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  • Writer's pictureLilla Schottner

The Polluting Textile Industry.

Updated: Feb 8

Fast fashion is polluting our beautiful planet in numerous ways. The consequence of increased consumption and increased waste. Starting with extracting petroleum for synthetic materials through extensive energy production and short usage and ending with the GHG-emitting final disposals in landfills and incinerators. Sustainability and a circular economy are called for in the clothing and textile industry due to the industry’s wasteful and polluting linear economy. Textile production is the world’s second most polluting industry, second to the oil industry, accounting for approximately 2-8% greenhouse gas emissions, 9% of annual microplastic pollution, and 20% of the world’s wastewater. The rise in synthetics poses an environmental concern for many reasons, and the current state of the fashion, clothing, and textile industry is not sustainable.

Fig. 1. Source: Chile, (Martin Bernetti/AFP)


Globally, around 87% of discarded textiles end up in landfill, of which more than 90% are reusable and recyclable (Moazzem et al., 2021).


In the fashion industry, demand for artificial fibers, especially polyester, has nearly doubled in the last 15 years ( Mukherjee, 2015 ); there is an urgent need to change the adverse effects of the fashion industry to a sustainable circular economy. A green circular economy requires maximum use of resources with little or no waste, with zero emissions. Three major activities and approaches drive it: reduce, reuse, and recycle, which are all typical approaches of traditional waste management.


Fig. 2. Source:Textile Industry


The textile industry is polluting through

(1) materials, (2) production, (3) usage, and (4) after usage

1. Materials

Polyester, the most widely used manufactured fiber, is made from petroleum. Fast fashion focuses on this non-biodegradable synthetic fiber, which is harmful to the environment.


2.Production

Manufacturing polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process that requires large amounts of crude oil while releasing emissions, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, volatile monomers, solvents, and other polluting by-products of polyester production are emitted in the wastewater ( Mukherjee, 2015 ).


Fiber production

Fibers used in clothing can be subdivided into two major categories: natural and synthetic fibers. 

-Natural fibers such as cotton, wool, sisal, and silk exist in nature.

-Synthetic fibers include fibers like polyester, nylon, and acrylic.

Synthetic polymers are estimated to utilize 98 million tons of oil globally annually, which can be used directly as fibers, dyes, and finishes. Synthetic fibers are non-biodegradable; they can stay in the environment for many years. 

Washing synthetic clothing releases nano and microfibers into waterways, causing immeasurable damage to marine life and vital ecosystems.


3. Usage

Many well-known fast fashion brands, such as H&M and Zara, manufacture clothes that are quickly replenished as they quickly travel through the wardrobes into the bins.


Water usage

Fiber production and clothing production use enormous amounts of water. 

For example, making just one cotton T-shirt takes approximately 2720 liters of water, equivalent to what one adult would drink in three years.

The textile wet processing operations consume a huge amount of water for dyeing and finishing, and the textile industry is estimated to be responsible for 20% of global water pollution.


4. After usage

Around 87% of the discarded textiles are globally disposed of through landfill or incineration. According to the Environment Protection Agency Office (EPA) of Solid Waste, Americans throw away more than 68 pounds/ 31K of clothing and textiles per person per year, and clothing and other textiles represent about 4% of municipal solid waste. Textile end–of–life options include landfill, reuse, and recycling. 

73% of fibers used in clothing end up in landfills or incinerators, and only 12% are recycled; however, 90% of this clothing waste can be reused or recycled.


In summary, sustainability and a circular economy are loudly called for in the clothing and textile industry due to its wasteful and polluting linear economy. Sustainable or Ethical fashion relies on conscious consumption by consumers. 


What can be done? What can we do?

-Make consumers more aware of the entire life cycle impacts of clothing – from raw material to disposal. 

-Buying local also helps to sustain local materials and skills. Buying clothes close to their point of production helps to reduce the environmental impact of transporting clothing globally. Priority should be given to sustainably managing discarded apparel.

-Second-hand shops can reuse and recycle textile waste. 

Textile end–of–life options include landfill, reuse, and recycling. Studies of the carbon footprint of textile reuse and recycling found that reusing and repairing textiles introduced more significant benefits than recycling.

-Policies should be made to ensure all staple fibers are made from biodegradable materials.

-Fast fashion can be discouraged from targeting durable, high-quality clothing that enables long-term use through brand commitment and policy. 

-Manufacturing new synthetic fibers with natural recycled sources, such as Lyocell, Rayon, Cupro, and Acetate fibers.

-Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) for sorting fibers.


We must rethink production and maximize the use of clothing. We also must repurpose, recycle, and redistribute to new and parallel markets, extending the product's lifetime.


References:

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