Growing, processing, and dyeing fabric is a huge global industry (over $70 billion in the U.S. alone)—and one with a significant environmental footprint. Most people don’t know much about the how our clothes—made of all kinds of materials and colored with all shades of color—are produced. Dyeing cotton, for example, is an expensive, time consuming process which generally requires large amounts of salt, alkali, water and energy. The waste water from dyeing is highly polluted with salt and excess dye, both of which are difficult to remove from the effluent. In addition, most dyes and many fabrics are derived from petroleum-based sources and are not easily recyclable. In essence, fabric, something that touches us all (no pun intended) is ripe for the kind of innovation that green chemistry and engineering drives.
One of the pioneers in this effort is Dr. Richard Blackburn, who heads up the Advanced Textiles Programme at University of Leeds. His research interests cover natural dye extraction, sustainable dyeing processes, and sustainable fibers. Blackburn will be giving a keynote address at the upcoming 18th annual Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference (gcande.org) this June 17-19, in the Washington DC metro area.
In the late 1990s, Dr. Blackburn was a Ph.D. student at the University of Leeds when he became interested in how to make dyeing processes more environmentally friendly. The book Green Chemistry: Theory and Practice had just been published, and the concept of reducing waste and energy use through chemistry made a lot of sense to him. When Dr. Blackburn joined the faculty of Leeds Centre for Technical Textiles in 2000, sustainability research in textiles was virtually unheard of. So Dr. Blackburn put together a Green Chemistry Group (now Sustainable Materials Research Group) and started off on a broad course of sustainability research.
One of his early research topics addressed the currently waste-intensive methods of dyeing cotton. Dr. Blackburn was able to develop a new chemical process that doesn't require as much salt or alkali, nor the time and energy that goes with it. Another area of research was on the properties of polylactic acid (PLA) as a replacement for synthetic polyester. PLA is polyester made from 100% renewable sources and is completely compostable. Dr. Blackburn also worked on a novel process for coloring polymers that completely sidesteps wet-processing entirely and has the potential to save time, money, and resources in the coloring of fabrics.
In 2006, Dr. Blackburn decided to organize a conference, "Green Chemistry in Textiles," to bring together industry members and researchers exploring innovative greener approaches. This was the first conference of its kind, and they were expecting around 50 participants—210 showed up. Building on the interest generated, Blackburn teamed up with John Mowbray, of Ecotextile News, Phil Patterson, currently the managing director of Colour Connections Textile Consultancy, and others to establish a non-profit called the RITE group (Reducing the Impact of Textiles on the Environment). Formed to educate the textile industry on what sustainability means and looks like, the RITE Group held well-attended annual conferences from 2007 to 2012 in London. "A lot of the perception in the industry is that things that are clean and more sustainable are more expensive," notes Dr. Blackburn. "Of course there are economies of scale, but if you think about it purely theoretically; if you are making a garment using less energy, less water, less waste, surely that is more economically feasible. Surely that should actually be cheaper." Achieving this in textiles, with a global supply chain that is often lacking in transparency, is difficult and at times slow, but certainly what many in the industry are reaching for.
Lately however, Dr. Blackburn is putting more of his attention on the next generation. "I think the most important thing is that the people going into the industry in the future understand sustainability properly, rather than just trying to educate the people who are already there," says Dr. Blackburn. He explains that many U.K. students don’t think of textile engineering as a career opportunity. There is a perception that textiles is an old fashioned industry that has mostly moved out of Europe—However they are interested in textile design. Dr. Blackburn’s mission is to help the best of these students recognize the scientific career opportunities in textiles and convert them to a chemistry-based Ph.D. program. "One of the things I’m most keen on, is trying to get designers to think about sustainability and the full supply chain," emphasizes Dr. Blackburn. "If the designer understands it, they can build in aspects of sustainability—be it in relation to materials use, processes that are used, or what happens at the end of life. If they just design it to look nice, they won’t ever consider sustainability."
Dr. Blackburn’s current research includes investigating the possibility of extracting natural dyes or building blocks chemicals from food waste. Natural dyes went out of fashion in the mid to late 1800s, as petroleum based replacements took the market. Lately however, there is more interest in natural products, yet growing plants for dyes has its own drawbacks—namely, in acreage needed and expense. Recovering dyes from organic waste, however, is an exciting avenue of research.
We look forward to hearing more from Dr. Blackburn at the Green Chemistry & Engineering Conference. In addition to Dr. Blackburn’s keynote, there will be many sessions designed for people advancing green innovation in the apparel and footwear industry at the conference this year. Find out more at http://www.gcande.org.
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