Textiles and water use

24 02 2010

Water.  Our lives depend on it.  It’s so plentiful that the Earth is sometimes called the blue planet – but freshwater is a remarkably finite resource that is not evenly distributed everywhere or to everyone.  The number of people on our planet is growing fast, and our water use is growing even faster.  About 1 billion people lack access to potable water, and about 5 million people die each year from poor drinking water, or poor sanitation often resulting from water shortage[1] – that’s 10 times the number of people killed in wars around the globe.[2] And the blues singers got it right: you don’t miss your water till the well runs dry.

I just discovered that the word “rival” comes from the Latin (rivalis) meaning those who share a common stream.  The original meaning, apparently, was closer to our present word for companion, but as words have a way of doing, the meaning became skewed to mean competition between those seeking a common goal.

This concept – competition between those seeking a common goal – will soon turn again to water, since water, as they say, is becoming the “next oil”;  there’s also talk of “water futures” and “water footprints”  – and both governments and big business are looking at water (to either control it or profit from it).  Our global water consumption rose sixfold between 1900 and 1995 – more than double the rate of population growth – and it’s still growing as farming, industry and domestic demand all increase.  The pressure is on.

Note: There are many websites and books which talk about the current water situation in the world, please see our bibliography which is at the bottom of this post.

What does all this have to do with fabrics you buy?

The textile industry uses vast amounts of water throughout all processing operations.  Almost all dyes, specialty chemicals and finishing chemicals are applied to textiles in water baths.  Most fabric preparation steps, including desizing, scouring, bleaching and mercerizing, use water.  And each one of these steps must be followed by a thorough washing of the fabric to remove all chemicals used in that step before moving on to the next step.  The water used is usually returned to our ecosystem without treatment – meaning that the wastewater which is returned to our streams contains all of the process chemicals used during milling.  This pollutes the groundwater.  As the pollution increases, the first thing that happens is that the amount of useable water declines.  But the health of people depending on that water is also at risk, as is the health of the entire ecosystem.

When we say the textile industry uses a lot of water, just how much is a lot?  One example we found:  the Indian textile industry uses 425,000,000 gallons of water every day [3] to process the fabrics it produces.  Put another way, it takes about 20 gallons of water to produce one yard of upholstery weight fabric.  If we assume one sofa uses about 25 yards of fabric, then the water necessary to produce the fabric to cover that one sofa is 500 gallons.  Those figures vary widely, however, and often the water footprint is deemed higher.  The graphic here is from the Wall Street Journal, which assigns 505 gallons to one pair of Levi’s 501 jeans [4]:

The actual amount of water used is not really the point, in my opinion.  What matters is that the water used by the textile industry is not “cleaned up” before they return it to our ecosystem.  The textile industry’s chemically infused effluent – filled with PBDEs,  phthalates, organochlorines, lead and a host of other chemicals that have been proven to cause a variety of human health issues – is routinely dumped into our waterways untreated.  And we are all downstream.

The process chemicals used by the mills are used on organic fibers just as they’re used on polyesters and conventionally produced natural fibers.  Unless the manufacturer treats their wastewater – and if they do they will most assuredly let you know it, because it costs them money – then we have to assume the worst.  And the worst is plenty bad.  So just because you buy something made of “organic X”, there is no assurance that the fibers were processed using chemicals that will NOT hurt you or that the effluent was NOT discharged into our ecosystem, to circulate around our planet.

You might hear from plastic manufacturers that polyester has virtually NO water footprint, because the manufacturing of the polyester polymer uses very little water – compared to the water needed to grow or produce any natural fiber.  That is correct.  However, we try to remind everyone that the production of a fabric involves two parts:

  • The production of the fiber
  • The weaving of the fiber into cloth

The weaving portion uses the same types of process chemicals – same dyestuffs, solubalisers and dispersents, leveling agents, soaping, and dyeing agents, the same finishing chemicals,  cationic and nonionic softeners, the same FR, soil and stain, anti wrinkling or other finishes – and the same amount of water and energy.  And recycled polyesters have specific issues:

  • The base color of the recycled polyester chips vary from white to creamy yellow, making color consistency difficult to achieve, particularly for the pale shades.  Some dyers find it hard to get a white, so they’re using chlorine-based bleaches to whiten the base.
  • Inconsistency of dye uptake makes it difficult to get good batch-to-batch color consistency and this can lead to high levels of re-dyeing, another very high energy process.  Re-dyeing contributes to high levels of water, energy and chemical use.
  • Unsubstantiated reports claim that some recycled yarns take almost 30% more dye to achieve the same depth of shade as equivalent virgin polyesters.[5]
  • Another consideration is the introduction of PVC into the polymer from bottle labels and wrappers.

So water treatment of polyester manufacturing should be in place also.  In fact there is a new standard called the Global Recycle Standard, which was issued by Control Union Certifications.   The standard has strict environmental processing criteria in place in addition to percentage content of recycled  product – it includes wastewater treatment as well as chemical use that is based on the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the Oeko-Tex 100.

And to add to all of this, Maude Barlow, in her new book, Blue Covenant (see bibliography below) argues that water is not a commercial good but rather a human right and a public trust.  These mills which are polluting our groundwater are using their corporate power to control water they use – and who gives them that right?  If we agree that they have the right to use the water, shouldn’t they also have an obligation to return the water in its unpolluted state?  Ms. Barlow and others around the world are calling for a UN covenant to set the framework for water a a social and cultural asset, not an economic commodity, and the legal groundwork for a just system of distribution.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

The World’s Water:  http://www.worldwater.org/

Water.org:    http://water.org/learn-about-the-water-crisis/facts/

Ground water and drinking water:  http://www.epa.gov/ogwdw000/faq/faq.html

New York Times series, Toxic Waters:  http://projects.nytimes.com/toxic-waters

Barlow, Maude, “Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water”, The New Press, 2008

Water Footprint Network:  http://www.waterfootprint.org/?page=files/home


[1]Tackling the Big Three (air and water pollution, and sanitation), David J. Tenenbaum, Environmental Health Perspectives, Volume 106, Number 5, May 1998.

[2] Kirby, Alex, “Water Scarcity: A Looming Crisis?”, BBC News Online

[3] CSE study on pollution of Bandi river by textile industries in Pali town, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, May 2006 and “Socio-Economic, Environmental and Clean Technology Aspects of Textile Industries in Tiruppur, South India”, Prakash Nelliyat, Madras School of Economics.

[4] Alter, Alexandra, “Yet Another Footprint to worry about: Water”, Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2009

[5] “Reduce, re-use,re-dye?”,  Phil Patterson, Ecotextile News, August/September 2008

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Our toxic drinking water and the Clean Water Act of 1972

15 09 2009

TapC

I had a blog post about genetically modified organisims (GMOs) all ready to go,  but then I got  Sunday’s New York Times (September 13, 2009) with a front page story about rising incidences of  violations of the Clean Water Act in the U.S.:  more than half a million violations in the last five years alone.  I had been keeping track of reports of various types of pollution which come to my attention – every week on average, sometimes daily,  there is at least one article in my local paper which gets my blood boiling. Today’s article is about the widespread feminization of fish in American waters, a situation experts see as a wider problem of endocrine disruptive chemicals in our environment.  A few weeks ago I was tempted to write about the 60 Minutes segment that appeared on August 27, 2009.  As 60 Minutes says,  “this is a story about recycling – about how your best intentions to be green can be channeled into an underground sewer that flows from the United States and into the wasteland.”   You can read the story here about a place in China “where you can’t breathe the air or drink the water, a town where the blood of the children is laced with lead”.

But it was today’s article that pushed me over the edge, because we have been working so hard  to remind  people why treating the water used in textile processing is critically important!  People still think using “organic cotton” or “organic anything” results in an organic fabric, when the difference is as much as that between crude oil and silky microfiber.  The textile industry remains the number 1 industrial polluter of fresh water on the planet, and water is a precious resource that we’re having to spread among more and more people.  We can’t afford to keep discharging effluent filled with toxic chemicals that may cause grave damage to us years down the line.  The Clean Water Act regulates 100 pollutants and the Safe Drinking Water Act limits 91 chemicals in our tap water – that’s  191 chemicals in all.  Small potatoes when the list of chemicals used routinely by industry tops 100,000 – but it’s better than nothing.  Now we find even that protection may be illusory.

The article in question is part of a series that the New York Times is running called “Toxic Waters”, which examines the worsening pollution in American waters, and the response by regulators.  Today’s article, “Clean Water Laws Neglected, at a Cost”, by Charles Duhigg, is based on the hundreds of thousands of water pollution records which the Times obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, and the national database of violations they compiled from that information.   This database is more comprehensive than those maintained by any state or the E.P.A.  Click here to see the entire report online (where you can also find any violations which may have occurred in your community).

They found:

  • that an estimated 1 in 10 Americans have been exposed to drinking water that contains dangerous chemicals or fails to meet federal health benchmarks.
  • that 40% of the nation’s community water systems violated the Safe Drinking Water Act at least once during the past year – violations that ranged from failing to maintain paperwork to allowing carcinogens into tap water.
  • that more than 23 million people received drinking water that violated a health-based standard.
  • that the number of violations is growing significantly.
  • and that only 3% of Clean Water Act violations resulted in fines or other significant punishments.

Critics say that the E.P.A. and the states have dropped the ball.  “Without oversight and enforcement, companies will use our lakes and rivers as dumping grounds – and that’s exactly what is apparently going on,” says Representative James L. Oberstar, from Minnesota.  But regulators say they’re overwhelmed, citing the increase in workloads and dwindling resources.

And there are those who say nothing will happen until there is some public outrage.  So please read the story and let’s have some outrage!

We need to take care of the scare resources we have.  We’re running out of water for everybody, and can’t afford to squander it.  Does anybody else get uneasy when you read something like this investor’s recommendation:   “A world that’s running out of clean, dependable supplies of water located where and when farmers need it makes irrigation one of the trends I’d like to invest in.”

water crisis

So when you read about the jeans factory in Lesotho which supplies denim to Levi’s and the Gap which is leaking untreated wastewater, dyed deep blue and polluted with chemicals, into the  local river – and when you read that most of the children living there have chest infections and skin irritations – don’t think it’s a world away and you’re safely protected by municipal water treatment facilities.  The New York Times findings give us scant reason to depend on our local water treatment facilities to protect us from these insults to our ecosystem.  That factory in Lesotho is spewing the effluent into your groundwater and it circulates in your water system.  Apparently that kind of egregious flaunting of the law is going on in West Virginia (and other states) too.

Note:  I live in Seattle, where the Seattle Times gets a feed from the New York Times; often a prominent story in the New York Times is displayed on the first page (or at least in the first section) of the  Seattle Times.  But this article was not carried by the Seattle Times in any section, let alone the front page.