Textile Waste - an Environmental Crisis

This post is contributed by Snehal Gehi.

The perspective of the old days: Population was less, needs were few, and resources abundant. The generation of waste was such that it got naturally recycled, being mostly biodegradable. Conversely, after the advent of the industrial revolution, different types of wastes came into existence which are often both non-biodegradable and highly hazardous. Production is always associated with some form of pollution and types of waste generated at every level of processing.

After plastic and paper, textile is the third largest source of waste in many states. According to the data released by The Indian Textile Journal, it is estimated that more than 1 million tons of textiles are thrown away every year, with most of this coming from household sources. Textiles make up about 3% by weight of a household bin.

Textile waste
Image Source: https://www.istockphoto.com/

1. Types of waste:

Now-a-days, we have textiles everywhere. Be it car engines, home furnishings or cable wires. The use of textiles is not limited to just fabrics and garments. Whether the product is made of conventional textile for aesthetics or technical textile for use, all of them are made from fiber, yarn, filament or thread. When there is a lot of textiles everywhere, there is definitely a lot of waste too.

The waste generated by textile industries can be classified into three broad categories:
  1. Solid waste
  2. Liquid Waste
  3. Waste in the form of gas

1.1 Solid waste:

If we consider a cotton fibre bale, it contains dust, dirt, foreign particles, etc which get removed. Further, towards the spinning process, the cotton fiber gets cleaned producing lap waste, sliver waste and noils and towards the end of producing fabric, it produces weaving waste in the form of leftover yarn and knitting waste in the form of faulty knit fabric, fly yarn and sample waste. 

Scraps, damaged or defective material samples, fabric selvages and leftover fabric from the cutting process are also included in solid waste. In the cotton textile industry, using the current processes of producing finished apparel and related goods from raw virgin cotton, 20 - 49% of the original fiber in the raw material is typically separated as waste in the various processes.

There are household articles or garments that the owner no longer needs and decides to discard. These articles are discarded either because they are worn out, damaged, outgrown, or have gone out of fashion.

The textile industry not only produces fabric or yarn waste, but it also produces other wastes like plastic waste(drums, tubes, containers), paper waste and corrugated cardboard.

1.2 Liquid Waste

During manufacture, the textile fabric has to undergo various processing and chemical operations like sizing, resizing, scrubbing, mercerizing, decolorizing, dyeing, printing, and finishing. The batches with shade variation, crease marks in dyed fabric, difference in shade from selvage to selvage, are usually thrown as liquid waste in the dyeing industry. The wastewater of the textile industry is extremely alkaline and contains high concentration or biological oxygen demand (BOD), chemical oxygen demand (COD), total dissolved solids (TDS). Most dyes and chemicals used are synthetic and not readily biodegradable which are highly toxic in nature.

1.3 Waste in the form of gas

The textile industry also produces air pollution. The processing of fibers before and during the spinning and weaving operations creates dust and lint, which damages the working environment of the textile industry. Gaseous wastes from the textile industry containing solvent vapors like ammonia and formaldehyde are normally diffused into the atmosphere. Another form of air waste originates from boilers. Most of the textile mills use coal or gas as fuel, and large amounts of gases are released into the atmosphere making the air poisonous and laden with chemicals.

2. Disposal of waste:

Focusing on willow waste, it is too short a fiber, to be used for any textile application and thus disposed off in the landfills. An investigation report notes that, the total amount of willow waste generated in India is about 80,000 to 85,000 tons per annum, and this obviously needs proper treatment apart from disposal as landfill.

The textile industry uses millions of gallons of water daily. To produce a kilogram of fabric, typically 200 litres of water is consumed–washing the fiber, bleaching, dyeing and then cleaning the finished product. The wastewater generated during these processes is highly polluted, dangerous and discharged into water bodies without appropriate treatment. This disturbs the aquatic life, along with millions of people who are dependent on the water for their day-to-day life.

3. Reason for textile waste generation:

1. Change of perception towards textiles: Post modernization, Indians have been influenced towards western lifestyle and lost the rich tradition of using and reusing textiles to its maximum extent.

2. Fast fashion: In the last ten years, fast fashion has replaced slow fashion, machine embroidery has replaced hand embroidery, synthetic fabric has replaced bio-degradable clothing. We observe drop in the price of garments which lead to frequent shopping from buying needs to demands.

3. Lack of awareness: People lack awareness about how much waste they produce at the customer end which directly goes to the landfills. Sustainable clothing and eco-friendly practices are not known by people.

4. No strict government policies: In developing countries like India, environmental legislation is stringent but poorly enforced. Trading second-hand clothing is not properly worked out.

4. Environmental Impact:

Water Pollution: 
The wastewater is discharged into water bodies without appropriate treatment which disturbs the aquatic life, along with millions of people who are dependent on the water for their day-to-day life. It can cause cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, skin diseases and other water borne diseases if not treated properly.

Air Pollution:
The dust and lint produced in the blow room may lead to respiratory diseases among the workers. The emision of harmful gases in the environment completely disturbs the ecosystem, animal life and human life if they come in contact with it. Such gases seem to increase the greenhouse effect on Earth and result in harming the environment. Skin diseases are common in workers involved in processes like preparation of flax and cancer of the nasal cavity among weavers and others.

Noise Pollution:
Excessive noise resulting from textiles manufacturing units is threatening the life of workers and residential areas around them. It can cause permanent hearing loss. High noise levels are causing psychological effects and physical damage including irritability, loss of concentration, anxiety and increased pulse rate.

Extensive use of non-renewable resources: 
Some industries completely work on non-renewable energies like coal. Extensive use of these resources will increase the pressure on virgin resources. Uses of such resources also lead to greenhouse gases emission.

Soil and forest degradation:
It is disheartening to know that cotton agriculture has a significant impact on the environment and is the highest or second highest agricultural user of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. The release of these chemicals in the soil degrade it nutrients and also contaminate the ground water. The crop grown in such soil lacks nutrients and leading to human population with low immunity. Every year, hectares of forest lands with enormous amounts of plantations and species are brought down by forest fire, or as a means of expansion for industrialization. In addition to this, the trees are also explored for making rayon, modal and viscose, which are now replaced by lyocell.

5. Measures to reduce textile waste:

1. Buy less: Preventing textile waste starts with buying less. The key to making this happen is prolonging the life of the clothes that you already own. This involves taking good care of your garments, following the wash care label will increase the life of the garment.

2. Switch to circular economy: Unlike the linear economy, a circular economy promotes repair, regeneration and reuse of product or materials instead of manufacture-use-dispose economy. This can even be done at home, for example, recycling an old sari to curtains or upcycling a shirt to a cute pillow cover. Donating old clothes to textile bank or a local charity shop is one the best way to discard your old clothes as they are properly recycled and disposed.

3. Thrifting: As people are understanding the alarming situation, they are opting for second-hand clothes or what we call thrifting. This way it costs you less and you have a brand new wardrobe. Similarly, you can also sell your clothes to a local thrift shop or online.

4. Opt for sustainable clothing: Instead of buying cheap polyester, rayon or nylon garments go for a better investment like 100% cotton, bamboo or linen fabrics which bio-degrade completely as organic fabrics.

5. Efficient marker modes: Use of solid colors or one-directional prints while producing garments in mass, the marker modes are more efficient and produce less fabric waste.

6. Use of good quality dyes: Dyeing involves use of lot of chemicals which are non-biodegradable, replacing such synthetic dyes by good quality dyes will make their treatment easier before disposal and won't pollute the environment.

Related article: Textile Recycling – What It Is and the Need of Textile Recycling

  1. Doodlage: A fashion house that creates wearable fashion, home furnishings, and bags out of industrial waste.
  2. Panipat woollen market: Follows circular economy, wherein they recycle woollens and turn them into blankets and supply them to NGOs.
  3. Oxfam: A charity thrift store based in USA.

6. Benefits of reducing waste:

  • Reducing the cost of purchasing materials and increasing profitability.
  • Minimising solid waste treatment and disposal costs (and generating an alternative income stream if there is a market for recycled fiber)
  • Improving wastewater quality and reducing treatment costs.
  • Reducing environmental impacts by reducing the use of raw materials and producing less waste.
  • Improving your public image and employee satisfaction through promoting an environmentally responsible image and providing a safer workplace.


Textile supplies the vital material essential for survival. Even though production involves pollution, it is important to shift to a circular economy in place of a linear economy. Stricter government policies and enforcement of environmental laws will be beneficial for everyone. To make the earth a better place to live we have to work on waste management. As a consumer, we should highly contribute in recycling the textile products we use and help nature heal. It's time to think.


Harmful Effects of Textile Waste - Fibre2fashion.com
Circular economy need of the hour to minimize textile waste: Study
8 Ways to Reduce Textile Waste: Drowning in Clothes - The Gate
Managing waste in the textiles manufacturing industry
What is Textile waste | Definition, Meaning and Types

About the Author:
Snehal is an undergraduate student pursuing B.F.Tech at NIFT, Kannur. She is a passionate learner with a creative mind and has an affinity towards modern technology in textiles, sustainable fashion, and clothing. She wants to acquire knowledge in the fields of technical textiles and the apparel supply chain.

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