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Driving sustainability in advanced textiles

The textile industry has an important role in supporting COP-27 goals.

Features | December 12, 2022 | By: Seshadri Ramkumar, Ph.D.

Freudenberg Performance Materials Apparel has completed the installation of 13,000m2 of photovoltaic panels on the roof of its Nantong factory. The installation is projected to produce 1.5 million kWh of electricity a year and lower CO2 emissions by about 1,200 tons/year. Photo: Freudenberg.

The recently concluded COP-27 meeting in Sharm-El-Sheikh has affirmed the commitment of nations across the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C and has called for a rapid decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by about 43 percent by 2030 compared to the 2019 level. This means that all textile sectors will need to explore ways to preserve resources, and consider how best to reduce, reuse, regenerate and recycle in their own operations. 

A focus in the industry on conserving resources for gaining maximum return on investment for both the present and for future generations would encompass economic growth and use of alternate energy. “Lack of awareness is the main issue among different sections of the populace and even in the industry, which serves as the barrier for enacting policies and prioritizing sustainability,” says Prof. Ramakrishnan Govindan, head of the department of fashion technology at Coimbatore, India-based Kumaraguru College of Technology. 

Developed economies need to pay more attention to reviving the manufacturing sector that caters to high-tech products used in applications that enhance our lives, protect the environment, increase energy production from alternate sources, and improve agricultural productivity. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it became especially apparent that PPE and other crucial medical products had to be imported from Asia. This underscored the necessity of having them manufactured in a sustainable fashion in developed economies for reasons that include national security, as well as saving lives, in the future. 

Also important, value-added manufacturing could benefit from paying more attention to the use of natural and biodegradable materials, reducing the cost of production and enhancing the use value of products. Sustainable manufacturing of advanced materials and technical textiles can spearhead economic growth and create good jobs. This is evident in the revival of investments in the semiconductor sector with this year’s passage of The Chips Act in the U.S. The support for such manufacturing activity from national leaders, including the U.S. president, is evident. 

Sustainable advanced textiles

While there is some cost involved in developing sustainable products due to the higher input costs of natural materials, overall, the price would work out as manufacturing processes become more streamlined and the scale increases. “We must be technology ready with advanced manufacturing using earth-friendly materials,” says Dr. Prakash Vasudevan, director of Coimbatore, India-based South India Textile Research Association (SITRA).  

In some instances, sustainable products may not be viable, but in mid- to long-term scenarios, cost should level out, as the demand for green technologies and earth-friendly products would increase. “European brands will be demanding 100 percent green products by 2030,” adds Dr. Vasudevan.

Academia, government research laboratories, policy think tanks and government agencies should conduct more outreach activities in creating awareness on the harmful effects of global warming and emphasize the long-term benefits of sustainability. 

Diversifying into sustainable textiles

Ongoing supply chain issues, price volatility in raw materials such as cotton, demand crisis in some segments, and energy problems in major textile-producing nations such as Bangladesh, are forcing the conventional textile sector to look for creative ways to develop new markets. The priority for the industry is to cut the cost of production and enhance the product offerings catering to different applications. These may include the automobile, aerospace and defense industries. 

“Sustainable and green forms of energy are the ways forward for the industry,” says Velmurugan Shanmugam, general manager of Aruppukkottai, India-based Jayalakshmi Textiles. The company is exploring new energy sources and new blends and adopting improved technologies to remain sustainable economically, environmentally and socially. 

The mill, which has 72,000 ring spindles, used to be a cotton yarn only spinning mill. Today, it has diversified by taking little steps into advanced textiles and has enhanced its “yarn basket” by creating new blends with regenerated fibers. In textiles, particularly for yarns, about 15 percent of the price is due to energy costs. With conventional energy prices going up and more stringent regulations for the conventional power sector, such as coal-based electricity generation, the textile sector is now focusing on renewables like wind and solar. 

Jayalakshmi Textiles generates 70 percent of its energy requirement from its windmills and solar panels. Government policies such as subsidies and initial investment support play important roles in switching to renewables, he says. Agreeing that initial installation costs are high, over a period it pays off, he adds. In his estimates, the return-on-investment period for renewable power infrastructure is about 6 years, which is a positive aspect.

In addition to shifting to renewables, the textile sector is moving towards developing advanced textiles using unconventional natural fibers, such as kenaf, hemp, banana and bamboo fibers. The recent high volatility in the cotton market has created an urgency in the sector to look for alternate natural fibers. Viscose rayon blends with cotton are used to develop a myriad of home textile products. Such creative ways of being sustainable and nimble is opening-up new markets for the conventional sector in forensics, homeland security, aerospace and defense, as well. 

The advanced textiles sector should devise standards and strategies for recycling and reuse. “Reusing textile waste by recycling the materials and remodeling them back into their original form minimizes the usage of raw materials and thus reduces the textile industry’s pressure on the environment,” says Dr. Prakash Vasudevan.

Industry and institute collaboration

Academic institutions that teach disciplines such as textile technology, fashion, materials science, chemical engineering and plant science have worked on many projects related to some form of sustainable textiles. Included among them are better cotton initiatives, biodegradable textiles and life-cycle assessment (LCA) analysis. The need of the hour is translational research, which the industry can adopt to develop marketable greener products that consumers find affordable. 

Recently, biodegradable kenaf fiber-based sanitary pads were made commercial by Coimbatore-based Green Delight Innovations Pvt. Ltd. The product evolved out of undergraduate research by two students at Kumaraguru College of Technology. Even though the price of biodegradable sanitary napkins is slightly higher than commercially available synthetic superabsorbent based pads, awareness is growing among urban users. “To attract rural consumers, the company is adopting creative marketing techniques,” says Prof. Ramakrishnan Govindan.

In a similar vein, a research project at Texas Tech University has looked at finding value-added applications for discounted cotton, such as in the oil and gas sectors. This project has found an international partner in Jayalakshmi Textiles to manufacture 100 percent natural cotton-based advanced products. The Indo-U.S. collaboration is a good model for enabling the conventional textile industry to diversify into advanced textiles using sustainable methods and materials. 

Considering process

A key area which needs attention is making the finishing processes eco-friendly ones. Such approaches are appropriate for advanced textiles, where functionality in most cases depends on finished applications. Efforts are underway to use less water, electrolytes and chemicals. High priority research in the field is focused on reducing water pollution due to chemical discharge. 

More importantly, sophisticated water treatment facilities are coming online to cater to zero discharge requirements. SITRA has developed novel chemicals to avoid salt in dyeing via the cationization process, which can reduce the total dissolved solids by 70 percent. Dyes and functionalizing chemicals are found to cause harm and hence detoxifying them using sustainable methods are important. 

Metal oxides like titanium dioxide can neutralize toxic dyes such as Rhodamine B. A laboratory level work in the Nonwovens and Advanced Materials Laboratory at Texas Tech University has shown that activation of metal oxide can occur in the presence of sunlight, which can make the process more cost-effective and sustainable.

Moving Forward

Sustainability does not simply mean the use of greener materials and processes. It involves the adaptation of practices that reduce the cost of manufacturing, and involves a variety of strategies, which could include the use of renewable energy, enhancing the productivity of the workforce, emphasizing the importance of investments in R & D and others. The immediate need for the industry is in educating stakeholders about the mid- to long-term benefits of earth-friendly products and processes. Sustainable manufacturing will lead to job creation and provide more opportunities for growth in the manufacturing industry.

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar is a professor at the Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, and a frequent contributor to Textile Technology Source. 

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