Dye Pollution and Solutions
Written by designer Sarah Malas.
Photo from Carmen Busquets.
Entire rivers are running black in China. Flooding in Indonesia causes the streets to be filled with an insidious red liquid. These scenes are jarring, and are symbolic to the cause and effect of this pigmented water.This essay will explore what dye pollution is, the effects, and solutions.
All of our everyday textiles; clothing, upholstery, ect, use dyes. Dyes are what creates pigment in the fibers of our clothes. They can often be a source of self expression, and a cool way to make art as well. These beautiful colors come at an ugly cost. When dyeing, it takes a massive amount of water to process the textile, and activate the color. In poorly managed, underpaid facilities, it is difficult for manufacturers to clean the water properly before pouring it back into the environment. This oversight can have drastic effects on local inhabitants. With the textile industry being responsible for 20% of water pollution, the impacts are enormous.
The garment industry produces about 80 billion pieces each year, and is growing. (Larose) It is said that this number is likely to increase by 63% by 2030. (Regan) These dye facilities cannot keep up with water cleaning processes enough because of the high demand for fast fashion. In an article done by CNN, Ma, an environmentalist who founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, stated: China's centralized treatment plants sometimes can't cope with the volume of wastewater produced in its new industrial parks. And existing factories, saddled with costly treatment processes, often build secret discharge pipes or release their wastewater at night to avoid detection.” (Regan) All of these textiles go through the dye process before they are manufactured. Many of this water is tainted with toxic chemicals when it is reused by local people, plants, and animals in the area. These chemicals come from synthetic dyes. Synthetic dyes are created from chemical compounds that are harmful when ingested.
The two major problems pushing the dye pollution are overproduction and contents of dyes. Synthetic dyes are made of chemical compounds that are toxic to people. These companies use the cheapest materials to make dyes, and local as well as global citizens pay the price.
The cost of synthetic dyes even affects the wearer. Azo, the most popular synthetic dye is used by 70% of manufacturers. (Larose) Azo can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and at worst, cancer. These dyes can end up in our air, and breathed into the wearer. It is a known fact that these popular synthetic dyes cause skin problems.
Synthetic dyes affect the environment. They are harmful to the local plants and wildlife that come into contact with them. When we turn rivers red, or even black, this greatly affects the quality of life for all things in the area. When dye-tainted water is released into the water ways, this affects plant growth in the area. The dyed water can block the light, making the photosynthesis of the plants less effective, lowering the oxygen of the water, and eventually killing aquatic plants, and eventually starving aquatic animals, such as fish. This creates “dead rivers” or “dead” bodies of water. A river is “dead” when it is no longer suitable to sustain life.
When water dies it greatly affects the people living in the surrounding areas. While these people consume the least amount of products that use these dyes, it affects them the most. When there are no aquatic plants, and the fish have died off, the locals can face food shortages, as fish can be a huge part of local diets. When textile factories dump their water waste into fresh water sources, the locals have no choice but to drink tainted water. Indonesians who live near the Citarum river have lived this story. With hundreds of textile factories in the area, many dyes and chemicals have accumulated in their freshwater source. In an article by CNN it is reported that 35 million people still need to drink this water daily and not without grave consequence. Linked effects of drinking dye laden water are higher cancer rates, skin diseases, and slow mental development in children. (Regan) the chemical-filled water has found its way to food through crop irrigation, and local farming. These people have no to limited access to clean food because of the drastic effects of dye pollution.
There are few solutions to the damage that has already been done to these nation’s waterways, other than the hope that the chemicals will dilute overtime. There are ways that we can slow or end dye pollution, if textile companies were pressured to act more responsibly.
Natural dyeing has become a popular tool for many sustainable fashion activists. Natural dyeing is an alternative to synthetic dyeing. While some may feel that the color and vibrancy is limited, this is a small price to pay for the avoidable effects of synthetic dyeing. Natural dyeing can be actually positive for the environment. Food scraps are often used as dye crops, such as avocado pits, turmeric, onion skins, ect. The possibilities are endless. The water used in these processes can be cleaned, and are not tainted by chemicals. While natural dyeing is amazing, this is only a band-aid solution for the larger problem.
Western society must lower the insatiable demand for clothing, and stop taking advantage of eastern countries to produce a quota they cannot maintain or responsibly keep up with. There must be production limits on popular brands such as Levis, H&M, and Zara to name a few. The brands responsible must be held accountable for the irreparable damage they have done to the quality of life of people in affected areas.
LaRose, Danielle. “To Dye For: Textile Processing's Global Impact.” Carmen Busquets, Carmen Busquets, 12 Apr. 2017, www.carmenbusquets.com/journal/post/fashion-dye-pollution.
Lellis, Bruno, et al. “Effects of Textile Dyes on Health and the Environment and Bioremediation Potential of Living Organisms.” Biotechnology Research and Innovation, No Longer Published by Elsevier, 13 Oct. 2019, www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2452072119300413#:~:text=The%20textile%20dyes%20significantly%20compromise,promote%20toxicity%2C%20mutagenicity%20and%20carcinogenicity.
Quine, Oscar. “Blue Dogs Found Roaming near Abandoned Chemical Plant.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 13 Feb. 2021, www.newsweek.com/blue-dogs-chemical-plant-dzerzhinsk-russia-photos-1568947.
Regan, Helen. “Asian Rivers Are Turning Black. And Our Colorful Closets Are to Blame .” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Sept. 2020, www.cnn.com/style/article/dyeing-pollution-fashion-intl-hnk-dst-sept/index.html#:~:text=Along%20with%20finishing%2C%20dyeing%20is,involved%20in%20making%20our%20clothes.&text=Large%20amounts%20of%20water%20and,t%20fade%20or%20wash%20out.
Sarah Malas is an Interdisciplinary student at the University of Cincinnati, with concentrations in Fashion Design and Environmental Studies.