fabrics require different manufacturing processes, so one best technology does not exist for low-water or waterless dyeing.

Waterless dyeing should be the textile industry’s holy grail, but widespread adoption is years away. In Hattori’s view, polyester is the prime candidate because dyeing performs best in an airless environment with pressurized high heat, allowing dyes to disperse throughout the fabric. Coloring fabric using this waterless method could be feasible for polyester; natural fibers such as cotton and wool, however, can become damaged undergoing a similar process. Cotton comprises 45% of all fibers used within the global textile industry, so a sharp reduction in water consumption would be a huge process improvement for this sector.

Other than nebulous talk about partnering with NGOs to reduce water consumption, few large companies currently consider new waterless or near waterless technologies. Kevin Brigden, a scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboraties, says while waterless dye technologies do help to solve many problems, “dyes and possibly some other chemicals are still used, and it is important that hazardous chemicals are avoided.” “If there is a waste stream – even at a much smaller volume – that needs to be dealt with appropriately.”

“Right now there is very low uptake of use of these technologies,” says Andrew Filarowski, technical director at the Society of Dyers and Colorists. The textile industry is viewed as low-cost entry into industrialization of countries, meaning that lower-cost technologies are used even when superior technology is available.  The most significant problem, says Filarowski, is consumer expectations for inexpensive clothing. The textile industry is consumer-driven and unless customers are willing to pay more for products made with waterless dye technology, the industry isn’t going to adopt it.  “The only way to produce clothing cheaply is to do it abroad without any real control and certainly not by using the most modernised and sustainable technology.”

One that does is Adidas. During a telephone conversation earlier this summer, Alexis Olans, a senior director of the company’s sustainability programs, explained the challenges and successes of what Adidas brands its “DryDye” technology.

Instead of water, Adidas’ supplier uses compressed and pressurized carbon dioxide as the agent to disperse dye within polyester fabric. The CO2, which takes on liquid-like properties, is contained in stainless steel chambers. After the dyeing cycle the CO2 becomes gasified, and dye within the cotton fibers condenses as it separates from the gas. The CO2 is then recycled and pumped back into the dyeing vessel. Adidas claims using CO2 is a safe and environmentally friendly option because the gas is contained and can be used repeatedly without the risk of any emissions.

Although dyeing using compressed CO2 has existed for over 25 years, Adidas claims a supplier in Thailand operates the only factory with the ability to scale this technology. So can this process transform the textile industry? Not quite yet according to Christian Schumacher, an expert in textile dyes and chemicals, who points out that investment in such equipment is still costly.

Nevertheless, assumptions that water is integral to dyeing are crumbling. As Olans says: “Do we really need water to dye? We discovered an answer that not only solved the intended goal, eliminating water, but also had multiple positive side effects, including a reduction in energy and chemicals.”

Adidas’ work is a step, but the recent announcement it would manufacture one million yards of waterless dyed fabric is still a relative drop in the ocean. And among large global brands and retailers, few have aggressively ventured into waterless dyeing technology.

Why are the world’s largest apparel companies not doing more?

The answer in part lies in Tirapur, India, home to scores of factories and workshops where workers dye materials for t-shirts and other garments marketed around the world. Local dye houses have long dumped wastewater into the local river, rendering groundwater undrinkable and local farmland ruined. Despite tougher regulations, a watchful local press, and the closure of companies in non-compliance, water pollution has festered. The city’s 350,000 residents, not multinational textile companies, pay the price.

The global demand for cheap clothing will push dye houses to simply react to local regulations by moving operations to another city. Moral outrage will not convince many leading clothing manufacturers to change their ways; as long as companies do not pay a price for the land and water their suppliers poison, watch for the excessive use and abuse of water to dye clothing to continue.

What can be done in the meantime?  This article by the National Resources Defense Council shows many ways for textile mills to save water.

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