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Just Dye It: Nike Moves to Limit Water Pollution

Right now, dyeing fabric uses tremendous amounts of water. Nike's partnering with a company that could change that.

Last week, Nike announced a partnership with a strangely-named Dutch company: DyeCoo. The “coo” refers to carbon dioxide (one molecule of carbon, two of oxygen). DyeCoo has developed a commercial process to pressurize carbon dioxide until it reaches a state where it takes on the properties of both liquid and gas. In that state, the carbon dioxide can be used to dye synthetic fabrics, like polyester. What’s so incredible about this process is that it doesn’t use water.

Right now, dyeing fabric uses tremendous amounts of water. Nike says it takes 100 to 150 liters of water to dye one kilogram of fabric, the weight of five or so T-shirts. Dye factories have to process that water, along with the additional tons generated by bleaching and other textile processing, and dispose of it. Often, they dump the wastewater into nearby rivers.

To get a sense of how much damage the textile industry can do to water, consider that in India the courts shut down one city’s entire dyeing industry—hundreds of factories that employed tens of thousands of people—because of the damage the chemicals were doing to the water quality of the Noyyal River, once an important source of water for agricultural irrigation. And when Greenpeace investigated a handful of textile factories in China last summer, its researchers found hazardous chemicals flowing into rivers, even after the wastewater had gone through some processing. The World Bank has some country-specific data on water pollution, and in 2007 attributed to the Chinese textile industry about 20 percent of the country’s organic water pollutants.

As a result of Greenpeace’s campaign, a handful of companies, including Nike, pledged to stop using all hazardous chemicals. Dyeing isn’t the only process that contributes to river pollution, but eliminating water from this one step will help. Through its partnership with DyeCoo, Nike’s going to be manufacturing “cutting edge” items, dyed without water. The company says it aims to scale this technology toward “larger production volumes.”

DyeCoo has a couple of competitors. A waterless dyeing company called AirDye helped produce a collection of clothes for the designer label Costello Tagliapietra, which appeared during New York Fashion Week back in 2009. The technology that DyeCoo relies on has been around for decades; their innovation is a machine that could make the process work at a commercial scale. If a company as big as Nike can adopt this technology, it could push the textile industry toward an ideal production process, in which zero chemicals spew from factories into once-potable rivers.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Syeefa Jay

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