Why is the textile industry the most polluting industry after petroleum?
Any Textile can be broken into 6 steps
- Source (growing plants or extraction from petroleum)
- yarn making
Pollution happens at each stage. Let's start with the source. If the fiber is natural one needs a farm to grow the fiber. Fibers from the some of the crops like BT cotton, which are genetically modified seeds, needs a lot of nurturing in terms of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Today, of the total land that produces cotton in India, 95% is BT cotton. Other crops too need chemical pesticides and fertilizers as usage of these lead to faster output and the produces are more in line with the market demand. The produces from the crop that is grown organically without any chemicals varies in size and shape and may not be in line with the market demand.
If the source is synthetic, it means the fibers are developed from petroleum and its byproducts. I need not go into the details on the harmful effect of petroleum. It's very much there everywhere now. :)
The third type is manmade natural fiber. This fiber is produced from the pulp of certain woods. The process is chemical intensive and is very polluting.
The next step is yarn making. Yarns from natural fibers like cotton, jute, nettle, etc. are not as polluting as yarns made from petroleum. The waste and discharge from the processing of petroleum, for yarns, are dangerous and most of the times are not treated before discharging.
The third step is dyeing. This is again a major polluter. Some of the dyes used have chemicals that are not very environmentally friendly. Then why use it at all? Because it is cheap. The cheap dyes, popularly known as naphthol dyes have ingredients that can cause skin cancer. Imagine the waste from naphthol dyeing going into our rivers, lakes, and oceans untreated. Even the waste from azo-free dyes (which does not have cancer-causing ingredients), if not treated before discharging, has a harmful effect on the environment. Treating wastewater from azo-free dyeing units have been made mandatory in Kerala. After talking to few of the dyers there we got to know that the solid particles from the wastewater is still hazardous and is packed in a box as cakes and boxes are then dumped in the ocean by some shipping company. All this has its own cost.
The next step is weaving. The weaving process is electricity intensive if not handwoven. Handwoven fabrics are made using mechanical energy while the power-loom fabrics are made using electric energy. We understand that electricity being a commodity, today, cannot be imagined as a polluter but yes it is. A significant demand, especially in India, is fulfilled using coal.
The next process is printing. This is same as dyeing the yarn. But it needs lot of water and dye compared to yarns. The hand block printed fabrics use less electric energy than digitally printed fabrics but again the dyes and its discharge causes a lot of pollution.
The last is the finishing. Garments are made from these processed textiles. When a fabric is cut a lot of small pieces go waste. I am sure you all must have seen bags and bags of such waste at our tailors’. What happens to these pieces? Some rags go for further processing like making pulp from it, some get stitched into something meaningful while the rest goes to landfill and oceans. Synthetic fiber is slowly entering our food chain. Imagine eating plastic and drinking petroleum.. !!! YUCK!!
Let's not forget the petrol/diesel used for the transportation of these textiles. If textiles are so polluting should we stop wearing clothes altogether? NO. Awareness is important. Buying right and buying less (yes, we know we are into selling business, but still recommend) is what will help us improve the situation. And what about the cravings for that beautiful chiffon saree? One can start with making a promise to oneself to buy more of natural fibers and less of synthetic fibers. Another way to help improve the situation is repurposing. Turn your favourite saree into a garment, t-shirt into a bag and more. Use it till the fibre has life in it :)
Natural fibers are not just about better health for the environment, it is also about art, craft, and employment. Your choices today will decide the future of this earth.