Biggest Pollution Problem: DYES
The Problem: Water Waste

On a global scale, the textile industry uses between six to nine trillion litres of water each year, just for fabric dyeing. At a time when every continent is now facing water scarcity issues, that’s like filling more than two million Olympic swimming pools every year with fresh water, then not letting anyone swim in them. (Not that you’d want to swim in the toxic water of a dyeing mill.)

Possible solution: Biologically inspired materials

“I think there’s a lack of diversity around how two knowledge systems can create something new,” says Natsai Audrey Chieza, designer and founder of creative biodesign agency Faber Futures. Chieza is one of the leading voices in the growing biodesign movement, which integrates living things like bacteria into new materials, products and even artworks. “Design and science working together is about combining two different ways of knowing and doing, to try and tackle a problem.” 

Chieza creates opportunities for collaboration between creatives and scientists on “planet-centred” products and systems. In 2011, her team recently discovered that a pigment-producing microbe could be used as clothing dye. The colour oscillates between pinks and blues, depending on the pH of the soil in which the microbe is found, and creates a beautiful array of effects on fabric including tie-dye. Crucially, it also uses 500 times less water then standard dyeing techniques, and totally cuts out harmful chemicals. “If you look more creatively at natural materials, or in this case designing with living systems, you can do something quite special,” says Chieza. “You can arrive at something fundamentally different.”

The problem: Chemicals

Almost three-quarters of all the water consumed by dye-mills ends up as undrinkable waste—a toxic soup of dyes, salts, alkalis, heavy metals and chemicals that are used to fix colour to our clothes. “Some of the chemicals used in Indian dye houses are actually banned in Europe—a conundrum for those of us wearing imported clothes,” Virginia Newton-Lewis, senior policy analyst at WaterAids. Filtering waste water is costly, too, and in the world’s dyeing hubs of Bangladesh, India and China, it is often illegally discharged into rivers, which turn into an acidic spew of colour. (In Mumbai the water once became so polluted that local dogs turned completely blue after swimming.) “These waste water chemicals can affect the local ecosystem, or the people who use the water for fishing, washing or even drinking,” explains Lalia Petrie, WWF textiles and cotton global lead. “They can harm plants and animals, and potentially enter the food chain.”

Possible solution: Dyes made from by-product

Biotech company Colorifix is seeking to roll out fabric dyes that are sustainable on three fronts: environmental, social and economical. Set up in 2015, the company converts molasses—the by-product of sugar—into colourants that can be used for textile dyeing. The method doesn’t demand extra arable land use (unlike some natural dyes), but can be applied to areas where sugar is already grown. Colorifix also replaces fixing chemicals—the most toxic aspect of the dyeing process—with the by-products of biofuels, which co-founder and CEO Dr Orr Yarkoni explains are a primary crop with a positive environmental function. Reusing waste materials “means that the whole process uses 10 times less water, and 20 per cent less energy”.

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The Problem: Unemployment risk

Dye houses offer a vital source of employment and income in emerging economies—81 per cent of Bangladesh’s export economy, for example, is purely ready made garments. Women, who represent around 80 per cent of the global garment workforce, are most at risk of being affected by any systematic changes or products that aren’t carefully considered. So it’s crucial that biodesign envisions materials that are not going to cause mass unemployment.

Possible solution: State intervention

“Any radical change can have a hugely negative impact if it is not planned correctly,” says Yarkoni, noting that Colorifix has only replaced the actual dye, and not any jobs or machines. In Stanley-Jones’ view, too much reliance is being placed on technologists, like Yarkoni, to solve the climate crisis. “The only way real change can happen is if we rapidly share innovations that work and roll these out more quickly—everyone needs to have access to the same information, and technologies,” Stanley-Jones says. In his role for the UN, Stanley-Jones helps to coordinate different climate projects and actions by member governments, agencies and allies. It’s only through this integrated approach, he says, that the right types of incentives, investments and legislations can be thrashed out globally; ultimately create systematic change. “It isn’t just science and technology that we need to save us,” Stanley-Jones explains, “we also need unified action from the societies and governments of the world.”