Treating Wastewater Produced By The Fashion Industry

With the ever-increasing demand for more affordable and trendy clothing, many “fast fashion” brands have emerged across the world, producing new collections every week of the year which roughly equates to 53 million tones of new clothing annually (a figure that’s predicted to almost triple by 2050!)

As this demand for fashion continues to increase, the environmental impacts of the textile industry continue to escalate, with textiles becoming the second-largest producer of industrial wastewater after the agricultural sectors. Approximately 20% of the world’s industrial wastewater is produced by the textile industry due to the dyeing process used to create colourful fabrics and intricate designs – making the fashion industry responsible for using circa 79 trillion litres of water annually. In many instances, unwanted clothing will also end up discarded in landfills and it’s estimated as much as 92 million tons of clothing end up in landfills every year despite manufacturing capabilities to recycle textiles (though 20% of textiles are being collected for reuse, upcycling, or recycling as of 2023, however, the problems associated with waste and wastewater production continue to grow).

While these figures may sound extraordinarily high, the calculations include the supply chain alongside manufacturing, and the harvesting of materials such as cotton requires large amounts of water. For example, crafting one cotton t-shirt can require as much as 2,700 litres of water due to the amount of water required to grow and process cotton – and this high water requirement can carry detrimental environmental impacts as well as affect local communities and deplete essential water supplies. This is posing the greatest threats in countries such as China and India where the majority of clothing is produced, however, the US, Pakistan, and Turkey are also experiencing high levels of water stress.

Due to the vast amounts of wastewater generated by the textile industry, treatment solutions themselves are becoming more expensive, causing additional strain on manufacturers. However, eco-friendly wastewater solutions such as the LAT Unit which is powered by waste heat generated by other onsite processes are helping manufacturers reduce their costs (by as much as 70%!) and meet their regulatory obligations relating to safe water discharge. (Learn more about how we do it at this link.)

What is wastewater in fashion?

Wastewater in the fashion and textiles industry includes the journey from raw materials through to the end of production, however, most wastewater is generated during the following key processes:

  • Cultivation: growing plants such as cotton is very water-intensive and its popularity across the fashion industry as the go-to natural material creates additional demand for cotton cultivation which has high irrigation requirements. Other plants used in the textiles industry include jute, nettle, bamboo, manila/abacá, and various other plant fibres.   
  • Dyeing Process: while many different types of dyes are used to colour fabrics and some may be seen as better than others, the process of producing and using dyes is very chemical-heavy and can introduce harmful chemicals into water streams which causes contamination. 
  • Textile Finishing: as the final stage of textile production, fabrics and textiles are usually softened so they can be more comfortable to wear or use, and they may also be made wrinkle-proof or reinforced to increase their longevity. These processes, much like the dyeing process, require large amounts of chemicals and water input, resulting in a large wastewater output that can include metals, detergents, and more.

What is the composition of wastewater in textile production?

While there will naturally be a level of variation across the fashion industry (and indeed from brand to brand), wastewater produced from textile production will on average have a higher pH value, contain a range of suspended solids (including microplastics from synthetic fibres), as well as manganese, chlorine, sodium, copper, iron, and more. Wastewater from the textile industry also usually has high BOD and COD values, with one research paper quoting values of 363 and 1781 mg/L respectively as an example of the types of values we can expect, however, higher and lower values are also very common. 

What are the biggest challenges associated with treating wastewater from the textile industry? 

The scale and complexity of textile industry wastewater present the biggest challenges as the diverse range of chemicals used in fabric production and the introduction of synthetic and man-made components make it difficult to assess the contents of wastewater – particularly at the speed at which production changes. 

Contact The LAT Water Team

If you’re looking for a new industrial wastewater treatment provider with modern technology and around-the-clock support, contact our team on +44 (0)1635 635900 or by emailing info@latwater.com. Download our corporate brochure for more details about our sustainable wastewater treatment solutions and check out the rest of our blog for more insights into the work that we do.

Elias Elia
15th Nov 2023