Water Pollution and The Textiles Industry
We’ve all heard of water pollution; water bodies becoming toxic due to contamination. It’s a hot topic in today’s (rapidly becoming hotter) climate. But how much do you really know about it, and how exactly this contamination happens? Could you describe where in the world is it most prevalent? Probably not, and that’s ok-it’s a huge subject, and one that can seem daunting to learn about in depth, even for the most committed of us. But I love my Virgo & Co. community, so I’ve done the hard work for you, and condensed it down into some quick points.
So, what is water pollution?
As discussed, water pollution is when a body of water, such as a lake, river, ocean, etc, becomes toxic to humans or to the environment as a result of contamination. This can be caused by substances such as chemicals or microorganisms.
How is water pollution caused?
You guessed it; the main culprits here are humans.
However, the sources can be classified further into Point and None-Point:
- Point pollutions come from a single source, for example, emissions from a factory.
- None-Point pollutions are either from multiple sources, or from rain that has travelled across multiple regions.
There are multiple ways by which polluting substances can end up in water bodies; from burning fossil fuels, to oil leaks, to industrial waste. However, probably unsurprisingly given I work for a sustainable textiles company, the issue I want to discuss with you today, is water pollution by the textiles industry. And it’s a big issue. In a 2014 Model for Green Growth, The World Bank reported that “Some studies suggest that the treatment and dyeing of textiles is responsible for up to one fifth of industrial water pollution globally”. Something needs to be done.
Textiles and Water Pollution
Water consumption is a huge part of much of this industry, used for processes from scouring, to bleaching, to dyeing. The pollution aspect comes largely from the wastewater, which is often contaminated with chemicals from the dyeing and finishing processes. If untreated before being released back into water bodies, this wastewater can cause decreased oxygen concentration, as well as decreased light passage through the water, both of which can be damaging to aquatic life, and the aquatic ecosystem in general. In fact, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally.
The production of some textiles can cause more water waste and water pollution than others. Let’s take cotton as an example. When you picture cotton, you may think natural, of a fresh, summery fabric that must be sustainable. However, the impact of cotton production on the environment is far from small. It takes approximately 20, 000 litres of water to produce the equivalent of one cotton t-shirt and pair of jeans. Conventional cotton production also includes high use of fertilisers and pesticides, which can contaminate nearby water bodies. In fact, more chemical pesticides are used to grow cotton than to grow any other crop; when combined with the fact that approximately half of all textiles are made of cotton, the impact of this is huge.
The Human Impact of Water Pollution
We’ve discussed the environmental cost of water pollution, but what about its impact on human lives? Shockingly, 3, 575, 000 people die every year from water related diseases. Most these people are children. Polluted water from the textiles industry can contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, chlorine and heavy metals, and this contaminated water is then used for drinking and other activities. In fact, 72 toxic chemicals can enter water bodies just through chemical dyeing. Thankfully, through the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals program, many companies, including Adidas, H&M, and Nike, have now committed to eliminating the release of toxic substances into waterways by 2020.
How can water pollution be reduced?
Whilst recycling textiles in order to decrease the amount made ‘from scratch’, may seem like the simplest solution here, it is actually difficult to do so. It is not yet possible to separate blended fibre fabrics such as polyester and cotton, whilst cotton clothes need to be shredded to turn them back into raw materials. This shortens the fibre’s staple length and quality; a problem in textiles that have to meet a company’s quality control standards. Reckless consumption of textiles products, with the assumption that recycling will fix any environmental impact, therefore, is not the solution.
I mentioned untreated water being a huge source of pollution. Thankfully, it is possible to treat wastewater before releasing it back into water sources, using one of four different methods: biological, physical, chemical, or sludge treatment. However, doing this, needs to become standard for all companies.
So, how can you help?
As consumers, a strong way to make a stand is with your shopping habits. Fast fashion and cheap textiles may be fun, but they are often not the most sustainable options. However, getting involved doesn’t need to be hard: here are some easy to follow ideas to help reduce your impact on water pollution:
- Try to only invest in pieces which you both want and need-look for long lasting and high-quality pieces produced by ethical companies who add as little as possible to water pollution. Contact them and see if they treat their wastewater.
- Give the tags of textiles you see in shops a quick read before buying-are the items made of environmentally friendly fabrics? If not, try a quick Google search to find a similar item in a more sustainable fabric.
- Try investing in higher quality pieces, that you won’t need to replace as often. You may even save time when you discover you don’t need to buy a new bed linin each season!
So, there we have it. Water pollution from the textiles industry is not a problem that will go away overnight. It is, however, important that we continue to work on reducing it, both on an individual and on a corporate level. Make your opinions known through your shopping habits and product choices and let’s help each other save our planet!
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