In a Hong Kong laboratory, researchers are working with one of the world’s biggest cloth makers to improve its production process using a special ingredient: bacteria.
After decades of almost unbridled industrial growth that left China with a legacy of rampant pollution, shrinking aquifers and soaring water prices, the government is cracking down on big industrial users, and the textile industry is in the front line.
Cloth-making ranks third in China for the amount of waste water it discharges – three billion tons a year – after chemicals and paper, according to a 2015 report by New York-based non-profit group Natural Resources Defense Council, which has an office in Beijing.
TAL Apparel Ltd, which has factories in mainland China and South-East Asia, has teamed up with City University (of Hong Kong) to identify bacteria that can clean up more efficiently the vast quantities of waste water the textile industry produces.
It’s one of hundreds of efforts by China’s private and state-owned companies to fix a problem that could end up rewriting the playbook of the global fashion industry.
The price of ensuring a sustainable water supply in China is yet another expense for factories that are already being squeezed by higher land and labour costs.
In 2015, the government released its Water Ten Plan, ushering in stricter waste-water regulations. It sets out 10 general measures to control pollution discharge, promote technology and strengthen water management, with a 2020 deadline to meet its goals.
The stricter water rules are part of China’s actions to increase enforcement in environmental measures. Penalties for environmental violations by the country’s manufacturers rose 34% in 2015, from the previous year, according to China Water Risk, a Hong Kong-based non-profit organisation focusing on disclosing risks related to China’s water resources.
TAL, which opened its first factory in mainland China in 1994, had been buying bacteria from other labs to treat water used in washing cloth. Using bacteria instead of chemicals to digest organic compounds can cut the amount of waste sludge generated by as much as 80% and enables 100% of the water to be recycled in the plant.
During a production halt during the week-long Chinese New Year break last year, the bacteria in its system died, so TAL set up a research program that is using DNA sequencing to find a “superbacteria” that would be cheaper and more efficient, Lee said.
At the Hong Kong lab, scientists hope to develop their super bacteria within two years. If they succeed, TAL will share the results with other manufacturers, Lee said.
“Hopefully more factories will be willing to use it,” said Lee. – Bloomberg