How Cotton Pollutes


Environmental Impacts of Cotton

Cotton represents 35% of the world's textiles (Gullingsrud, 2017), and it’s a very thirsty crop. Cotton takes enormous amounts of water to cultivate and manufacture. Although, calculations of how much water varies widely. For instance, one source claims that it takes 5,678 liters of water to produce 1 pair of jeans, while another source reports it takes 1,892 liters (Gullingsrun). These numbers vary on the origin of the cotton and weather patters. Nevertheless, both are staggering numbers.

Cotton and other natural materials use fertilizers and pesticides to increase the health and size of the yield. To do so, conventional cotton cultivation uses some of the most toxic chemicals available for use in agriculture. It accounts for 11% of global pesticides and 24% of insecticides applications worldwide (Conca, 2015), this attributes to soil and water pollution as well as air emissions. Unfortunately, these toxic chemicals created to improve yield can diminish soil fertility and pollute water systems, thus destroying crops in future seasons.

Once fibers are collected, they can be finished. Finishing is applied to materials to enhance performance, durability, add repellents and/or other desirable treatments. While most of these finishes are tested and safe for human use, there are concerns about bio accumulation and toxicological effects on the environment (Gullingsrud). 

Each finishing technique comes with its own benefits to the material but also, its own hindrance to the environment. One example is waterproofing, a repellent resin added as a coating to fabrics. To achieve the water repellent properties, fabric is soaked in chemicals and dried at extreme heat to allow for bonding (Tobler-Rohr). This process creates concern of air emissions and water waste. These chemicals need considerable dilution to be released (Slater,). .

Other special property is stain repellents, fire retardants, and antibacterial properties. Each of which face the same issues of chemical expulsion in the air and water. Stain repellents largest chemical concern is a fluorochemical, perflurooctanoic acid (PFAO) (Cobbing, 2013,). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it poses a dangerous threat to the environment and human health when it breaks down. Similar concerns and regulations have been added to carcinogenic flame retardant and highly toxic antimicrobials. However, Greenpeace conducted a report acknowledging known antimicrobial were still found in active wear products (Cobbing, 2013).

Dyeing is an important and specialized finishing process that contaminates enormous amounts of water. Dyestuffs pollution not only leaks residual colors into wastewaters, but are also developed to be highly toxic and carcinogenic (Slater). This is because many chemicals used in dyeing are developed to be durable to allow color to last longer. Also making them difficult to remove from water. Some major environmental concerns of dyestuffs come from the use of formaldehyde, heavy metals, salt, and the chemical oxygen demand that leaves aquatic environments hostile for living organisms (Gullingsrud, p.210).

It is clear the textile industry has a profound influence on the health of the environment. Fortunately, many organizations and businesses have been working to reduce their environmental footprint to become more sustainable. Some of the organizations helping companies to achieve environmental goals include: Better Cotton Initiative, Responsible Luxury Initiative, Organic Trade Association, and Sustainable Apparel Coalition.

The cotton trade industry negatively impacts the global environment. As global climate change, waste creation, and water scarcity become more pressing issues the textile industry will be forced to clean up its ways. Sustainable textiles are not trying to disrupt industries progress, rather offers solutions to address pressing global issues. Textiles are a basic need for all humans and should protect people from the elements, not make the elements more difficult for human survival. Although the textile industry is not the only factor in climate change, it needs to take responsibility for its negative impacts.


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