12 Jun 2014: Report

Can Waterless Dyeing Processes
Clean Up the Clothing Industry?

One of the world’s most polluting industries is the textile-dyeing sector, which in China and other Asian nations releases trillions of liters of chemically tainted wastewater. But new waterless dyeing technologies, if adopted on a large scale, could sharply cut pollution from the clothing industry.

by lydia heida

Each year, one global industry gulps down trillions of liters of fresh water, together with massive amounts of chemicals. The wastewater from that industry is then dumped, often untreated, into rivers that bring its toxic content to the sea, where it spreads around the globe.

The industry in question? The textile dyeing sector, whose colorful products belie the reality that it is an egregious polluter, especially in China, which by some estimates produces — and then discharges — roughly 40 percent of all dyeing chemicals worldwide.

Now, new waterless dyeing technologies are being developed and deployed that could help reduce the vast quantities of pollution generated by textile
Pollution at textile dyeing factory
Lu Guang/Greenpeace
Textile dyeing produces trillions of liters of wastewater each year, especially in China.
dyeing. In recent years, three companies have each developed a largely waterless dyeing technology. Two are American enterprises — AirDye and ColorZen — and the third is a Dutch company, DyeCoo, whose process is being used by Adidas, one of its partners.

Although the three processes are very different from each other, the results are much the same. The use of water is cut to near-zero, sharply diminishing pollution. The quantity of chemicals is drastically reduced, while faster dyeing cycles lead to a major drop in energy consumption.

Still, despite these benefits, major questions remain as to whether these new technologies will be able to turn the tide in the struggle to reduce pollution in the textile industry. Water has been used to dye fabric for centuries, and textile firms have generally been reluctant to embrace change. New waterless dyeing machines also are expensive to install and the technologies often can only be used with certain kinds of cloth, such as polyester.

“As for ColorZen, this is actually a new application of a technology that has been around for over twenty years, and it has still not been accepted by the textile industry,” said professor Long Lin of the University of Leeds, a
‘The dyeing industry has made the cloth beautiful but turned the clean water black,’ says a Chinese official.
leading center of textile technology and color science.

The need to reform the textile-dyeing industry is urgent, especially in China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, and Thailand.

China’s textile industry discharges about 2.5 trillion liters of wastewater into its rivers annually, according to a 2012 report from the non-profit Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE). Among these wastes are many hazardous chemicals — tributyltin (TBT), pentabromodiphenyl ether (PBDE), phthalates, perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS), and aniline — that are banned or strictly regulated in other countries because they are toxic, persistent, bio-accumulative, hormone disruptive, and can cause cancer.

“The dyeing industry has made the cloth beautiful but [turned] the clean water black,” Sunyun Yao, a country deputy secretary in Shaoxing County, China, said in 2010 at the start of operation Green Storm, which fined or closed down companies illegally discharging untreated wastewater. More than 30 percent of China's dyeing houses are located in Shaoxing.

According to 2012 statistics from China’s Ministry of Supervision, water pollution accidents in all industrial sectors have risen to more than 1,700 annually — about five a day. But this is not the main concern, says Ma Jun, one of China's leading environmentalists and founder of the IPE, which created the China Water Pollution Map.

“These toxic spills are emergency situations, but the daily discharge of hazardous substances is by itself already an ongoing disaster,” Ma said. “Some suppliers of brands such as Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hugo Boss, and Victoria Secret are very bad polluters, but these brands do not want to face this issue of pollution in their supply chain. This is, in my view, totally irresponsible.”

The intensifying development of waterless dyeing processes has the potential to change things if the technologies are adopted on a large scale, textile experts say.

DyeCoo's machines use carbon dioxide, which is heated and heavily compressed so it becomes supercritical, a state between a gas and a liquid. It then acts as a solvent and a solute at the same time. As a result, color pigments penetrate much more quickly into textile fibers and no chemicals or salts are needed. Since the dyeing time is cut in half and fabric comes dry out of the machine, energy use is reduced by 50 percent, according to DyeCoo's former CEO Reinier Mommaal.

Crucially, there is no wastewater discharge. After each batch is dyed, only a handful of residue remains, consisting mainly of color pigments and oil.
One hurdle is the expense of waterless dyeing machines, which can cost up to $4 million apiece.
About 95 percent of the carbon dioxide can be recycled and used again in the machines, said Mommaal. Using less energy and chemicals means that, in the end, the DyeCoo process brings production costs down by about 30 to 50 percent, the company says. At the moment, the Yeh Group in Thailand is using DyeCoo's machines to produce clothes for Adidas, and Far Eastern New Century in Taiwan utilizes these machines to manufacture clothes for Nike.

AirDye has taken a different direction. Its cloth is no longer dipped in the traditional bath filled with water and dye, but put into printing machines. Pressure and heat are used to transfer specially formulated dyes from paper onto polyester fabric. “The molecule of the dye is attached to the molecule of the fiber, which gives a more lasting color,” according to Rita Kant, assistant professor at the Institute of Fashion Technology at Panjab University in India.

This process is faster than the traditional one and also uses 95 percent less water and 86 percent less energy, according to AirDye.

ColorZen has developed a method that changes the molecular composition of cotton fibers, making it more receptive to dye. After treatment, the dyeing process uses 90 percent less water, 95 percent fewer chemicals, 75 percent less energy, and half as much dye as conventional processes, according to the company.

But widespread adoption of waterless dyeing technologies faces some daunting hurdles.

Ajoy Sarkar, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and Vocational Development in New York City, says that pre-treatment of fabrics raises costs, as do logistical issues. “ColorZen has one location in China, which means that companies have to transport their fibers to this facility, have it treated, and then transported to a yarn plant to have it spun,” said Sarkar.

AirDye has five licensed operations — Coco Prints, Eco Prints, and Tex Prints, among others — in the United States, Europe, and Asia, which also necessitates transporting fabrics long distances to facilities using the waterless process. The company filed for bankruptcy last year but is still
China's textile dyeing industry has taken off as major international corporations opened clothing factories there.
operational under new owners.

Although DyeCoo’s and AirDye’s processes has proven to be successful, they can only be used now for polyester, not cotton.

Experts like Sarkar say another major hurdle to expansion is the cost of waterless dyeing machines,. DyeCoo's machines cost $2.5 million to $4 million dollar apiece, for example. “The price per unit has to fall substantially,” comments Sarkar. “Otherwise only companies with deep pockets like Nike or Adidas will be able to make such investments, but not the majority of industry ... Nevertheless I am excited. This is the first innovation in dyeing that uses absolutely no water and that is a big advance.”

China’s textile dyeing industry has taken off in the last several decades as major international corporations opened clothing factories there. That shift also outsourced the water pollution problem.

As the price of clothing imported to the United States dropped 25 percent in the last two decades, Asian textile mills often slashed costs by simply discharging untreated wastewater into rivers.

This has resulted in severe land and water degradation around textile clusters, according to various reports from Greenpeace, the Chinese Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE), World Wildlife Fund, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.

The bigger picture is even bleaker. Apart from dye houses, the industrial belt along major Chinese rivers like the Yangtze and the Pearl includes chemical plants, petroleum refineries, nuclear fuel processing plants, metal smelters, and electric equipment producers.

“It is breathtaking to see how bad it looks,” says Ake Bergman, an expert on hormone-disrupting chemicals and a professor at Stockholm University and at Tongji University in Shanghai. Bergman and his colleagues are monitoring the discharges in the Yangtze River, which receives around 30 trillion liters of wastewater every year, much of it untreated.

Exposure risks to hazardous chemicals will always be highest in manufacturing areas, says Daniel Fagin, a science journalism professor at New York University. But Fagin — author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Toms River, about a cancer cluster in a New Jersey town linked to the discharge of hazardous substances by a chemical plant — also says that “such exposure is not confined to a town that has a chemical plant. It is
Chemicals from dyeing are spread worldwide by exporting clothes with residues on them.
everywhere. We need to come up with intelligent ways of measuring that risk and responding to it.”

Chemicals from textile dyeing are also spread in a very different way — by importing clothes with chemical residues on them. Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund, and Greenpeace have each tested a large variety of clothes that proved to contain hazardous chemicals, such as aniline, phthalates, and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPE's). All-weather jackets, wrinkle-free clothing, and t-shirts with plasticized prints were found to be particularly infused with chemicals used in dyeing, finishing, and waterproofing.

“The vast majority of these chemicals are washed out in a single wash and end up in our waterways,” says Kevin Brigden, a chemist working at Greenpeace Research Laboratories in the United Kingdom. “If you look at the total amount of clothing being sold per country, tens or hundreds of tons of chemicals that have been banned from being used in European clothing manufacturing are imported in this way.”

The Chinese government has announced a $320 billion plan to tackle water pollution. New standards for wastewater discharges from the textile dyeing industry have been set, including limits on the amount of fresh water used


The Warriors of Qiugang:
A Chinese Village Fights Back

Warriors of Qiugang
For years, a chemical plant in the Chinese village of Qiugang had polluted the river, poisoned the drinking water, and fouled the air — until residents decided to take a stand. The Warriors of Qiugang, a Yale Environment 360 video co-produced by Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon, tells the story of the villagers’ determined efforts to stop the pollution.
to produce each ton of fabric. Whether these laws will be enforced at the local level remains a major question.

Bangladesh, a large textile exporter, is grappling with its own problems related to water use in the dyeing process. Each year, the water table of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh drops by one to two meters, in part because of water use in the textile industry. In neighboring India, the government has closed hundreds of small textile-dyeing plants because they failed to meet court-ordered mandates to achieve zero liquid discharge.

Waterless dyeing companies say their technologies have resulted in a significant reduction in water use and pollution. Last year, for example, Adidas announced that by using one million yards of DryDye fabric, the company was able to save 25 million liters of water. Still, these savings are just a small fraction of the estimated annual 6 trillion liters of fresh water currently used by the global textile industry.

For waterless dyeing technology to be widely adopted, the price of the dyeing machines must come down substantially, according to the University of Leeds’ Long Lin.

“The industry will never accept such new technology unless it is cheap enough,” says Lin. “The dye industry is typically a very low-margin industry, which is unfortunate because now the only way to make money is to abuse the environment.”

POSTED ON 12 Jun 2014 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Climate Oceans Pollution & Health Water Antarctica and the Arctic Asia 


Very interesting.
Dr. A. Jagadeesh, Nellore (AP),India
Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 27 Jun 2014

I found this article to be very interesting. I was not
aware that hazardous chemicals were greatly
affecting the environment from textile industry. It is
a shame that some clothing companies do not want
to face the fact that their merchandise is producing
harmful chemicals that are affecting the environment.
The article made a profound statement that the only
way to make money is to abuse the environment.
Posted by Jasmine on 06 Oct 2014

Some of the worst polluters in the textile production process is certainly the dyeing process and because of mass-scale production, the use of chemical dyes and processes has become almost essential if prices for consumers are to be kept in check.

Alternatively, Indian organic dyes and vegetables dyes are a good alternative — but are not for mass production.

- David Roth
Posted by David Roth on 04 Dec 2014


Comments are moderated and will be reviewed before they are posted to ensure they are on topic, relevant, and not abusive. They may be edited for length and clarity. By filling out this form, you give Yale Environment 360 permission to publish this comment.

Email address 
Please type the text shown in the graphic.

Lydia Heida is an independent journalist and photographer based in the Netherlands. She specializes in covering recycling, renewable energy, and resources such as water and fossil fuels. Her articles and images have been published, among other places, in de Volkskrant newspaper, Professional Engineering magazine, and Spektrum der Wissenschaft.



For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

African Lights: Solar Microgrids Are
Bringing Power to People in Rural Kenya

Small-scale microgrids are increasingly seen as the most promising way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people worldwide who currently lack it. In Kenya, an innovative solar company is using microgrids and smart meters to deliver power to villages deep in the African bush.

How 'Third Way' Technologies
Can Help Turn Tide on Climate

In a Yale Environment 360 interview, Australian scientist and author Tim Flannery explains how the development of technologies that mimic the earth’s natural carbon-removing processes could provide a critical tool for slowing global warming.

How China and U.S. Became
Unlikely Partners on Climate

Amid tensions between the U.S. and China, one issue has emerged on which the two nations are finding common ground: climate change. Their recent commitments on controlling emissions have created momentum that could help international climate talks in Paris in December.

One Scientist’s Hopeful View
On How to Repair the Planet

Ecological crises may be piling up in a seemingly hopeless cascade, but Swedish scientist Johan Rockström says the next few decades offer an unparalleled opportunity to undo the damage.


MORE IN Reports

For Storing Electricity, Utilities
Are Turning to Pumped Hydro

by john roach
High-tech batteries may be garnering the headlines. But utilities from Spain to China are increasingly relying on pumped storage hydroelectricity – first used in the 1890s – to overcome the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

On Thin Ice: Big Northern Lakes
Are Being Rapidly Transformed

by cheryl katz
As temperatures rise, the world’s iconic northern lakes are undergoing major changes that include swiftly warming waters, diminished ice cover, and outbreaks of harmful algae. Now, a global consortium of scientists is trying to assess the toll.

The Haunting Legacy of
South Africa’s Gold Mines

by mark olalde
Thousands of abandoned gold mines are scattered across South Africa, polluting the water with toxics and filling the air with noxious dust. For the millions of people who live around these derelict sites, the health impacts can be severe.

The Sushi Project: Farming Fish
And Rice in California's Fields

by jacques leslie
Innovative projects in California are using flooded rice fields to rear threatened species of Pacific salmon, mimicking the rich floodplains where juvenile salmon once thrived. This technique also shows promise for growing forage fish, which are increasingly threatened in the wild.

A Delicate Balance: Protecting
Northwest’s Glass Sponge Reefs

by nicola jones
Rare and extensive reefs of glass sponges are found only one place on earth – a stretch of the Pacific Northwest coast. Now, efforts are underway to identify and protect these fragile formations before they are obliterated by fishing vessels that trawl the bottom.

As the Fracking Boom Spreads,
One Watershed Draws the Line

by bruce stutz
After spreading across Pennsylvania, fracking for natural gas has run into government bans in the Delaware River watershed. The basins of the Delaware and nearby Susquehanna River offer a sharp contrast between what happens in places that allow fracking and those that do not.

Will Tidal and Wave Energy
Ever Live Up to Their Potential?

by sophia v. schweitzer
As solar and wind power grow, another renewable energy source with vast potential — the power of tides and waves — continues to lag far behind. But progress is now being made as governments and the private sector step up efforts to bring marine energy into the mainstream.

The Rapid and Startling Decline
Of World’s Vast Boreal Forests

by jim robbins
Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the fate of the huge boreal forest that spans from Scandinavia to northern Canada. Unprecedented warming in the region is jeopardizing the future of a critical ecosystem that makes up nearly a third of the earth’s forest cover.

Northern Forests Emerge
As the New Global Tinderbox

by ed struzik
Rapidly rising temperatures, changes in precipitation, and increased lightning strikes are leading to ever-larger wildfires in the northern forests of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia, with potentially severe ecological consequences.

For U.S. Tribes, a Movement to
Revive Native Foods and Lands

by cheryl katz
On ancestral lands, the Fond du Lac band in Minnesota is planting wild rice and restoring wetlands damaged by dams, industry, and logging. Their efforts are part of a growing trend by Native Americans to bring back traditional food sources and heal scarred landscapes.

e360 digest
Yale Environment 360 is
a publication of the
Yale School of Forestry
& Environmental Studies


Donate to Yale Environment 360
Yale Environment 360 Newsletter



About e360
Submission Guidelines

E360 en Español

Universia partnership
Yale Environment 360 articles are now available in Spanish and Portuguese on Universia, the online educational network.
Visit the site.


e360 Digest
Video Reports


Business & Innovation
Policy & Politics
Pollution & Health
Science & Technology


Antarctica and the Arctic
Central & South America
Middle East
North America

e360 VIDEO

The 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner documents a Northeastern town's bitter battle over a wind farm.
Watch the video.


The latest
from Yale
Environment 360
is now available for mobile devices at e360.yale.edu/mobile.

e360 VIDEO

A 2015 Yale e360 Video Contest winner captures stunning images of wild salmon runs in Alaska.
Watch the video.

e360 VIDEO

Colorado wildfires
An e360 video goes onto the front lines with Colorado firefighters confronting deadly blazes fueled by a hotter, drier climate.
Watch the video.


A three-part series Tainted Harvest looks at the soil pollution crisis in China, the threat it poses to the food supply, and the complexity of any cleanup.
Read the series.

header image
Top Image: aerial view of Iceland. © Google & TerraMetrics.