Cost of Color: Textile Dyeing Industry is Slowly Killing Rivers in Asian Countries
The colorful, vibrant clothes brighten the mundane life events, making the textile industry an eminent part of human civilization. However, the industry has polluted the planet to such an extent that rarely any component of the ecosystem remains untouched. The clothes made, dyed and finished have a toxic history. The trending dyeing industry has been responsible for polluting many of the Asian rivers, pushing some to the brink of death.
Clothes, footwear and household textiles are responsible for water pollution, carbon emissions and a huge burden on landfills. With a constant provision of new styles at very low prices, fast fashion has contributed to a big increase in cloth production and waste.
Fashion is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution, owing to weak regulation and enforcement in producer countries where wastewater is commonly dumped directly into rivers and streams. The discharge is often a mix of carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts and heavy metals that not only harm the environment but pollute essential drinking water sources.
Asian countries are famous for manufacturing every season’s clothing with the latest color trends. Bangladesh is the world’s second-biggest garment manufacturing hub after China, exporting $34 billion worth of garments in 2019.
These clothes will end up in main street shops across the United States and Europe. Apparently, the dyeing industry has been polluting the Asian rivers beyond comprehension. While consumers look around the latest clothing trends, only a few people wonder about the dyes used to create everything from soft pastels to fluorescent colors or their toxic impacts on the environment.
The Cost of Color
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic meters of water annually, enough to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools. Alongside finishing, dyeing is one of the most polluting and energy-intensive processes involved in making the clothes.
Finishing is when chemicals or treatments are applied to the fabric to give it the desired look or feel, such as bleaching, softening, or making the garment water-resistant or anti-wrinkle. Huge amounts of water and chemicals are used during dyeing as well, which ensures that the colors will bind to the fabrics and will not fade or wash out.
Take denim for instance. According to the United Nations, producing a single pair of jeans consumes around 7,500 liters of water, from growing raw cotton to finished products. To ensure its blue color, the fabric is repeatedly dunked in huge vats of synthetic indigo dye. After dyeing, the denim is treated and washed with more chemicals to soften or texture it.
But jeans are not the only polluters. According to Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmentalists,
Every season we know that the fashion industry needs to highlight new colors. Each time you have a new color you’re going to use more, new kinds of chemicals and dye stuffs and pigments and catalysts.
Once in the wastewater, dyeing chemicals are difficult to remove; and these substances don’t degrade so they remain in the environment. While various types of dyes are used for different fabrics, synthetic nitrogen-based dyes have come under particular scrutiny from the fashion industry and environmentalists.
The compounds found in these dyes can increase the risk of cancer. Their toxicity levels are so high that the European Union, China, Japan, India and Vietnam have all banned their use and import.
Dyeing Industry Polluting Asian Rivers
Asia is a hub of clothing manufacturers and moreover, the dyeing industry has a deep and long history in the continent. The vibrant colors that decorate our homes and wardrobes have a rather disturbing impact on our environment. The all-adored dyeing industry has been devastatingly polluting the Asian rivers for many years now.
Textile Footprint of Bangladesh
The backbone of the Bangladesh economy, its textile industry while providing employment is also polluting the lifelines of the deltaic country. In Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, the government has declared three rivers as “biological dead” owing to the toxic waste from surrounding garment factories.
The Chilai River of the Gazipur district has become heavily polluted because of contamination from illegal structures, settlements and factories built on its banks. While many others including Buriganga Turag, Shitalakkhya, Balu and Bangshi, are on the deathbed with no dissolved oxygen left in the water.
The reason behind this catastrophic occurring is the country’s grown involvement in a cheap clothing manufacturing pattern of the world. But the poor regulation of the industry is taking a toll on its rivers and the health of the poor who live in the region.
Bangladesh’s textile and clothing industry represents over 83 percent of the country’s total exports and more than 45 percent of employment, making it not only the largest contributor to the country’s export earnings but the largest source of employment as well.
However, as the textile industry in Bangladesh continues to boom, the pollution caused by textile and clothing manufacturing also becomes increasingly serious. Water pollution is presently a major challenge that the country is facing.
In 2021, textile industries in Bangladesh will produce about 2.91 million metric tons of fabrics; while around 349 million m3 of wastewater will be produced using conventional dyeing practices.
Bangladesh’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change said it was “striving towards minimizing the negative effect on the environment from the largest export generating sectors including ready-made garments and textiles.”
According to minster Shahab Uddin, various measures have been taken to address the problem of pollution, which includes updating conservation and environmental laws, imposing fines on polluters, monitoring water quality, setting up centralized treatment plants, and working with international development partners to improve wastewater treatment.
Monitoring and enforcement activities are playing a vital role in combating the pollution caused by illegal polluting industries. We have a policy and legal framework in place to address the environmental pollution issues of the country.
Ridwanul Haque, chief executive of the Dhaka-based NGO Agroho, believes that toxic chemical pollution is a “huge problem in a country like Bangladesh.” Haque, whose organization provides clean potable water and free medical care to marginalized communities, said the rivers and canals passing through Dhaka have turned a “pitch-black color” owing to the sludge and sewage generated by textile dyeing and processing industry.
Dying Rivers in India
In 2017, the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board received a report that a company in the Taloja Industry area in Mumbai was dumping indigo dye, which was primarily used by that company, in the local Kasadi River.
Authorities immediately shut down the factory to prevent more dye from entering the river. But the question remains, with the long history of indigo dye and India, why has this only recently become a problem?
Indigo is a natural dye, but unlike most natural dyes, the indigo dye penetrates clothes directly when heated. Indigo dye and India are correlated because the country had been using it for centuries.
However, currently, most of the factories use a chemical agent called mordant to increase the number of clothes produced in less time. Mordants can cause great damage to the ecosystem. Factory wastewater can poison rivers, killing plants, animals, and poisoning drinking water for the Indians.
Nonetheless, natural indigo dye is harmful to the environment. It is slow to decompose and pollutes the river water, making the survival of flora and fauna difficult amid the lack of sunlight. The fashionable color has severely affected the groundwater, rivers and streams.
With such a high demand for cheap clothes in indigo, like denim jeans, factories and workshops find cheap, quick ways to produce products at high volumes.
The only approach to prevent toxic dyes from entering and poisoning the river is prevention and filtration. The use of local plants for dyes can help significantly in the filtration process. With dying waters and a rising population, India is struggling to clean up its rivers.
Activists are waiting for courts to get municipalities and states to rise and take action. They began with one demand for the restoration for the Mithi River, a river polluted with dye, paint and engine oil. Citizens started legal petitions when gathered volunteers to get other rivers in the area cleaned up.
Tirupur, Tamil Nadu, is 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 escalated. The city’s 350,000 residents, not multinational textile companies, have been bearing the brunt of this pollution.
The city of Tirupur is a dark spot, where residents and farmers have complained that the dyeing and bleaching units release toxic amounts of dangerous chemicals directly into the river. Even though the industry has declined over the years, the people living in and around the export hub have to bear an enormous environmental price.
In North India, one of the prominent rivers, Yamuna, has fallen prey to textile dyeing. The river has become so polluted that it is hard to remember when was the last it had clean waters flowing in it.
No life has thrived in the toxic waters of Yamuna River for many moons. Despite many efforts, the neighboring dyeing factories have not stopped dumping wastewaters into the water resource, further killing it.
Textiles Polluting the Waterways in China
An estimated 65 percent of the world’s clothing is now manufactured in China at a significant environmental cost to the country. The textile industry consumes high amounts of water and threatens the water quality as well in China.
According to the World Bank, in China 17 to 20 percent of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment, indeed 72 toxic chemicals in China’s water originate from textile dyeing, out of which 30 percent cannot be removed.
A team from Greenpeace East Asia’s Detox campaign recently found a disturbing sight off the coast of South-Eastern China. Next to the city of Shishi, a center for children’s clothing production, they discovered a massive black plume of wastewater around the size of 50 Olympic swimming pools on the sea’s surface; a large dark stain on the water that was easily visible through satellite imagery.
Further research found that this plume was coming out of a discharge pipe from the Wubao Dyeing Industrial zone and more particularly, the Haitian Environmental Engineering Co. Ltd wastewater treatment plant which serves 19 of Shishi’s textile dyeing facilities.
Shishi and the city of Zhili in Zhejiang Province together account for 40 percent of all the children’s clothes made in China. Many of the very same chemicals found in the dyeing facilities discharge wastewater are also found in the clothes themselves.
Dye Pollution and its Environmental Impacts
Textile dyeing is the world’s most polluting industries, which impacts every aspect of the environment. The fashion industry is responsible for up to one-fifth of water pollution in China and other Asian countries, where weak regulation and enforcement in producer countries.
The dyeing industry consumes vast amounts of water and chemicals, and releases numerous volatile agents into the ecosystems that are particularly harmful to the health of every living being, consequently polluting waterways, especially Asian rivers.
Textile dye has become one of the major contributors to water pollution across the world. Textile and dye producers in Asia release trillions of liters of chemically tainted wastewater.
Bangladesh is the planet’s second-biggest garment-producing hub after China, where wastewater is directly released into rivers and streams without any prior treatments.
According to the United Nations, producing a single pair of jeans consumes around 7,500 liters (2,000 gallons) of water, from growing raw cotton to finished products. To ensure the blue color, the thread or fabric is continuously dunked in huge vats of synthetic indigo dye.
After dyeing, the denim is treated and washed with more chemicals to ease or texture it. Chemical-laden water is also used to irrigate crops; a study has discovered that textile dyes also affect crop yields around these regions and can cause various health issues.
Contributing Elements to Dye Pollution
While color is a catalyst for sales success within the fashion industry, it is a huge contributor to dye pollution. The dyeing industry has been polluting Asian rivers for far too long, which has affected the ecosystem vastly.
According to Michael Braungart and William McDonough, authors of “Cradle to Cradle Remaking the Way We Make Things,” on average, only 5 percent of the raw materials involved in the production and delivery processes is contained within a garment, the rest goes to waste.
You can always see thick, ink-like water flowing through rivers surroundings garment factories; a toxic mixture of chemicals discarded from the fashion industry’s synthetic dye processes, filtering into the water systems throughout the world.
Apparently, around 200 tons of water are used per ton of fabric in this industry. Most of this water is returned to nature as toxic waste, containing residual dyes and hazardous chemicals.
Wastewater disposal is seldom regulated, adhered to or policed, meaning big brands and the factory owners are left unaccountable for the pollution they contribute to.
The fashion industry has deeply and disastrously impacted the environment. It is, in fact, the second-largest polluter in the world, after the aviation industry. The environmental damage is escalating with the growth of the industry, especially with the arrival of fast fashion.
Fast fashion brands may not design their clothing to last, but as they belong to a particularly consumptive time period, they might become an important part of the fossil record.
Moreover, several times a year in the world’s fashion capitals, models in dazzling outfits walk down the ramp to present the coming season’s trends to allure the people. Then, chain stores and mass retailers adapt their ideas, presenting the masses with endless options of fast fashion.
These trends come and go within a blink of the eye; they lead to extreme use of colorants, contributing to dye pollution and noxious impact on the ecosystems.
Billion-Dollar Wedding Industry
With landfills and plastics as the forerunners of pollution, dyeing is often overlooked when it comes to the environmental impact of fashion.
Events such as weddings usually utilize a tremendous amount of resources, ultimately creating a ton of waste and pollution from the initial stage to the final level. The wedding industry is a huge market, especially in Asian countries, where weddings are quite colorful and a huge contributor to dye pollution.
Humans’ desire for color is quite toxic and plays a key role in the wedding industry. Clashing, two-tone, co-ord, block – be it any type, wearing color has been labeled as fundamental to self-expression and the billion-dollar wedding industry has been benefitting from this desire for far too long.
However, dyeing techniques have heavily contributed to the climate crisis, water and soil pollution. It has become imperative to fathom the repercussions of dyes and colorful clothes, lest our love of color is going to make the world a much duller place unless things change.
Choice of Raw Materials
The textile industry is divided between natural and synthetic fibers, which profoundly affect its impact on the environment. Synthetic dyes are a commercially-preferred colorant for textiles. Synthetic dyes mostly include disperse, reactive, acid and azo dyes.
Azo dyes contain any of more than 20 carcinogenic amines that are known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. These carcinogens have been banned in China, Japan, India, Vietnam and the European Union.
The intense usage of synthetic colorants has exacerbated water pollution. The textile dye waste is often dumped into waterways, which ultimately harms all-consuming or living around those water resources. It gets seeped into the groundwater, furthering the pollution and affecting the crop yields.
On the other hand, natural dyes – meaning color obtained from naturally occurring sources – are another source of color for textiles; but these are rarely employed on industrial scales. The dyeing industry polluting Asian rivers has become a major highlight of the dye pollution.
Textile Industry Pollution and Climate Change
For decades, the textile industry has chosen to exploit nature, in particular, rivers and ocean, as a dumping ground for hazardous chemicals. Communities living around textile manufacturing factories face extensive water pollution as a horrifying everyday reality.
Regulations have not always succeeded in preventing the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, mainly in the Global South. The global textile industry will not address its destructive impact on the climate without regulation.
The voluntary commitments are not nearly enough to halt the growing amount of textiles and change the destructive trajectory of fast fashion trends. Besides, most impacts of textile industry pollution are being felt in the Global South, where clothes are made and also dumped.
From fast fashion to textile waste, the clothing industry contributes to climate change from raw material to the discarding of clothing items. To address the issue, Greenpeace started the “Detox My Fashion” campaign in the early 2010s. The organization asked the industry to stop polluting waterways with noxious chemicals from textile production, but not much has changed in about a decade.
Raw material such as cotton or dyes like Indigo needs a tremendous amount of water in their production. Further textile manufacturing takes even more natural resources and releases a frightening amount of greenhouse gases, directly exacerbating the impacts of the climate crisis.
Return to Natural Solutions
India is one of the few countries that produce indigo and denim clothes at high volumes, so the ways of naturally applying indigo to clothing have become a lost art. However, a fashion designer in India is bringing back the natural ways of getting indigo straight from the plant and onto the clothes.
Using mud and intricate wood carvings, artisans use this method to print the color directly to the fabric. Bringing back the old and traditional ways of dyeing could relieve the environment from the impacts of toxic, synthetic dyes.
Poisoned rivers and groundwater, crops dying and limited access to clean drinking water are all direct results of indigo dye waste being dumped into the rivers. As long as factories continue to dump dye waste into rivers, this problem will persist.
The citizens of India are coming together to clear the neglected rivers and implement tougher regulations on the clothing industry. With the government’s support and the use of new scientific methods to dye clothes, indigo dye in India could remain popular without being toxic to the environment.
China and Bangladesh are also trying to figure out ways to dispose-off their discharge from the dyeing industry. The return to natural ways of dyeing clothes could be one of the most potent solutions to restore the essence of water resources and other ecosystems that have been severely affected by the dyeing industry.
Humans: A Determining Factor
Water pollution from textile is a huge problem across cloth-manufacturing countries, most of which are found in Asia owing to its huge amount of cheap labor. The human factor is a huge determinator of the impact of the dyeing industry on the environment.
When environmentalist Ma founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) over a decade ago, many rivers and lakes in China, which is the world’s largest clothes manufacturer, were so polluted that they were dead.
Since 2006, his NGO has constructed pollution databases to analyze companies’ environmental performance, tested water sources and color-coded rivers and lakes according to their pollution levels.
Workers and people living close to factories often bear the brunt of this pollution.
According to Ma, fishermen living near dye houses and textile mills along the tributaries of the Qiantang River have seen their catches shrink, resultantly lost livelihood.
The toxic sludge also contaminates freshwater sources, because people use shallow wells. Gastrointestinal diseases and skin diseases are among the common ailments that can be attributed directly to textile pollution.
The chemicals used to dye clothes also impact the workers who, in some factories, don’t have adequate protective clothing and may inhale toxic fumes.
According to the experts, in Dhaka, there are a growing number of factories that comply with international standards on chemical use and management, but there are still many smaller or subcontracted factories where these standards procedures are not met.
A Changing Attitude
Nevertheless, the change is occurring, as Bangladeshi textile producers are taking environmental responsibility more seriously than before, with brands committing to initiatives to reduce their toxic waste that pollutes the environment.
And some Bangladeshi factories have environmental best practices and are developing their own connections with suppliers. But it remains a challenge to fully eradicate those smaller non-compliant ones owing to the untransparent and price-focused attitude of the fashion industry.
As many companies do not have the training, knowledge, or funds to treat wastewater discharge or invest in new waterless or environmentally-friendly technologies, this problem has become a huge threat to ecosystems.
Be that as it may, the governments and the textile industry are becoming aware of the obnoxious effects of the wrong treatment and discharge of wastewater from the garment factories.
Other countries have also been taking steps. For instance, in China, various new environmental policies have been enacted in the past few years, including a 2017 crackdown on textile and other polluting factories that saw the temporary closure of thousands that were found to be neglecting the environmental laws.
In 2018, the Chinese government introduced a new environmental protection tax aimed at reducing polluting discharge.
The factories and dye houses are increasingly being moved into industrial zones with centralized wastewater treatment plants or being threatened with fines and closure if they don’t follow the regulations.
The Long Road Ahead
Although improvements are being made, many problems still remain. For example, China’s centralized treatment plants sometimes cannot deal with the volume of wastewater produced in its new industrial parks.
The existing factories, burdened with costly treatment processes, often building secret discharge pipes or release their wastewater at night to avoid detection.
The failure of humans to navigate the complex web of supply chains on which the fashion industry is built on, even if they try to shop ethically, is yet another issue. Moreover, many brands and manufacturers often ignore environmental laws while producing garments.
Some experts believe that initiative needs to come from big brands, which can encourage factories to build water treatment plants or invest in chemical-free technologies by committing to long-term contracts, even if costs rise.
However, eradicating the excessive usage of synthetic and toxic chemical dyes is necessary to prevent the dyeing industry from polluting Asian rivers.