Airing the dirty laundry?

Airing the dirty laundry?

While one might not instinctively include it among the world’s heaviest polluters, the textile and fashion industry is a key contributor to climate change, accounting for around 10% of global carbon emissions.

Indeed, with pre-pandemic annual emissions of 1,2 billion tonnes, the industry is the second-largest industrial polluter behind the oil and gas industry, surpassing emissions from all international flights and maritime shipping put together.

Oxford Business Group, a global research and advisory company with a presence in over 30 countries (spanning the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the Americas), observes that a major factor boosting the industry’s carbon footprint is the water needed for cotton production. “For example, it can take an estimated 20 000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of cotton, or one T-shirt and a pair of jeans,” it reports.

In addition, with up to 8 000 chemicals used to turn raw materials into clothes, the World Bank estimates that 20% of global industrial water pollution comes from dyeing and finishing fabrics.

Another major factor affecting the environmental footprint of the industry is the sheer mass of clothes being produced to meet the needs of modern “fast fashion”. An estimated US$500 billion (around R6 900 billion) in value is lost every year from clothes that are worn for a short period of time and not recycled, with much of it ending up incinerated or in a landfill.

Pushing for environmental sustainability

To combat this environmental impact, a number of industry players are turning towards more sustainable means of operation.

For example, Jendaya, a UK-based, Africa-focused online fashion retailer, avoids plastic, instead shipping goods in recyclable cardboard packaging.

The company is also one of a growing number of designers who produce clothes in smaller capacities on a made-to-order basis, reducing waste and the amount of clothing that is consigned to landfill.

Other examples of African companies promoting local production, using natural materials under made-to-order models, include Nehanda & Co in Zimbabwe, Naked Ape in South Africa, Nkwo in Nigeria and Awa Meité in Mali.

There are also efforts to support this approach on an institutional level. Fashionomics Africa, an initiative developed by the African Development Bank, aims to develop a sustainable textile value chain and help create business models that will keep garments in use, make use of renewable materials and recycle old clothes into new products.

Another company driving sustainable solutions across the entire value chain in West Africa’s textiles industry is the India-headquartered Arise.
On top of existing industrial projects in Gabon, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire, the company is constructing two textiles parks in Togo and Benin. The sites, which source raw materials and process and manufacture final products, will emphasise environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors across all aspects of the operation.

For example, some of the sustainability credentials of the textile park in Togo include processing 100% sustainably sourced cotton, under Cotton Made in Africa standards, and using 100% renewable electricity, offsetting 20 tonnes of carbon emissions per day. The site will also reuse 90% to 95% of the water used during processing and comply with independent international certifications when it comes to dyeing and finishing fabrics.

“The private sector needs to implement socially conscientious governance models across the textile value chain, enfranchising local communities through fair and equitable labour practices while also managing ecological resources sustainably,” Bhavin Vyas, chief ESG officer at Arise, told Oxford Business Group.

Economic benefits

The benefits of such an approach are not just environmental. Increasing textile production on the continent will also provide an economic boon to the region as countries continue their recovery from Covid-19.

In April the African Circular Economy Alliance, a government-led coalition that promotes environmentally and socially sustainable solutions for economic development, identified the textiles and fashion industry as one of the “Five Big Bets” – alongside food systems, the built environment, electronics and packaging – that could drive the continent’s sustainable development in the future.

The issue is particularly pertinent to West Africa. Around three-quarters of the continent’s cotton is produced in the region; however, most of this is shipped to South and East Asia for processing, meaning that West African countries miss out on much of the value-added economic benefits traditionally associated with the textile industry.

Every year leading West African cotton-producing nations Benin, Burkina-Faso and Mali export 1,8 million tonnes of unprocessed cotton worth US$922 million (more than R12 720 million), but then import US$2,4 billion (more than R33 billion) in finished cotton textiles and apparels.

In an effort to address the situation, Arise’s textile park in Togo aims to convert 56 000 tonnes of cotton fibres valued at US$73 million (more than R1 007 million) into apparel worth US$1,5 billion (R20,70 billion). The company says the construction and running of the site will create 20 000 direct and 80 000 indirect jobs, ensuring that much of the profit will filter into local communities.

Meanwhile, in Benin, where the cotton industry accounts for 12% of GDP and 60% of industrial earnings, the government is playing an active role in promoting domestic production, implementing a ban on 30% of cotton lint exports by the end of 2021, with this figure rising to 70% by 2022 and 100% by 2023.

So, while the extent of the textile and fashion industry’s pollution has come to light, some are fighting the good fight. It would seem that West Africa is leading the way in creating a more sustainable textiles trade – both for the planet and employees alike – as stakeholders and key players are exploring ways to implement sustainable practices and make the sector more environmentally friendly.

Turning fluorescent tube waste around

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and fluorescent tubes are found everywhere – from households, factories, roads, schools, hospitals, stadiums, hotels and vehicles to torches and chicken hatcheries – the list is endless.

Yet they are often overlooked as a potential source of hazardous waste.

“Millions of lamps are imported into South Africa annually to satisfy this demand for light in domestic, public and industrial applications, and eventually these lamps will need to be disposed of,” says Ryan van Heerden, regional manager of inland central and national manager of on-site services at EnviroServ. The company is one of South Africa’s largest waste management companies and has been operating since 1979.

“This must be done responsibly, and these lamps should never be crushed in improper crushers or thrown into general rubbish, as most contain harmful heavy metals such as mercury.”

Van Heerden adds that each linear fluorescent tube contains between 15 and 20 mg of mercury, while compact fluorescent lamps contain up to 8 mg of mercury. “If not removed properly, these heavy metals will pollute soil, water and air, while the vapour, when inhaled or released, can be harmful to human health and the environment.”

He emphasises that fluorescent tubes can be recycled, a procedure that removes mercury from the environment, while all the components are recovered. “Materials such as glass, plastic and steel can be reused in similar or other applications, but they must be properly cleaned to ensure there is no mercury residue.” The mercury can be reused in electronic applications.

“This also reduces volumes of waste to landfill. EnviroServ has the capacity and expertise to handle this for customers,” Van Heerden says. “We partner with our customers, enabling you to decide on and implement the best waste management solution for your circumstances.

“We always assess our customer waste streams with a zero-to-landfill approach. We aim to find beneficial uses for every waste stream that we manage and create something of value, boosting the economy by creating jobs.

“Our employees are educated on the proper handling of lamps and emergency procedures in case of breaks or spills, and we offer training to customers on proper lamp handling and storage upon request.”

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