Removing toxic dyes from wastewaterDuring the last couple of years, the fast fashion and textile industry has been growing to become one of the most lucrative industries in the world. Unfortunately, it has also become one of the most polluting and detrimental to the environment and communities living in poverty and suffering water insecurity. Emily Kim, a 17-year-old from Jericho, New York has come up with an innovative solution for removing toxic dyes from wastewater. These toxins are the leading environmentally detrimental chemicals found in the textile industry.

According to the U.N. “The average person is buying 60% more clothing than 15 years ago, while each item is kept for only half as long.” Due to this increasing wardrobe turnover rate through the years, more textiles continue to end up as waste.

Toxic Dyes in the Water 

Around 3,000 liters of water is necessary to create just one cotton shirt and 10,000 liters to create one kilogram of cotton. According to Textile Exchange, cotton “…accounted for just under a quarter (22%) of all global fiber production in 2021.” With the textile industry growing at a 4% compounded annual rate, these numbers could grow hand in hand with the industry, generating more toxic wastewater and having a negative impact on communities struggling with water insecurity around the world.

The textile industry uses large amounts of water throughout the production process that becomes wastewater by the end of the cycle due to the number of toxic dyes used, according to Textile Exchange. The main polluting dyes are azo dyes. Though there are different types of dyes, azo dyes make up 50% of the synthetic dyes produced in the world. Science Direct studies prove that some azo dyes are “…directly carcinogenic to the liver and bladder after feeding.” When ingested, or released into the environment, azo dyes are hazardous and life-threatening. Hence, removing toxic dyes from wastewater is a key step to making an impact on the environment and on society.

Impact on Poverty

Every year the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic meters of water. And with the expected growth rate of the industry and lack of regulations, it could rise. Major textile players operate in countries where land, labor and raw materials are cheaper such as Bangladesh, India or Pakistan. These countries have higher poverty rates and are the main victims of wastewater pollution. And though this boosts economic development and decreases unemployment, many communities are getting the other side of the coin; pollution, death, disease and even downside effects on agriculture, fishing and livestock. According to CNN, “European Union, China, Japan, India and Vietnam have all banned their use and import,” taking the first step towards a sustainable fashion revolution.

Emily Kim and Her Solution

According to the World Bank, “Around 20 % of wastewater worldwide comes from fabric dyeing and treatment.” When high school student Emily Kim noticed this, she decided to base her Regeneron Science Talent Search environmental science project on finding a solution. Emily decided to study two common yet differently behaving azo dyes, MO1 (Mordant Orange 1) and RB5 (Reactive Black 5). “Rather than finding just one treatment that targets a specific kind of dye removal, it’s much more important to have a general treatment that can universally be used in order to treat a wide range of azo dyes,” explained Emily in her project. A general treatment will be more accessible and effective when treating wastewater than a specific treatment that only tackles a specific dye.

Emily began experimenting with activated carbon and realized that the adsorptive properties of the AC removed 99% of the MO1 molecules easily but only 22% of the RB5 molecules. She continued experimenting with the activated carbon and its photocatalytic properties until finding out that when she added ultraviolet light she was able to remove 92% of the RB5 without affecting the removal results for MO1. Her method appears to be effective, accessible and available for textile industries worldwide.

Making a Change

Innovative ideas like Kim’s could have an impact on poverty around the world, reducing the water insecurity and pollution that many communities from underdeveloped countries have to live through. Some countries have already taken the initiative to ban certain types of azo dyes to keep water pollution to a minimum. Following Emily’s example and solution, removing toxic dyes from wastewater could be done in an affordable and effective way to save the environment and the vast number of people that depend on it to get the basic living necessities.

– Sebastián Garcés 
Photo: Flickr