The textile industry is one of the most water-intensive sectors in the world, with processes such as bleaching, dyeing, and printing globally consuming over 80 billion cubic metres of water per year.
To put this number in perspective, it takes more than 2,700 litres of water to produce a single cotton t-shirt – the average amount one person drinks over two and a half years. Considering a standard textile mill today produces roughly 5,000 shirts a day, the water requirement is staggering.
Research points to the issue being accelerated by fast-changing fashion trends, lower prices, and the advent of new technologies, robots, and automation capable of producing clothes at a faster rate to meet growing consumer demand. Today, an average consumer is purchasing more items of clothing than before, with each garment being kept for shorter periods of time.
The ecological price of fast fashion
Effluent wastewater from textile manufacturing processes contains salts, chemicals, dyes, and solvents which can be extremely harmful to the environment.
Traditional water treatment systems are typically unable to manage the complexity of such wastewater, and subsequently become fouled or scaled, and eventually rendered inoperable. This results in ineffective or intermittent treatment that leads to contaminants being left in wastewater, which is discharged into rivers, lakes, and oceans causing environmental damage and long-term health effects on humans, animals, and plant life.
Factory Asia vs sustainable fashion
Today, the textile industry faces the difficult challenge of meeting consumer demands while abiding by new environmental laws. Governments are recognising the environmental and human impact of the status quo and are applying stringent regulations on the textile industry in order to curtail the issue.
This is especially evident in the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for over half of the global textile industry, driven by India and China which represent the largest cotton producers and exporters in the world. Regulatory authorities in the region have taken note of this grim reality and have put in place strictly enforced wastewater treatment and discharge standards. For instance, India is considered to have some of the toughest environmental regulations over the textile industry, especially around wet processing units.
With growing awareness and activism around environmental conservation, pressure is also mounting on global clothing brands from end buyers of the industry as consumers seek out more sustainable fashion. In order to comply with stricter regulations and meet demands, companies are seeking and adopting modern wastewater treatment technologies to reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.
Zero liquid discharge solutions and the technological advantage
For many wastewater generators, the simplest way to meet liquid discharge standards and to lower disposal costs is by separating liquid content from wastewater in a process called Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD). Separating the liquid component of wastewater turns the disposal volume into a fraction of what it once was, leaving behind dry waste that can be sent to a landfill for disposal or for further processing to reclaim chemicals. Besides preventing wastewater from entering municipal sewers or being discharged into rivers, ZLD solutions also give adopters the option of recovering fresh water and valuable by-products that can be reutilised in business operations.
The creation of a circular economy helps organisations fulfil both environmental and ecological obligations. It also addresses a key concern of any prospective adaptor, turns wastewater treatment into a cost-effective and worthwhile endeavour that makes wastewater management a long-term beneficial investment instead of a business cost.
Water sustainability in the long term
The future for the textile industry looks promising, buoyed by both strong domestic consumption as well as export demand.
However, the industry has challenges that need to be tackled. Top of the list is to reduce its water footprint and comply with the strict environmental laws enacted by governments. Modern technology such as ZLD solutions will be crucial in helping firms meet these regulations, to manage one of the world’s most valuable resources, and to create a sustainable future for the textile industry.
- The writer is co-founder and CTO of Gradiant, an end-to-end water treatment solutions provider