Did you know that most of the dyes used in the textile industry are petro-chemical based? These complex chemical formulations contain toxic materials like lead, benzene and formaldehyde, not to mention other harmful substances in the form of salts, defoamers and fixatives. Extensive use of such synthetic dyes is not only detrimental to human health, it is also extremely polluting when it finds its way into our natural resources like water and soil.
While you may seek to make your clothing sustainably, choosing socially responsible manufacture and sustainable fibres, it’s important not to overlook the ecological impact of the dyes used. And this is certainly not a matter to be taken lightly. The paper “Dyeing for a change” by Better Thinking Ltd discusses how only 80% of the used dye is retained by the fabric in a 200 gram T-shirt. The remaining 20% is discharged into water. The bad news is that this water is seldom treated to remove these toxic salts before it enters our drinking water system – yikes! The effluents from these dyeing operations make their way into our freshwater resources and pollute them beyond repair. For a more in-depth look at the damaging effects of dyeing, take a look at this pdf from Better Thinking.
The solution to the problem: Bio-Textile Pigments
Natural plant and animal-based pigments like indigo were the only alternatives to chemical dyes until recently. However, there are many limitations to using these natural pigments on a large-scale. This includes the extensive time required to grow the crops, lack of space to cultivate them and tedious extraction processes. Then there’s consistency – natural dye colours are extremely difficult to replicate from batch to batch (part of their charm in my view!), but this makes it virtually impossible for large-scale manufacturers who want a consistent quality of dye. Lucky for us, a group of young scientist-entrepreneurs have turned to biotechnology for a solution!
PILI, the brainchild of Thomas Landrain, is a start-up that has created an interesting and environmentally-friendly alternative to chemical dyes. The team, formed of seven young scientists, have successfully managed to create dyeing pigments from bio-solutions. These bio-solutions contain microorganisms, like specific types of bacteria, that produce various dye colours under different laboratory conditions. PILI discovered that the dye colours produced by the microbes can be varied by changing the environmental conditions like pH, temperature and feed.
After extracting blue non-toxic bio-ink using this setup, the team was able to use it successfully on an ink-jet printer. This promising outcome has encouraged PILI to expand its research to applications in other industries like paint, cosmetics and textiles. Although this project is currently in its early stages, PILI expects to produce renewable living colours from nature that will be a practical alternative to synthetic dyes.
Another innovative pigment duo are Blond & Beiber. Their pigment comes from the algae found in ponds! They grow algae in glass vessels, blowing into them to provide the necessary carbon dioxide for the cells to photosynthesise and grow, then they extract the pigment and make a print paste. It’s not just green (the colour) either, different algae create different tones – even red, brown and yellow. They call it Algaemy! Find out more on this article by Dezeen.
Apparently some scientists from the University of California, Berkeley have also been tinkering with microbes. They have bioengineered Escherichia coli to make more sustainable indigo for jeans. Incredible!