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The High Price of T-shirts
If your collar has a “Made in India” tag, it probably comes from factories in the city of Tirupur, where pollution caused by clothing dyes is so bad that regulators are telling dyers to clean up or close down.

Dyed fabric hung to dry at Sathya Dyings, a factory in Tirupur, India.

 

Standing in a lab at his dyeing factory in Tirupur, India, V. Deivasigamani points at a form attached to a lavender swatch of fabric—an order from a clothing manufacturer based in the same city. His employees get to work mixing water, dyes, and salt to match the hue. Once the company approves the color, the dyers will duplicate the ratio of ingredients in giant, 1,440-gallon vats and boil the mixture for at least nine hours over a wood stove.

Men in short dhotis, checked shirts, and flip-flops run the machines, occasionally retreating to wash their hands in an outdoor sink. The colors drain out of the sink and over the scant grass around the factory, where the air is briny, reminiscent of the beach. Once the dyeing process is complete, the fabric is drained, placed in a machine that squeezes out the water, and finally air-dried under hutches.

Deivasigamani, dressed in a white shirt and dhoti, follows a trail of purple liquid streaming from the vats through a channel built into the ground to carry wastewater from the dyeing process. It flows to the backside of the factory, where the liquid, frothy in places, collects in a 10,000-square-foot cement tank the size of a Beverly Hills mansion.

A channel carrying wastewater, leading to the collection tank at the back of Sathya Dyeings.

Sathya Dyeings, like many other dyers in the city, dumps wastewater that has been only partially treated into the nearby Noyyal River—a practice that, according to outraged citizens living downstream, has not only fouled the Noyyal but has also made the groundwater undrinkable and nearby land too poisoned to farm. Now, however, a new government mandate could provide the relief the river desperately needs by requiring dyers to either clean up their act or close shop. Within the next couple months, the region’s factories are expected to entirely stop their toxic discharge by installing treatment plants that clean and reuse 100 percent of their wastewater instead of releasing it into the Noyyal. On the surface the plan is good, but building the plants is prohibitively expensive, and some dyers worry that what’s really headed down the drain is their business.

The collection tank at the back of Sathya Dyeings, where wastewater is held before it’s dumped into the Noyyal River.

The Tirupur cleanup effort mirrors similar situations across the developing world, where countries, states, and cities struggle to balance jobs and economic health with environmental protection. About one-fifth of Tirupur’s dyeing facilities have closed in the past five years, and Deivasigamani guesses that a quarter of those left could face the same fate in the near future. Considering that someone from almost every household in this city of approximately 350,000 works in an industry related to knitwear exports, each factory failure is an economic blow that ripples through the community.

“It’s very difficult for us. We have invested our lives, our souls, everything into these businesses,” Deivasigamani says, standing at the back of his factory. Off to his side, canopies of pink, aquamarine, and royal-purple fabric are drying under a plastic tent. “Until that time we can’t afford it, we will fight.”

Sathya Dyeings employees washing their hands in an outdoor sink in the factory’s backyard.

 

Textile manufacturing is a major industry in India. Of the nearly two billion shirts imported into the United States last year, roughly 30 percent came from India. Dyeing represents just one step in a chain of related businesses in Tirupur; others include spinning yarn, weaving cloth, and sewing clothes. About 80 percent of India’s knitwear exports are made in Tirupur, so the city is well deserving of the monikers “T-shirt city” and “textile valley.”

The city, located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, can also claim a more sullied distinction as one of India’s leading hazardous waste generators—primarily because of the dye industry. According to the state’s pollution watchdog, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, each year Tirupur generates more than 833,000 tons of hazardous waste, including bleaching powder, sulfonic dyes, and other chemicals. Much of that ends up in the Noyyal. The dumping of sewage and trash and indiscriminate sand mining also take a toll on the river.

Every day the region’s dyers, including Sathya, release millions of gallons of wastewater—largely untreated—directly into the Noyyal River, which drains into the Kaveri River and eventually into the Bay of Bengal. Decades worth of this discharge has contaminated 80,000 acres of cropland, from the rice paddies traditionally located along the Noyyal’s banks to the local banana and turmeric fields. Regional lore once said the river was so filled with dye, coconuts planted nearby would grow red. “The Noyyal has a long history, and now it’s been ruined,” says Vasundhradevi Rajagopalan, who grew up in Tirupur and has worked for years to help promote a cheaper plan to clean up the waste.

Polluted water at Kasipalayam, a low point of the Noyyal River.

A seasonal river that widens during the monsoon and narrows during drier parts of the year, the Noyyal is now essentially an open sewer. At Kasipalayam, where the river slows down and effluent accumulates, the water runs brown and smells unbearably of human waste. The banks are strewn with plastic bags, aluminum cans, and other garbage. Close inspection sometimes reveals a splash of unnatural green or purple from the upstream dye factories.

In 1989 the Tamil Nadu government restricted building of new units that discharged untreated waste within a half a mile of any river, though it didn’t address the many dyeing units that were already established there and that continued to pollute the water—not even when the restriction was extended to slightly more than three miles. Businessmen in Tirupur, which is often held out as an exemplar of how exports to Europe and the United States help the Indian economy prosper, ignored the cries from neighbors about toxic discharge.

Finally, in 1996, farmers near the Orathupalayam Dam, located about 19 miles downstream of Tirupur, filed suit against Tirupur’s dyers, citing damage to their land. The legal battle continued for years, and the knitwear industry, finally succumbing to the pressure, agreed to install primary effluent treatment plants. But even that wasn’t enough to solve the problem. Although the treatments made the wastewater colorless and odorless, what was left was still laden with other toxins, including the salts used to fix colors in the dyeing process and harmful chemicals in the dyes.

What’s more, many companies flouted the rules and stopped running the primary treatment facilities regularly. Business owners discovered it could be cheaper to bribe pollution-control officials than comply with the law. “The bribe just got built into the system,” says R. Karthigeyan, who manages contracts with dyers for a clothing exporter.

Polluted water at Kasipalayam, a low point of the Noyyal River.

 

Today just about every factory employs some primary method of cleaning its effluent, though it’s still not enough. In 2005 the Madras High Court, whose jurisdiction includes the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, ordered the dyeing and bleaching businesses to install secondary treatment plants that would ensure that zero waste would be discharged into the Noyyal. The court, stating it was troubled by the industry’s failure to follow existing pollution-control rules and despite the years of delay, ordered that the new cleanup units be completed by July 2007. Dyers and bleachers that hadn’t complied by then—even if they were in the process of building the required plants—were fined according to the daily volume of wastewater they discharged, and they would continue to be fined until construction was complete.

Most of Tirupur’s workers disagree with the decision to mandate the same rule for bleachers as dyers, since the bleaching process uses mainly chlorine, which is not nearly as hazardous as chemical dyes. Many of the bleachers have had to close shop or fold their operations into the dyers’ factories. So far about 75 Tirupur companies have installed individual treatment plants that produce zero discharge. The city’s remaining 440 dyers and bleachers decided to join together with other companies to share the costs of building larger treatment plants to handle all of their waste. These facilities take longer to build than individual plants, though several have been completed.

If the shared treatment plants succeed the way the individual ones have, all of the Tirupur dye businesses will be certified as having no toxic discharge. While stopping discharge into the Noyyal is good news, it will still take at least 10 years for the river to cleanse itself, according to the pollution-control board.

 

Deivasigamani’s company is still using just a primary treatment method for its wastewater that’s like the ones many of the dyers installed in the late 1990s. Although the process is better than nothing, its treated waste is still contaminated far above legal levels. Once the used solution is collected, it is pumped into a mixing tank, where lime and other chemicals are added to balance the acidity and weigh down the heavy dye particles as the waste winds through a zigzagging channel. After additional chemicals are added, the remaining liquid is colorless and odorless, though it is still full of toxins.

Ninety percent of that wastewater ends up in the Noyyal, which is located about 2,000 feet north of the factory, and though the effluent is treated with lime, solvent levels in the water are still high higher than those allowed by the state. The effluent and lime mixture creates a thick sludge that workers lay on a solar bed until the liquid evaporates. The remaining dried mix is left to fester in a 10-foot-tall pile in the factory’s backyard, next to a cornfield. While lime by itself is not hazardous, of course, the dried lime mixture still contains toxins that could leach into the ground and further pollute groundwater.

Although Sathya Dyeings has built the required secondary treatment plant, it’s not approved to operate yet. Deivasigamani and the other 24 dying factories that paid for the plant together are awaiting approval from the state pollution control board to run the system and an inspection to see whether it will work according to standards. They are also anticipating a Supreme Court decision that will cancel fines levied against the companies during construction. If the system works, regulators believe, the fine will not be levied.

Secondary treatment plants operate by reverse osmosis—a method that’s already used in a much smaller scale in many homes in Tamil Nadu. For the dyers, the process begins with the untreated wastewater being pumped to a common plant that, in Deivasigamani’s case, is a little more than a mile away. There it passes through a membrane that acts like an extremely fine filter and removes the solutes. The process allows the dye factories to reuse their materials, with 95 percent of the effluent returning to the units and the remaining 5 percent crystallized into salts that can be recycled into the dyeing process. If Deivasigamani’s plant works, it could save him money in the long term by eliminating the need to purchase water from the Bhawani River, some 60 miles from Tirupur, to mix with his dyes.

But Sathya Dyeings also expects production costs to rise 15 percent with the installation of its plant. In 2005 the cost to factories of building treatment plants was conservatively estimated at about $10 million; that number has now risen to more than $30 million, says Deivasigamani’s son, Jay Deivasigamani, who also works at Sathya Dyeings. “As a responsible citizen, I support the initiative,” he says. “But we have serious concerns about its economic viability. It is a huge investment compared to the size of our industry.”

More than 100 factories have already been closed because of a failure to install or begin installing a treatment plant, according to Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board statistics. (The board did not specify whether the companies were bleaching or dying units.) Pollution officials say that they’re not concerned by the Tirupur plants’ closures, noting that they shouldn’t be doing business if they can’t meet the zero-discharge standard. The dyers are asking for at least a 50 percent subsidy from the government or some other price break.

Even as construction costs for the treatment plants rise, however, dyers say they can’t increase the amount they charge for their exports. Currently, Tirupur’s total exports, including those from dyers, knitters, and sewers, are worth about $1 billion a year. “The competition for U.S. clients is already squeezing manufacturers,” says Karthigeyan of Asia Pacific International. “Adding the cost of treatment plants can be problematic for the dyers. Most of the smaller ones shut their shops.” The plants are already facing increased competition from companies in Bangladesh and China.

Jay Deivasigamani is well aware of the quandary the dyers face. “My grandfather is a farmer,” he says. “We have our own farmers who have been disturbed by this problem. We understand our local obligations, and we’re happy to comply. But we want to be recognized for our efforts. We want some credit from a commercial aspect.” He notes that area companies have nearly eliminated child labor from their businesses. Environmental improvements have been made as well. Recent Turkish visitors, for example, were impressed that Sathya Dyeings air-dries its cloth instead of using a high-energy dryer.

Indeed, in Turkey, which is considered the most developed of the leading textile-producing countries, not all companies have wastewater units. Some of the treated wastewater doesn’t meet government standards, at times because of lax oversight. “I have seen a dyeing factory in the middle of Istanbul still discharging their raw textile effluent into the sewage,” Jay Deivasigamani says. “In China, the largest textiles exporter, it is no better. These countries do not even do the primary treatment of effluent that we have been doing for more than 15 years. But that doesn’t help us when we talk business with our buyers in the U.S. and Europe,” he says. Tirupur dyers sell their clothing to major retailers around the world, including Walmart, Diesel, and Tommy Hilfiger, but battles like Deivasigamani’s are invisible to most of them.

“Maybe we could be marketed in a way that shows we are more ecologically friendly,” says Jay Deivasigamani. But the government hasn’t planned any such marketing campaign. Besides, local dyers are missing one crucial element of green-friendly fashion—organic cotton.

It’s hard to determine how much the cleanup efforts might cause a drop in exports because the economic recession sweeping the West has started taking its toll on the knitwear industry in Tirupur. Thousands of workers are expected to lose their jobs during the downturn because of the sharp reduction in export demand. “If exporters make 65 percent of last year’s business, then they’re lucky in Tirupur,” Karthigeyan says.

Dyed fabric air-drying at Sathya Dyeings.

 

At the end of the day, Deivasigamani leaves the factory and walks to his house next door, built on land that has been in his family for generations. His wife has prepared sweet milky tea. Sitting on his couch, he says he’s confident that the new treatment facility will soon get approval from the court. “If it works, then it is a big achievement. We want it to be cleaner. We know we are doing good, but it is a challenge.”

Three months later he still hasn’t received the green light to run the new treatment plant. The court was also supposed to decide in December whether to waive fines incurred by dyers like Deivasigamani, but the decision has been delayed for months. The pollution regulators, it seems, are stalled by the same inefficiency they were plagued with 10 years ago. For now Deivasigamani can do little but wait, perplexed, for answers.

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