HomeLifestyleFashionE-Textile Waste: Its Toxic Impact on the Environment and People

E-Textile Waste: Its Toxic Impact on the Environment and People

The last and immensely crucial point in my ‘how to be eco-friendly in 2022’ list is the f-word called fashion. Like some other markets, the fashion industry also has its hidden dark secrets and a lack of stern regulations by governments. As such, it continues to impact our environment, technologies, and, most importantly, the quality of life of people from economically poorer countries.

According to the United States Environmental Agency (EPA), the biggest portion of the waste is discarded textile. The garbage includes discarded clothes, footwear, bed and bathroom linen, furniture, and carpets. On average, Ghana receives 160 tons of discarded clothes every day, according to a recent DW report, by boat. Out of those discarded, 70 tons is deemed unusable and adds to the 20-meter high landfill of clothes that keeps getting bigger.

These clothes have been reported to have arrived from organizations that promise to “recycle” and save the environment from textile waste. So the question is, “is being trendy and techy more important than being healthy?”

Wearables, fashion tech, and clean-up

Electronic textiles are fabrics laced with circuitry for sensing, heating, lighting, and transmitting data purposes. This type of hybrid clothing allows the wearer to monitor their health, accessorize their looks, and even add smart couture to their wardrobes. But some other questions also remain unanswered, which are ‘who is designing what for whom?’ and ‘will there ever be a price-cap on things?’

Three of the major concerns pointed out by a recent market report on fast fashion are inflation of shipping costs, inflation of raw material costs, and geopolitical trade tensions. Fast fashion is a type of disruptive business model wherein designers from various backgrounds get a chance to design for big clothing brands, and via mass production, the brand survives. Unfortunately, the waste is choking the lungs of the environment.

Fast Fashion
Image: Ujala Chowdhry / TechAcute

The woven e-textiles come with small and nano circuitry embedded into their fibers. These wearable sensors then either input or output information received during their stay on a consumer’s body. The energy is extracted from the sun, the electricity, and body temperature, kinetic energy from body movement, elements such as lead, and many others. These electrically conductive fibers have a reliable control on static electricity but have limitations. The limitations can be explained by the demand-supply principle in economics.

There is no need for e-textiles per se, but it is attracting attention and becoming a global industry. However, there is neither an explanation nor a price cap on fashionable goods that may or may not be equipped with technology. We now need an urgent urban clean-up.

E-textiles waste management: governments’ response

Based on recent research in the field of e-waste management, a “lack of standardization of smart textiles and their waste management” is restricting this industry from blooming and reaching the masses. Electronic waste is already a global problem, and adding e-textile waste on the ever-so-growing heeps of clothes, is only going to multiply in the future. Some nations do recognize that the problem of disposing of non-biodegradable fibers, nanocomposite materials, and nano circuitry is a rising concern. However, there are no plausible solutions and regulations from the nations.

As far as governments are concerned, some are investing in the nano research areas to find “safety by design” ways for sustainable growth of the nanomaterials. With this in mind, the EU has funded the NanoRigo (short for NANOtechnology RIsk GOvernance) project, which will be coordinated by Arhus University in Denmark.

A recent experimental study found out that even a small amount of silver nanoparticles (AgNPs), which are extensively used in consumer products, can induce genotoxicity, cytotoxicity, and morphoanatomical and biochemical changes, in the wearer’s body. Their disposal and release into the atmosphere is another rising concern.

https://twitter.com/VSinkevicius/status/1485918744761221124

Disposing metal scraps and plastics

Based in Singapore, Enviro-Hub group is a corporation whose mission is to “join you as citizens of the environmental movement.” The corporations also run in the rest of Asia, Europe, and the Pacific. They take care of the metal and plastic waste that is used to make electronic circuitry used in gadgets, wearables, and smart clothing. The materials that the company deals with are ferrous and non-ferrous metals, engineering plastics, and chemicals. They also refine copper and convert waste plastics into fuel oil.

WM Intellectual Property Holdings, LLC, provides its technological recycling solutions to the United States, Canada, and India and also aims at changing consumer behavior. They recycle and refurbish waste retrieved from landfills, homes, and businesses. The waste includes a whole range of materials from plastics to metals to batteries. The company also makes disposed of electronics such as batteries, LEDs, chip metal, which are the essential ingredients for an electronic textile, into something reusable and renewable.

https://twitter.com/VOGCouncil/status/1484209103929057281

This collection and recycling cycle is a joint venture that requires thoughtful efforts from all parties, including the head of a State. The consumers will have to learn how to neatly and properly dispose of waste so that the people collecting your waste are able to do their jobs faster.

People’s response

The people who are actually making a difference may not be getting the recognition they deserve. Consumers are becoming more aware of the waste being produced and are re-terming the misused term of “recycling.” Instead of relying on organizations, governmental promises, and the bulls and bears of virtual markets, there are startups that are doing what should have been done before.

There are already huge economies building around textile waste, so it makes sense to stop the frenzy of mass production, fast fashion, and pricing inconsistencies. Startups — such as Doodlage from India, Kolon Mall from Korea, and Suave Kenya from Kenya — are headed in the right direction. They are using the discarded usable textile brought by other countries to bring it back to life. Instead of production, we must focus on reduction and reconstruction. Upscaling discarded fabric and incorporating tech into these clothes should ideally be the right path for the still-developing e-textile world.

US-based Evrnu regenerates industrial and home-based textiles made of cotton. The company employs technologies such as regenerative cellulosic, recoverable stretch, bio-engineered fibers, and others to depolymerize the textile into new renewable fibers.

Headquartered in Ahrensburg, Germany, I:Collect is another startup that collects throw-away and recyclable wearable items such as shoes, PET bottles, textiles, and others, from homes and organizations. Whether the item is new or old, the company uses repurposing and recycling technologies to make it resealable.

With these movements being made in the market globally, hopefully, we will see some improvements in how we can recycle textile waste better. However, this also just shows that we need to look for ways to be more economical in how we make use of our resources and think of their longevity in usage and their potential impact on our environment.


YouTube: 3 creative ways to fix fashion’s waste problem | Amit Kalra (TED)

Photo credit: The feature image has been taken by Alexi Romano. The image within the article has been taken by the author for TechAcute.
Source: McKinsey and Company / EPA / DW / ScienceDirect / Jessica Saunders (MDPI) / National Library of Medicine / ResearchGate / WM

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Ujala Chowdhry
Ujala Chowdhry
Hello, I'm a tech journalist at TechAcute. I did my bachelors in computer science engineering and masters in journalism. I have been able to view many facets of technology here and continue to learn more. I love #femtech and being socially available on Twitter.

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