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Chlorine has to disappear from drinking water. Why it matters for the fashion industry?

How chemicals are managed by suppliers makes the difference in an item’s sustainability level. Reporting Water Team and ZDHC to understand some good practices

Lampoon reporting: chlorine properties in purifying water

In the Nineties, chlorine seemed to be the solution to the drinking water problem that governments had been trying to solve for centuries. Chlorine is a halogen, it has the property to disinfect the elements in which it is solved, by killing, through oxidation, the organic molecules of some disease-causing pathogens (such as cholera, typhoid fever, or dysentery, etc). Chlorine properties were known since the end of the Nineteenth century, but it took time to find a way to use it to purify drinking water. In the meantime, they have developed other purifiers based on chlorine that were then revealed to be highly harmful. An example is DDT, which in Italy had been imported by Americans after World War II. In the decay provoked by war, malaria and lice had exploded, but solutions were lacking. The use of DDT helped to eradicate the problem, and the chemist that developed it won a Nobel prize in 1948 for Medicine. It took almost thirty years to understand that DDT was carcinogenic: the United States banned it in 1972, and Italy in 1978. The next solution was chlorine gas. In 1998 the European Commission issued a directive in which it appeared as the best substance to purify drinking water.

It took twenty years to revise the 1998 directive. Twenty years during which it has emerged that even chlorine can be carcinogenic: it has to be present under a certain level, or salification processes can lead to the formation of chlorate and chlorine over time, which are toxic for humans. The revised directive was issued in December 2020 and European member states have until January 2026 to lower the amount of chlorate and chlorine that can be present in drinking water and water in use for food treatment. It implies that it has to use less chlorine, or not at all, to reach those standards. «The point is that to be considered drinkable, water must not carry bacteria» states Claudio Busignani, founder of Water Team. «In the Nineties it was said that chlorine was the right sanitizer. Then unwanted leavings emerged in the continuous disinfection processes. To find another chemical sanitizer won’t solve the problem, because in years we will be in the same situation»

Finding alternatives to substances with by-products

In the last thirty years, a distinction has been put in place in the chemical industry between substances that can have by-products and others without. «The challenge is to find alternatives to substances with by-products, while for the ones that can’t be replaced, to find a way to dispose them without harming people and the environment» explains Busignani. «In the second case, once the chemical reaction has finished, a way to destroy, or burn, modify or depurate in some way the harmful by-products has to be found. These processes must take place in an isolated environment». In the case of chlorine, it took thirty years to understand the effects of its by-products because they form in time. In the beginning, there’s a certain amount of chlorine in drinking water, where chlorine has started a chemical reaction to kill harmful bacteria, and the polluting particle can be minimum. The problems start when, for example, a food or a surface is treated multiple times with chlorinated water: the little amount of by-products already in the water reacts with new chlorine, and in the end pollution forms.

The race to research, to find a way to nullify chlorine leavings, has started years ago at Water Team. «One of the principles of our innovation guidelines is to use water as a safe means to transport disinfectant, besides getting to use water itself as a safe washing fluid, and find a very long-term solution for drinking water». In 2017 the enterprise participated in a competition to become the water purification provider of a well-known frozen foods brand, an industry that is touched by water purification directives since these are in an early stage. Water Team won the competition thanks to a proposal of using ozone in a way that differed from the standard. «Our goal was to ring stages that will carry out the water purification process without creating unwanted by-products that are not there in the beginning» says Busignani. «Ozone is a catalyst that helps to make flourish a kind of positive bacteria, given the right conditions in terms of oxygen and air, which are trained to eat unwanted leavings in water, such as ammonia or iron». Ammonia is a kind of substance found in water for which chlorine can be the solution, but it could be eliminated in another way, with bacteria, which is an enzymatic way. Bacteria are put in a biological filter that works with air and oxygen to activate them. 

Chemical research laboratory, inside the company. Testing chemicals

Using filters to eliminate ammonia in the water

The use of this kind of filter is not a novelty per se: there are Italian cities that have been using this technology for years, for their city water purifiers. What Water Team adds to that technology is to speed the process, reducing the timing, and then the plant volume. «We developed a way to take advantage of the catalyst power of ozone to ‘direct’ water. It is a kinetic process, not purely chemical: ozone works as a catalyst for the oxygen in the water, helping to line it up, and when water is more ‘ordered’ it has a stronger memory. Ordering water, giving it memory of the processes that happened in that moment, makes it possible to fasten the process. What bacteria otherwise would do in ten minutes, they do it in one, thanks to the memory that they acquired, for which they already know what to do». The reduction of plant volume is a consequence that brings benefits to the enterprise that needs that plant, and to the environment. «Sustainability is true when it has a true gain for all the parts in the long-term, not only in terms of cost, but most of all in terms of life quality that you are leaving to future generations» states Busignani.

In the fashion industry, the problem of chlorine and its solutions appears related to the discharging of the water in use for the dying processes, and then to other processes within the industry that requires the use of water. What kind of substances are used in the dyes, degradable or not, matters for the health of those who will wear the final garments and for the environment that will receive the discharged water. Regarding other processes, «as Water Team, we provide some fashion enterprises for their boilers treatment and for their steam generators. In these cases, we have to consider that steam can get in contact with fabrics or transport substances in the air, and it is important that the fabrics’ substances don’t react to the water or that workers don’t inhale harmful by-products».

Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals

For the control over wastewaters, since 2014 there is a foundation that has as objective the pursuing of the use of chemistry, within the fashion industry, according to standards that proved to avoid harm to the environment. ZDHC was conceived in 2011 by some brands that came together with the mission to implement practices of chemical management of harmful substances that could become a reference standard between them. The acronym stands for Zero Discharge Hazardous Chemicals, and by 2021 has managed to make its Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL) a non plus ultra for the whole fashion industry. In their second Impact Report (2020), executive director Frank Michel explains that «sustainable chemical management stands at the core of environmental performance indicators such as water quality, air and GHG emissions, energy and water pollution. ZDHC enables the global fashion and footwear industry to improve its environmental impact by implementing sustainable chemical management systems within their supply chains». From 2014 to 2021 ZDHC has become a community of over 160 contributors, shifting the industry’s mindset from a focus on testing the final product, to managing input chemistry. A company can register on the ZDHC Gateway online their chemicals and wastewater modules, enhancing transparency and traceability towards clients. The Gateway has become a database of safer chemistry upon which can rely brands or providers that want to change, or establish, their path towards practices that can benefit the environment.

When talking about sustainability, final consumers tend to think about practices put in place by the brand they are shopping at, narrowing their ideas of practices that don’t harm the environment to price tags’ or a garments’ material. That is the tip of an iceberg whose base is formed by the way a garment has been put together, and before, with what dyes have been treated the yarn or the fabrics, and with what water. The chemical research, carried on by water purification companies, is one cobblestone that founds the path towards sustainability. Not every consumer can see that, or get to understand how it works, but brands and providers can rely on tools made for them to guarantee to their clients the benefits of the practices that take place in their supply chain.

Water Team 

Water Team is a purification company founded in Cesena in 1986. Its mission is to help industries to find the best and safest way to treat and discharge wastewaters.

ZDHC ZDHC

A non-governmental environmental organization established to encourage the textiles and leather industries to achieve minimal discharge of hazardous chemicals into wastewater.

Sofia Busignani

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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