World Environment Day 2021: Challenges in managing toxic wastewater from textile industry and solutions

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June 04, 2021 5:26 PM

World Environment Day: Currently, the fashion industry represents 20% of industrial water contamination and pollution worldwide. The textile/fibre dyeing process, used by the fashion supply chain, is a major source of water pollution.

World Environment Day 2021, fashion industry , industrial water contamination, water pollution, textile/fibre dyeing water pollution, Rijit Sengutpa, Chetankumar Sangole'If we look at the entire textile sector value chain it is extremely water-intensive as water is required starting from cultivating cotton products, through production and up to maintaining it for a longer lifecycle.'

World Environment Day: Wastewater management is critical for survival of the textile industry in India. Businesses should adapt sustainable practices and look at wastewater as a resource. There is a need to enable the textile processing industry for process optimization by adopting best clean techniques, incentives for automation and up-gradation of machinery and effective mechanisms to reuse water. Industries should be apprised of clear policies and how it can provide cost benefits. Cross sectoral learnings are essential to track technological developments in other sectors and customize those for the textile industry to ensure best possible and sustainable wastewater treatment. The industry and governments at various levels are collaborating on solutions to address this crisis. Moreover, consumers are being more conscious of sustainable production and consumption. It is evident that a long term, collaborative approach towards better water management in the sector is required.

Currently, the fashion industry represents 20% of industrial water contamination and pollution worldwide. The textile/fibre dyeing process, used by the fashion supply chain, is a major source of water pollution. By 2050, the fashion industry is expected to double its water contamination, making it the second-largest polluting industry on earth. In an exclusive conversation with Financial Express Online Rijit Sengutpa, CEO, Centre for Responsible Business (CRB) and Chetankumar Sangole, Head – Sustainability Desk, Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA) shared their views on need to raise awareness on water stewardship, existing incentives and policies that aim to address the issue of water conservation in the textile industry, adapting sustainable business practices and collaboration between the industry and governments at various levels to seek solutions and address this crisis. Excerpts:

Can you elaborate on the issue of India’s water scarcity and water pollution due to industry consumption and discharge?

Rijit Sengupta: India faces both quality and quantity problems when it comes to water. Industry, although a minor consumer if compared to agriculture, has a large water footprint. They also contribute to pollution of water bodies (both surface and underground), due to effluent discharges. In many locations, especially at textile and garment clusters, untreated effluents find their way in rivers, streams, and even underground aquifers, rendering the water unfit for domestic consumption or irrigation. In Gujarat, for example, there was a time when industrial units around Ahmedabad discharged their effluent directly into aquifers; crores of rupees have been spent till date in rejuvenation and remediation of these polluted aquifers. Further, climate change induced variations in rainfall, and blocking of drainage channels due to construction activities, has led to a fall in the health of intricate watersheds all across the country. Of late, Indian industry has been active in managing water resources. It has joined hands with the government and civil society in identifying issues and co-producing solutions. The danger posed by water pollution and water scarcity is now apparent to all stakeholders.

What are the risks that the industry faces on account of its water use and discharge? Why is it critical to focus on India’s textile industry to address these issues?

Rijit Sengupta: When water scarcity hits, industry is the first to be cut off from supply, as domestic use and agriculture are given precedence. This poses a challenge to the sustainability of industries, as water scarcity is rising all across the country. If the status quo is maintained, industry will be ever increasing risk from stringent regulations on water. It is therefore in the interest of the industry to be proactive and better manage their water. The textile industry is especially in focus because dyeing, washing and other processing operations in the sector are at the heart of water pollution in various locations in the country. In Tamil Nadu, a court verdict forced all garment makers in the Tirupur cluster to adopt Zero Liquid Discharge (ZLD), which is a costly but effective approach to reduce water consumption. In Bengaluru, a couple of good years of monsoon saved the city from running out of groundwater completely. Even then, many industrial units are forced to depend upon tankers for their water supply, as are households. Further, brands and international businesses assessing sources from India require stringent adherence to sustainability practices. In case, India is perceived to be a water stressed country, there is a fear of losing international business. Combined with these issues is the fact that productivity and exports in the apparel and textile sector have been flagging in the past few years.. It is imperative for the textile industry to critically think about the problems they face and look for both long term and short term solutions.

Chetankumar Sangole: Water is used in industries for general purpose, cooling (circulation), cleaning, process consumption, steam generation and other requirements. The water availability and quality parameters are important. Lack of either impacts on productivity and cost. Therefore monitoring water availability, quality and real-time consumption is key. Here handholding and the affordable technological solution is required to help industries. At the same time for water discharge, techno-economical viability tools will help industries to select either to go for distributed effluent treatment or channelize wastewater to centralized effluent treatment. We know well that food, clothes, and house (anna-vastra-nivara) are the three key needs of people for their sustainable lifestyle and livelihood. The food sector is water-intensive. Climate change is making an impact on the food chain, food security and also on healthy life. Real estate is also a water-intensive sector. And it is evident that, along with climate change, the economic slowdown is adversely impacting growth. As regards the Textile sector, climate change is again making an impact on water availability and affordability. This rising uncertainty needs to be addressed scientifically, managerially, and financially.

Also, let me remind you that these three sectors are significantly contributing to the economic value and growth of the nation. Certainly, the contribution of food and textile needs to be accelerated further if exports are to be increased while ensuring sufficiency for domestic demands as well. This calls for collaborative support as their contribution to the economy and sustainable lifestyle is critical. If we look at the entire textile sector value chain it is extremely water-intensive as water is required starting from cultivating cotton products, through production and up to maintaining it for a longer lifecycle. The textile industries are facing competition and sustenance and growth challenges. In such a scenario availability of affordable and quality water, affordable technological solutions and trade support will be critical to help the sector on the growth path.

Do you think applying principles of circular economy and resource efficiency to enable water stewardship will find acceptance within the textile industry? What are the challenges that industry faces with regards to sustainable water management?

Rijit Sengupta: Circular economy is definitely the most promising concept right now. The idea of a circular material flow and plugging the leakage of value is important, as it puts the onus on all stakeholders to do their part in ensuring that resource value is not lost or degraded over time. Circular economy will help industry in meeting their obligations towards the sustainable development goals (SDGs) by 2030. Although the concept is still evolving, the circular economy is closest to a win-win solution that we have come across in decades, that helps create a balance between industrial production and environmental sustainability. Above all, a circular economy can help industries survive and thrive; there is ample evidence from industrial clusters around the world that circularity reduces carbon footprint and creates opportunities for new jobs and skills.

Adopting a circular economy will help the textile sector manage water holistically, thus fulfilling the objective of water stewardship. Already, there are many examples of stakeholders such as municipalities and textile clusters joining hands to create co-beneficial solutions. For example, in Surat the municipality supplies treated sewage water to the industry; this cut down freshwater consumption drastically. Circular economy is a cost-effective approach, so it will be appealing to the textile industry. Among the challenges faced by the industry in managing water sustainably, two are quite prominent. Firstly, the textile sector in India is disaggregated. There are numerous small and medium enterprises that cater to the industry, and do not have adequate scale and financial outlay to upgrade and run costly equipment.

This is partly solved by common infrastructure such as Common Effluent Treatment Plants (CETPs), and certain government schemes that provide subsidies for installing equipment to prevent pollution or reduce water footprint. But CETPs are often overloaded and face significant downtimes, and government subsidies can take a long while to be processed and released to the beneficiaries. Small businesses usually don’t have the capacity to absorb the impact of upfront costs while waiting for funds to be released. Secondly, a lack of stable policies fails to generate confidence among industrialists to make significant investments towards upgrading to more resource-efficient equipment or creating new infrastructure to transition to a circular economy. Subsidies linked with solar energy, CETPs, pollution prevention equipment, etc. have often been announced and then withdrawn within a few years. Industrial transition takes time; therefore policies must be announced with a stability of at least 5-10 years.

Chetankumar Sangole: Yes. Resource efficiency measures have already been adopted by a majority of textile industries for example energy efficiency, waste management, and productivity increase by adopting advanced types of machinery. However, the data portal for sharing knowledge through success stories and case studies will help to increase acceptance. Also, fine-tuning activities for resource efficiency should be explored to further enhance efficiency and productivity. This calls for support in terms of specialist help and techno-economical solutions for resource efficiency. For example, the Indian cement sector showcased how they are the world best in terms of resource efficiency. There is a need for continuous handholding and technical and financial support to promote water use efficiency and net-zero discharge activities that fall under resource efficiency.

The development of circularity business models may encourage textile industries to participate and contribute to a circular economy. Digital technology may help here to develop the circularity model. This will help to increase transparency in the value chain and access to data for the business possibility across the textile industries. First and foremost, the continuous availability of affordable yet quality water supply throughout the year and/or weather conditions. I am saying weather conditions because climate change is making an impact either on water availability or quality in the vicinity of textile industries. Then comes optimization of water consumption within textile processes with the help of technology and then water discharge and reuse of treated water which is both expensive and complicated in the textile sector. Broadly, the challenges are relating to innovation-investments-infrastructure.

Are there any policy changes that you recommend compelling the textile industry to address the issue of water pollution and scarcity?

Rijit Sengupta: Urgent policy changes are required, especially on the extraction and use of groundwater. The Central Ground Water Authority had issued a notification late in 2020, mandating that no new consent for extraction of groundwater would be provided to industry, other than MSMEs. This must be augmented with adequate support for the industry to switch to ZLD and other water-saving approaches, to help them remain commercially viable. Regulations are also needed to direct the industry to explore and use alternative chemicals and dyes, to reduce the scale of water pollution, and therefore ease the burden on already overtaxed common water treatment infrastructure. Another crucial aspect is homogenization of policies across states and clusters. Some textile clusters are currently facing greater scrutiny and stricter norms, while others are still overexploiting and polluting water resources. This creates a differential in prices, rendering the compliant industrial clusters non-competitive on prices.

Chetankumar Sangole: More than new policies, there is a need to enforce better implementation of existing policies and understand the impact of the policies implemented so far. Moreover, regional guidelines and programmes/framework for regional water prosperity will address the issues of water scarcity and pollution. We need to look at these issues through a long-term lens. For example, say in a particular region of the industrial hub, let us first map with the help of historic data what are the water sources available, how water is made available and its quality, then let us map the water tables (underground and surface level), develop water indicators for that region, also map impact on the bio-diversity and what is its current status, what is the past impact of climate change in agriculture belt within the vicinity.

And then project the mapped data and indicators for the next 5 years. This will help to develop guidelines and programmes for either water availability and/or quality and/or reduction in pollution and/or for all of these issues as applicable. Once the broader regional programme is developed, then collaborative actions can be called for the contribution from various stakeholders. The outcome would be easy and affordable availability of water all (society, businesses, agriculture), less stress on water distribution and recycling, reduced uncertainty, improved quality of water to reduce the load on the purification system, healthy life and biodiversity in the vicinity. One of the outcomes may be a reduced carbon footprint in water supply-demand management.

How can industry, government and other stakeholders collaborate to achieve more sustainable use of water in the sector. Where can the industry take the lead? What are some immediate actions that can be taken?

Rijit Sengupta: Stakeholders can look at entire value chains and determine intervention points for them to act upon. Even consumers must play a role in pressuring the apparel brands to source their products sustainably. The industry can take a lead in R&D and implementation of water-saving techniques and production processes, while the government can play its part by providing a conducive policy environment that enables the industry to transition. The Indian government has already been using a mix of “carrots and sticks”, to guide the industry towards sustainability. Stricter penalties are needed for polluters. Schemes like PLI (Product-linked Incentive) scheme can be tweaked to include sustainability measures. Wastewater reuse is a low hanging fruit. Based on domestic and international evidence, wastewater (municipal and industrial) treatment and reuse should be pursued in mission mode across the country.

Chetankumar Sangole: Guidelines and programmes need to be developed by the government to help other stakeholders and seek contribution through the active collaboration for the regional water prosperity. Each stakeholder’s role is important which needs to be defined with great clarity without creating excessive burden on industries and society as they are already facing several challenges.  Today, many industries have already started taking the lead and continue to fine-tune resource efficiency and associated areas. However, supporting them to showcase their outcome with others will help to scale up the positive impact of the resource efficiency measures adopted and will empower industrial decision-making. The textile industries can take the lead in circularity provided an appropriate business framework is developed.

The development of a circularity framework needs to be spearheaded with involvement of the industry. Such a framework will encourage textile industries to participate and integrate circular practices. The development of the circularity framework shall consider the knowledge sharing and sharing economy model. The appropriate question should be who can take immediate action? Sustainability in industries is no longer optional but is inevitable for their growth and resilience. Sustainable enterprises will also be instrumental in supporting sustainable lifestyles and consumption. Sustainability in businesses requires collaboration and innovative partnerships to address the climate change risks, disruption risks and other risks associated with the supply value chain. There is a need for clear ownership and funding to drive multi-stakeholder engagement to mitigate risks, overcome challenges and connect to opportunities to achieve the outcome desired.

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