Textile manufacturing’s waste water secrets - and a solution

Richard Burke, founder of Nanofique which commercialises textile dye wastewater technology, discusses why the manufacturing sector must minimise water use

Water Saving Week is an annual campaign run by Waterwise to encourage water efficiency, running from 23rd – 27th May 2022. There are many ways that we can all save water in our own households, from cutting down our time in the shower to turning off the tap when we brush our teeth. However, an unexpectedly large cause of water waste lies in the manufacturing process of the clothes we wear every day, which uses billions of cubic metres of freshwater every year and pollutes essential waterways with dyes and chemicals.


Water is wasted in the textile manufacturing sector to keep up with demand

It need hardly be said, water is vital to practically every human activity and sustains the health of the planet and all who dwell on it. Yet, this precious resource is recklessly wasted in manufacturing processes every day, with the fashion industry among the worst culprits. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that textiles production uses around 93bn cubic metres of freshwater every year, the equivalent of 37mn Olympic-sized swimming pools. A large proportion of this water use takes place in the dyeing process and leads to high volumes of toxic wastewater being discharged back into water systems. 

Dizzyingly fast fashion trend cycles encourage consumers to buy clothes often, wear them once or twice and subsequently discard them when they fall out of style. While fashion was once organised into seasons, the social media age means that different ‘must-have’ items can be in and out of vogue in a matter of weeks. This is bad news for the environment as textile manufacturers have to use even more water and energy to keep up with demand. 

The denim industry is a particularly damaging example of fashion’s impact on the environment. The UN has stated that it takes 10,000 litres of water to make a single pair of jeans. In addition, the dyes used for denim can be very toxic, meaning that wastewater discarded into local waterways can wreak havoc on aquatic life, agriculture and human health in the areas surrounding denim factories. 

Water Saving Week focuses on raising awareness but it is important to note that this is a global problem. The majority of damage occurs in the areas around textiles factories, in the Global South, at the hands of retailers based in the Global North. Local communities which rely on waterways for their livelihoods have been worst hit, with fishermen lamenting the lack of life in the polluted waters and residents suffering sores and irritation on their bodies. Even where efforts have been made to separate the chemicals from the wastewater, the resulting toxic sludge is often dumped by riverbanks, where it gets washed back into the waterways anyway. 

There are some ways that consumers can help to diminish the scale of waste and damage to global water resources. Shopping more sustainably and getting more wear out of your existing wardrobe can combat the relentless drive of fast fashion, slowing the demand for cheap clothes. However, the impetus to cut water waste must be on corporations and those who regulate them, as the dyeing process itself must be adapted to cause less harm.


Sustainable manufacturing technology solutions 

Waste2Fresh’s closed-loop water filtration technology offers a solution for manufacturers looking to minimise water waste. 17 partners from across Europe have come together to design and develop a system in which chemicals in wastewater are identified, extracted and reused. This not only cuts down the amount of wastewater pollution in the surrounding area, but also reduces the total amount of water used, as almost all the water in the system can be recycled again and again. Waste2Fresh’s innovative solution also ensures that no chemical sludge is produced, meaning it is more sustainable and thorough than previous attempts to reduce industrial wastewater pollution. 

Sustainable manufacturing technologies like Waste2Fresh could be a major asset to save and protect the world’s water resources. However, they need investment from governments and the brands that dominate the fashion industry in order to have the necessary impact. During Water Saving Week, consider the impact of your own wardrobe and only shop from retailers who implement sustainable practices in their manufacturing process. It is time that we quenched the fashion industry’s insatiable thirst. 


Byline written by Richard Burke, founder of Nanofique Limited


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