Reducing the Carbon Footprint in Textile Manufacturing

The movement to produce textiles in a more sustainable fashion is gathering pace. One area not so often discussed is the emission of greenhouse gases by the industry. Here we discuss how our WeylCat® Pegasus can help reduce carbon dioxide emissions in cotton manufacture.

It is well known that the textiles industry has a sustainability problem. It is projected that by 2030 global clothing consumption will increase by 63% which is the equivalent of 500 bn new T-shirts. Over recent years the industry has come under the microscope, examining the human and environmental impact of its practices. If things do not change this growth will cause untold harm to the planet and people already exploited by the supply chain.

Fortunately, efforts are being made to bring about positive change. Of critical focus recently has been the elimination of the unsafe working conditions faced by employees, particularly following the tragic Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. In terms of environmental impact, several initiatives have been started, such as ZDHC and Bluesign,  to address the hazardous nature of chemicals used throughout the production process and the vast quantities of water required to manufacture fabrics. These globally recognised standards enable sourcing agents and consumers to confidently make more sustainable decisions.

The Global Warming Contribution of Textile Manufacture

One aspect of sustainable textile production that is perhaps less frequently discussed, is the global warming impact of the industry. The current greenhouse gas emissions from textile production already stand at 1.2 bn tonnes annually, more than the total output of some industrialised nations. Based on our trajectory, textiles could account for more than a quarter of global CO2 emissions by 2050. If we are to limit global warming and its devastation on the planet, we need to redirect our current path.

Several full life-cycle assessments of garments and other textiles have been undertaken. They demonstrate that attention must be paid at every stage of the supply chain, to reduce the total environmental load. This includes how fibres are grown or synthesised, how fabric is spun, treated and dyed, how the garments are constructed and delivered and then how they are used, washed and finally disposed of. Everyone, from farmers to manufacturers, to designers and consumers can contribute to change.

As we move towards a more circular economy, we must examine how the textiles we utilise can be re-used or will degrade at the end of their life. This brings into debate synthetic vs. natural fibres. The CO2 emissions of a polyester shirt are more than double an equivalent shirt made of cotton3. Synthetic fibres are also contributing as much as 20-30% of marine microplastics. So, switching to natural fibres could be one way to immediately help limit the damage caused by textiles.

How WeylCat® Pegasus Can Help

WeylChem Catexel has been working with the textile industry to enact positive change since the launch of our WeylCatTM Pegasus catalyst in 2011. We have always recognised that significant change requires true innovation and collaboration in the supply chain. WeylCatTM Pegasus is a powerful catalyst that enables cotton to be bleached at reduced temperatures. The bleaching of cotton is required to remove the wax, seed, dirt and natural colour of the crop. This process traditionally takes place at high temperatures (up to 110 °C) under highly alkaline conditions using hydrogen peroxide.

WeylCatTM Pegasus works with the hydrogen peroxide, activating this powerful oxidising agent. This means bleaching can take place in a much shorter time, under milder conditions. The bleaching temperature can be reduced by, typically, 25 °C and the processing time by more than half. In 2018, approximately 500,000 tonnes of cotton were bleached using a WeylCatTM Pegasus based process. Assuming that a 25 °C temperature reduction was realised; this translates to more than 118 tonnes of CO2 emissions saved.

This calculation is a conservative estimate since it only takes into account the reduction in temperature of the bleaching liquor. Further CO2 savings will have been realised due to the shorter processing time; which critically improves asset utilisation in the textile factory. Furthermore, the milder conditions produce a softer feeling fabric with fewer creases. A softer fabric at this early stage can require fewer finishing chemicals later, reducing further the environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions in the fabric production cycle.

The milder process conditions can also lead to a higher yield of cotton. WeylCat® Pegasus does not damage the cellulose chains in the cotton. The lower temperatures mean less fibre damage vs. traditional processing. Higher yields mean for more profitable textile production but also better usage of the cotton that has been painstakingly grown. Producing higher quality cotton is crucial for producing higher quality garments and extending the clothing life. It is estimated that extending clothing life by just nine months can reduce the carbon, waste and water footprint of a garment by 20-30%5.

Though the pre-treatment of the cotton yarn or fabric is only one particular stage in the long production cycle, we see that our innovation has already helped to reduce the environmental impact in the supply chain. This is in line with our ongoing commitment to deliver real, sustainable, game-changing technology across industries. To critically change the trajectory of the textile industry we will need collaboration across the supply chain and to re-think many facets of our current model. WeylChem Catexel is committed to facilitate this process, wherever it can.

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