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Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

A Better Way to Dye

May 24, 2012

Coloring fabric using pressurized CO2—instead of water—could clean up the textile industry

Nike recently announced a partnership with a strangely named Dutch company: DyeCoo (the “coo” refers to carbon dioxide: one atom 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 such as  polyester. What’s so incredible about this process is that it doesn’t use water. Plus, 95 percent of the CO2 used in the process is reclaimed and reused.

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 about five 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. In 2007, the World Bank attributed about 20 percent of China’s organic water pollutants to the country’s textile industry.

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 is going to be manufacturing “cutting edge” items dyed without water. The company says it aims to scale this technology toward “larger production volumes.”

The technology that DyeCoo relies on has been around for decades, but their innovative machine 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.

DyeCoo isn’t alone in the field of waterless dyeing. A company called AirDye uses air instead of water to apply dye to fabric. It helped produce a collection of clothes for the designer label Costello Tagliapietra, which appeared during New York Fashion Week in 2009.❧

—Sarah Laskow

Originally appeared on on February 13, 2012. Reprinted with permission from GOOD.

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