/ 26 April 2024

Textile pollution: What is it, why it’s problematic and what must be done

A local textile worker labels items in a clothing factory in Maseru.
The textile industry is one of the important in South Africa. It employs around 80 000 people and provides important exports, but textile pollution is a serious problem

The textile industry is one of the important in South Africa. It employs around 80 000 people and provides important exports. Yet, textile pollution is a serious problem locally and more broadly on the continent.

Textiles are fabrics or clothing, mostly made up of fibres. These fibres can be synthetic, man-made, plant and animal. Synthetic fibres, for example, include polyester, man-made ones include rayon, which is made from trees, and plant-based fibres can be made from cotton or hemp. Animal fibre can be derived from wool or silk, for example. 

Clothing production is on the rise and is set to reach over 200 billion garments worldwide by 2030. 

So what’s the problem? The discarding of these textiles is extremely polluting. Many of them end up in landfills. In 2022, around 1.1 million tonnes of waste was disposed of in landfills. Almost 7% of that was textiles — around 70 300 tonnes. If one were to compare, plastic makes up just short of 200 000 tonnes of waste in landfills. These numbers exclude private landfills. 

The textiles in these landfills release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas and contributor to global warming. On top of that, the dyes and the chemicals in the fabrics can leach into soil and contaminate surface and groundwater. 

The other problem is that textile production requires high volumes of water. Water is needed for wet textile processing. A report by Greenpeace found that wet textile processing involves pretreatment, dyeing, printing, laundry and finishing. This process uses 85% of the textile supply chain’s water stock.

The UN found that the amount of water needed to manufacture a pair of jeans is around 8 000 litres, which is the same amount as drinking water for one person for seven years. 

With fashion evolving as fast as it is, people are quick to discard their clothes to keep up with trends. This might be a good time to remember South Africa is a water-scarce nation. 

Additional problems with this is that polyester and other microplastics in these textiles find their way into the water. Inadequate water treatment leads to the microplastics finding their way into the water. 

Microplastics are known to cause reproductive harm and stress to the liver in people. Their effects on aquatic life are well known and include drowning, strangling and suffocating. 

Another Greenpeace report found that around 35% of primary microplastics in the oceans are from washing synthetic textiles.

There is also the climate problem. The industry contributes 8% to 10% of global carbon emissions. Textiles transported globally require fossil fuels. Many clothes are also incinerated in landfills, causing more damage to the atmosphere.

The problems of textile pollution are clear, so what must be done? 

The first step is to increase recycling and reuse of textiles. Reducing textile purchases is another solution. It is imperative to slow down clothing purchases as much as possible. 

A report by Elize Hattingh and Nicola Jenkin recommends the following.

Improve product durability, repairability and recyclability. This can be done by carefully choosing materials that increase longevity, durability and repairability. Textiles must enhance colour and fabric resistance for longevity and durability. It is important to reduce the use of difficult-to-recycle fibres and materials.

Clothes must be multifunctional and fit for purpose. They must be repairable in the sense that they have accessories such as repair kits and buttons. They must be designed for disassembly to reuse and recycle.

The second-hand market needs to be enabled and capacitated so it can thrive. Second-hand clothes can be repaired and refurbished to fall in line with modern fashion. 

A just transition must be put into place that ensures the industry doesn’t suffer job cuts so that textiles can be imported less and formalised locally so it can decarbonise. There needs to be a link between recyclers and clothing-makers. There is scope for the industry to create a thriving second-hand textile market, with South Africa leading the way on the continent.

The recycling rate of textiles isare shocking and this needs urgent improvement.

There is scope for a circular economy which will improve the industry. This “circular economy approach aims to extend the life of textile products through reuse and repair and keep end-of-life materials in the economy through recycling”, according to a study by the US National Institute for Standards and Technology.