Paving Our Way Towards a Toxic-Free World

“Testing is not the ultimate goal. It is managing chemicals that enter the supply chain, conducting periodic audits to identify gaps and establishing preventive actions to correct them.”

 Dr. Raymond Lui

Vice-President, Business Solutions, Chemical Testing and Certification, TÜV SÜD

In today’s eco-conscious world, sustainability has become more than a watchword: it is now a way of life. Yet, the issue of toxic pollution, and how it affects countless communities, remains an underrated global problem.

Its effects are often not immediately noticeable. Its consequences, such as illness and disease, could manifest in many ways, and could easily be attributed to other triggers – like diet, lifestyle choices and DNA.

One major pollutant is untreated wastewater released from textile, leather, footwear manufacturing industries. These untreated releases can render waterways unsafe for human use, harm wildlife and damage or destroy ecosystems. In extreme cases, it can even seep down to the aquifer level, causing untold harm to watersheds, leading to severe water shortages.

With concerns of water scarcity and stricter environmental regulations, the pressure on these water-intensive industries is rising.

Environmental advocates realise that there is no time to wait on this issue, and are looking to textile, leather and footwear manufacturers to take a stand and eliminate toxic chemicals from the manufacturing process.

The wastewater quandary

During the manufacturing process where fabrics are treated, it inevitably introduces chemicals into the water. Some of these chemicals are highly toxic, persistent and bioaccumulative.

Conventionally, many businesses turn to wastewater treatment in response to regulators and NGOs who mandate a certain level of water quality that is being discharged. However, a significant number of manufacturers are hesitant to adopt this move.

“Some factories do not have their own effluent-treatment plants, so it is difficult to follow local wastewater requirements,” says Dr. Raymond Lui, Vice-President, Business Solutions, Chemical Testing and Certification of TÜV SÜD.



There is big investment involved for manufacturers and suppliers if wastewater quality has to be improved; not only in terms of cost, but also in learning about chemical management solutions to improve water quality.


 

The high costs of chemical treatment, sludge disposal costs and power consumption can render the process unaffordable. Furthermore, time and resources spent can greatly impact business profit margins, another deterrent for factories.

But what are the wastewater management standards that factories must adhere to? Much confusion has been caused by the lack of industry-wide wastewater management standards. Although certain governments, companies and some multi-brand consortia have tried to create standards, there is a paucity of clear, international guidelines that cover the full gamut of diverse discharge criteria.

This lack of standards means that many companies simply do not know where to begin with their wastewater management efforts. Factories do not know where they stand in terms of which chemicals they should or should not be using. Chemicals providers, too, have been in the dark about which materials they should steer clear of and which are safe to use.

Going back to the source 

Fortunately, it seems, there is now some hope for improvement – and cause for cautious optimism. Increased awareness on all fronts has caused all parties to collaborate on ensuring the traceability of the chemicals used in the supply chain. If everyone is on the same page on this front, accountability becomes a real possibility.

Much of this recent optimism, however, stems from the launch of two initiatives that seem set to transform the way that the world deals with untreated wastewater.

The first is the Greenpeace Detox campaign, launched in 2011. Its stated aim is to “expose the direct links between global clothing brands, their suppliers and toxic water pollution around the world.” The campaign calls on manufacturers to work in tandem with suppliers to cut hazardous chemicals out of the supply chain, and remove them from the life cycle of their products. With Detox’s blacklist of 12 hazardous chemicals, the would-be champions of a toxic material-free future can take immediate steps to cut down on wastewater issues.

Meanwhile, the Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC) programme released its potentially groundbreaking Wastewater Guidelines in 2016. This comprehensive set of standards was created via a collaboration between ZDHC contributors, NGOs, suppliers, and a technical advisory committee. The general public was also invited to provide input.

By drafting a restricted substances list for manufacturing, ZDHC-adherent companies were provided a clear list of unsafe chemicals. But the ZDHC’s efforts go beyond this. It has also established standards for treatment plants to minimise the amount of pollutants they discharge, protocols for consistency in environmental audits and a list of a chemicals that currently have no “safe” alternatives.

With high-level manufacturers (the likes of Nike, Gap, New Balance and Levi Strauss) now pledging adherence, hopes are high for change within the industry.

Phasing out toxic chemicals from the onset 

The Greenpeace and ZDHC programme has provided the foundation to identify toxic chemicals during the manufacturing process.

But how do manufacturers eliminate the presence of these 12 hazardous chemical groups from the process? Is there an approach so that we can abolish the need for wastewater treatment?

The implementation of a chemical data management system presents a plausible solution. “We implement such a quality management system throughout the entire manufacturing process,” explains Dr. Lui. “Testing is not the ultimate goal. It is managing chemicals that enter the supply chain, conducting periodic audits to identify gaps and establishing preventive actions to correct them.”

Chemicals can be tested at the start of the supply chain – smart testing – so that the presence of any hazardous components are identified at the onset and managed early. Hazardous chemicals can also be substituted with safer alternatives. Cleaner components entering the manufacturing process mean cleaner wastewater discharge.

Manufacturers will need to know what to look out for to meet water quality standards. Sensible testing provides the guidelines for manufacturers to meet quality acceptance limits. Both smart and sensible testing thereby allow for an actionable plan to phase out these toxic substances.

Ensuring that wastewater falls in line with local and campaign requirements, while staying cost effective, is not easy. But with the right expertise, companies can get help with the entire current-analysis and proposal-creation process. They can take all the steps needed to make sure toxic chemicals are not introduced into the supply chain in order to minimise the need for wastewater treatment downstream.

Cleaner waters

Although progress has been slow for many, the Detox and ZDHC campaigns are starting to cast light on real-world solutions. Through initiatives like the Detox Catwalk, companies are being held publicly accountable for their promises. Environmentally aware customers are now able to vote with their wallets – and buy fashion products from companies that refuse to pollute waterways.

In the long term, as key campaigns gather pace, and their lists of adherents grow, water sustainability may one day no longer be a distant dream, and instead become a functioning reality.

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