The Malta Independent 30 March 2023, Thursday
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Textile waste – The monster in your closet

Sunday, 22 January 2023, 09:15 Last update: about 3 months ago

Prof. Renald Blundell, Emma Camilleri

Have you seen what the new fashion trend is? Are you thinking of replacing one of your handbags with one from the new collection? Oh, and have you bought the new jeans that match perfectly with the red and blue jersey? So many options and decisions to make but one quick question, are the clothes in your closet still good?

The fashion industry is one of the fastest-growing industries worldwide. It is valued at $1.7 trillion as of 2022 and about 430 million individuals work in fashion, clothing or textile production. However, this industry has become a great burden to the environment with the increased concept of fast fashion. From the consumer's perspective, fast fashion revolves around three main concepts: it's cheap, trendy and disposable. In other words, fast fashion is an inexpensive way of rapidly mass-producing of-the-moment garments and making them widely available. Inevitably it has changed consumers' habits in the way they buy and dispose of clothing and through this cycle of selling large quantities of clothes at cheap prices, fast fashion has risen to become the dominant business model. Consequently, the world's citizens attain about 80 billion garments yearly, out of which each acquired piece is only worn seven times on average before it is disposed of and considered "old".  Alarmingly, each year about 92 million metric tons of textile waste is generated globally. Thus, the fashion industry has undoubtedly become a hidden burden that not many of us are ready to address, particularly since we think of waste as "out of sight, out of mind".


Needless to say, just like the agricultural, energy and technological industries are great contributors to pollution and global warming, so is the fashion industry. The initial step in this industry is textile production which includes both natural and synthetic fibres. A great percentage of the material used in most clothing is either cotton or polyester. The manufacturing processes of both materials have significant health and environmental impacts. The synthetic fibre, polyester is derived from petroleum while cotton requires great amounts of water and pesticides to grow. Furthermore, the dyeing process produces hazards as untreated wastewater from this process is often discarded into local water systems, releasing metals and toxicants that can negatively impact the health of animals and nearby residents.

A 2015 study unveiled that the textile and clothing industries used about 79 billion cubic meters of water. Additionally, every year, 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres for washing synthetics are released into the ocean. This accounts for 35% of primary microplastics that are released into the environment out of which some can bioaccumulate in organisms and end up in the food chain. Furthermore, the 2,700L of water that are needed to produce one t-shirt are equivalent to the amount of water one individual will drink in 2.5 years. This means, that textile production is roughly responsible for about 20% of global water pollution from dyeing and finishing products. Thus, before disposing of that one t-shirt or pair of jeans, I beg you to reconsider.

Disturbingly, the industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions which is more than the global carbon emissions produced by international flights and maritime shipping combined. In fact, according to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2017, generated about 65Kg of carbon dioxide emissions per person. Even more devastating, is that less than 1% of the clothes thrown away are recycled. This is partly due to the unavailability of the necessary technology which is ironic when considering the major milestones we have made in that area over the past few years. This brings to light the question why this has become an obstacle. Is it just due to inadequate technology or is it due to negligence and lack of education too?

The first step towards textile sustainability starts with the textile supply chain. Since many people are employed worldwide to aid in the production of textiles, it is vital to ensure safety standards, particularly in low and middle-income countries. The aim is to minimise occupational hazards like exposure to respiratory toxins that can lead to occupational lung disease. Such toxins include cotton dust and synthetic air particulates that workers are exposed to due to poor ventilation. Occupational musculoskeletal disorders can also develop as a result of continuous repetitive motion tasks. Such conditions can be improved by enforcing regulations and policies that companies and factories have to meet.

The next step is to promote the use of alternative materials that are easier to recycle, reuse and repurpose. As some might be aware, clothes are a combination of many fibres and accessories apart from labels and sewing threads. This amalgamation of fabrics makes it even harder to recycle the garment as textiles have to be sorted into different fibres and material types. This would entail a greater workforce that has to be well-skilled and trained in identifying the different fabrics and separating them manually. This will also be very time-consuming making it an inefficient process, especially since following that process, the dyes have to be removed to reuse the yarns.

Luckily, one solution is to adopt the use of more sustainable textiles that are easily recycled without sacrificing quality. A team at the City University of Hong Kong has developed an effective technique for recycling cotton and polyester-based fabrics. It all starts with the microscopic fungi, Aspergillus niger. This type of fungi is typically seen as black mould on grapes. Aspergillus niger produces an enzyme that can break down the cotton into glucose, producing a syrup. The remaining polyester fibres can then be used to make new clothing.

Similarly, another innovative team has developed a way of using sour milk as the basis of textile production. Sour milk separates into whey at the bottom and protein flakes on top. Upon removing the whey, the remnants form a kind of "cottage cheese" which upon introducing it to a particular machine with water, a dough is created. At the end of the process, this is passed through a spinneret producing fine fibres that are thinner than hair. Following spinning, yarns with a silk-like texture are produced from these fibres. These can be used to make clothes or other textiles. Most importantly is that once the textile created is no longer wanted, it can easily be composted at home. Likewise, algae can also be used to produce bio-fibres and natural dyes.

Apart from companies and manufacturers being environmentally sustainable, we as consumers play a significant role. Firstly, we should not fall for the trap of greenwashing. Greenwashing is when companies/brands claim to be environmentally conscious when in reality their products do not have a minimal impact on the environment. Furthermore, consumers should choose quality over quantity as supreme quality textiles should last longer and thus consequently lead to a reduction of disposed clothes. Repairing, donating and attaining second-hand items is also a good practice to reduce our contribution to textile waste.

In conclusion, each part of the fashion industry, whether it's the supply chain or consumer, plays a vital role in contributing to textile waste. Through each of our contributions, we can make a change and path the way towards a more sustainable industry. We should aim to achieve textiles that are more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable while raising awareness on textile sustainability and the message our shopping habits send.  


Renald Blundell is a biochemist and biotechnologist with a special interest in Natural and Alternative Medicine. He is a professor at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, University of Malta


Emma Camilleri is currently a medical student at the University of Malta


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