New method cleans up textile industry's hazardous waste

Swedish doctoral candidate discovers a new way to purify the toxic effluent from dyeing garments.

Historically, the garment industry has been incredibly hazardous to the earth, spilling dangerous chemicals into rivers and agricultural land, tainting local drinking water.

However, a Swedish doctoral student, Maria Jonstrup, has discovered a new way to purify the discharged toxins, leaving only water behind. Her efforts are an attempt to clean up process of dyeing textiles once and for all.

Jonstrup, a doctoral candidate in biotechnology, defended her thesis last Thursday at Lund University in Sweden. She joined the project, headed by her supervisor, Bo Mattiasson, who was inspired after a visit to India in 2002. He toured textile factories and observed the destructive process of releasing dye effluent. The project was founded upon his return to Sweden.

“First, microorganisms break down the dyes in a reactor,” she explained. “This biological step is the most important. However, to be certain that the water is completely purified, I also use some chemicals. Small amounts of iron and hydrogen peroxide in combination with UV light break down even the most difficult structures.”

Jonstrup's discovery came from the combination of these different processes, and she has been celebrated for making the connection between the biological and chemical purification.

The next steps in making her discovery a reality in the industry will be in the hands of two Masters students. Their job will be to test her method in larger volumes of water that simulate the conditions in the textile plants more closely. They will be charged with the task of how to use normal sunlight to replace the UV light, and Jonstrup will supervise their progress. The hope is that after these tests, the method will go "live" in factories to assess its practical use.

The ambitious project is not without obstacles. Though Jonstrup and her team, though contacts with a Swedish clothing company, have already gained access and taken samples from a plant in India, the bad reputation of the garment industry has made manufacturers wary of outsiders, making it difficult for scientists to secure access.

Another looming hurdle for the project is legislation. The law regarding dye residue only stipulates that the water be clean. As a result, water is filtered but the toxic materials are disposed of however and wherever the company sees fit, with no legal penalties.

“In the long term it should be possible for textile factories in India, China and Bangladesh to use the technique," she said. " If it works on a laboratory scale it is quite likely that it will also work in a real-life situation."

[Via Ecoterre and Lund University Press Release]
Photo: Lund University

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