United Colors of Circularity

Responsible manufacturing is considered as the key to transit towards a circular economy. But to what extent would the manufacturers go for producing their products to be labelled as “responsible”? We often say that nature inspires us, but what possible thought would inspire the manufactures? This article dives into knowing about the importance ‘colour’ plays for making an economy go circular, with respect to textile and plastic industries.


The “Doughnut”: The green ring represents a sweet-spot where our socio-economic systems should be placed, such that they respect (external) planetary boundaries, and fulfil (internal) societal needs.

Colours in the Textile Industry

Textile industries have had large environmental impacts due to the dying and decolourization processes involved. The entire process involves a lot of chemical, energy and a huge amount of water being discharged. It is always preferred to have as many neutral coloured shades of fabric for recycling, such as white and off-white, to avoid the process of bleaching and dying all over again. Generally, the level of water consumed and produced varies between 0.08m3 - 0.15m3 to produce 1 kg of cloth. About 1000-3000m3 water is discharged after the processing of 12 to 20 tons of textiles every day.


For this very purpose, we need to understand the ways we can dye and decolour textiles without harming the environment at all. Colorifix, based in the United Kingdom has developed the first entirely biological process of dyeing – starting from selecting the pigmentation by finding colour in its natural context, with DNA sequence creating a gene of the desired shades and by inserting the gene into a microorganism, thereafter growing colours. Chris Hunter, the COO mentions that they grew from 4 to 30 colours which is a significant milestone to have been achieved in a year.


“There is no better example of a zero waste, closed-loop system than nature. After all Mother Nature has had over 3 billion years of evolutionary awesomeness over humanity”. - Jon Wright

Further research by VTT and AALTO universities have revealed that dyeing and decolourization strongly affect the reuse of fabrics. It is important to know about the process a particular textile has undergone especially during re-dyeing. Switching over to re-usable dyes is advantageous in case, the fabric has to be bleached and re-dyed. Thus, to avoid letting textiles reach the incinerators, it is important to take into account the way the cloth has been manufactured and dyed – this way the textile industry is transitioning towards CE from the first stage itself. After all, every step towards modifying the colours during regeneration processes need to be planned very strategically.


A research was conducted on the recycling of coloured cellulose-based textile using the Loncell-F process. This process involves producing man-made cellulosic textile fibres, however, the research discusses that the numerous varieties of dyes and dyeing methods do pose challenges on the colour conversions through this process. Colour translation to the fibre of the second generation have led to successful experiments and along with dyes designed for remanufacturing the development of this entire process will be more efficient. This development of having accurate colour translation could be a great tool for dyeing professionals that would help them achieve colour demand in the market.


Colours in the Plastic Industry

The circular economy for plastics focuses on the target that plastics should never be seen as waste in the environment. Many top companies such as Unilever, are adopting approaches to make their products and packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable. the companies that represent 20% of the global packaging want their customers to use products that generate less plastic waste by keeping plastic in the circular loop for as long as possible.


A new challenge for the brand owners committing to using post-consumer recyclates in their packaging goods is to achieve brilliant and appealing colours. Clariant pigments are working towards these challenges by introducing colour matching with recycled resins or setting up a range of pigments that can stand various recycling loops without being damaged for safer usage and the environment. The most important aspect is to ensure that the bottles used for water and other food storage purposes do not start mixing with the consumables inside.


Conventional recycling starts with an efficient way of collecting and sorting plastics. Better technological and innovative solutions are required to make the collection of plastics viable. Unilever is developing a tech-based solution in Indonesia that will enable the urban communities to find the nearest waste deposit banks through ‘Google My Business platform. Further, recycling in plastics is carried out based on two types of recycling technologies:

Conclusion

Developments in the field of colourants have a huge potential to advance a closed-loop for plastic and textile industries. As there is a key focus on re-use and recycling, the colour will not pose a challenge to the technologies, to the efficient and viable recovery of plastic waste, and creation of high-quality PCR, rather work in harmony towards the goal of achieving an economy that is circular.


Consumers are becoming more environmentally conscious and have started to understand the ill-effects of the textile industry. However, it is up to the brand managers to produce fabric with colours demanded by the public along with preserving the quality of the textile. In a similar way, the technical and safety standards of recycled plastic also should be the same as virgin plastic – higher and safer standard for food packaging.


It’s a technical challenge, but along with different local regulations on collection, sorting and recycling, determination of the brand managers and, people’s interests and participation this development seems to go in the right direction of being circular.


Nehmat Singh (LinkedIn) is a geographer and urbanist with an interest in areas in an urban environment, ecosystem services and sustainability. She pursued her master's in urban management and development from IHS, Erasmus University Rotterdam. Along with being an urban enthusiast, she is constantly trying to improve her baking skills.


References


Bioplastics Magazine. 2019. Colouring the “Circular Economy”.


Hassan, M.A. and Nemr, A.E. 2017. Health and Environmental Impacts of Dyes: Mini Review


Niinimäki, K., Smirnova, E., Ilén, E., Sixta, H., & Hummel, M. 2016. Colours in a Circular Economy. EUTrash2Cash.


Unilever. Rethinking plastic packaging.


VTT. 2020. VTT and Aalto University: information on dyeing methods promotes the circular economy of textiles


Wright, J. 2020. Rethinking Circular Economy in Colour – An Interview with Colorifix.

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