Waterless dyeing garners mixed industry reaction
The technology replaces water in the dyeing process with recyclable CO2
Pressure from environmental groups to reduce the vast volumes of water used in textile and garment dyeing has led to a number of developments in waterless dyeing technology. With Nike and Adidas among the first to adopt this new process, Michelle Russell asks whether waterless dyeing is the solution the textile industry has been waiting for?
Bangkok-based knit fabric and sportswear maker The Yeh Group is thought to have been the first to launch a range of fabrics using a waterless dyeing process over three years ago. The technology replaces water with recyclable CO2, thereby reducing energy use and eliminating the need for added chemicals.
According to Jay Bolus, VP of technical operations for McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), it works by putting carbon dioxide under extreme pressure of 1,100lb per square inch, turning the CO2 supercritical. This means it has the properties of both a liquid and a gas.
The technology is understood to have been around for some time before the launches by Adidas and Nike, but problems relating to suitable dye-stuffs, large levels of energy consumption and dyeing efficiencies had reportedly hampered progress.
The benefits of the new process, however, are becoming apparent. Once the CO2 cools and returns to its gaseous state, 95% of it can be recycled. The technology also produces up to 50-75% less carbon dioxide emissions, no additional additives are required, and clothes dry quicker. And, of course, no water is used in the process and there is almost zero waste.
Waterless dyeing could also lead to a smaller carbon footprint. According to Adidas, it takes one Mediterranean Sea every two years to colour the world's clothing.
For polyester in particular, which is the material the technology is limited to at the present time, the fabric requires 100-150 litres of water per kilogram to saturate with colour. For Nike, its contracted textile plants consume around 3bn gallons of water per year to process polyester and cotton for its products, and Nike itself uses 325m gallons more.
No wonder then that two of the largest global sportswear firms are keen to implement this technology into their manufacturing systems in order to save water, energy and head-off climate change.
Staying ahead of the game in terms of innovation has also become crucial for companies of this size, but pressure from environmental groups such as Greenpeace to eliminate the discharge of hazardous chemicals from supply chains has also become a priority.
Adidas was the first brand to introduce DryDye in 2012, with a limited collection of 50,000 T-shirts, and has since steadily rolled it out across ranges and product categories.
In June last year, the German sporting goods brand said it used more than 1m yards of DryDye fabric, produced by the Yeh Group in Thailand, using a waterless dyeing process.
A spokesperson for Adidas tells just-style: "DryDye is a radical innovation because it employs an entirely different medium (compressed CO2) to transfer colour. This process has multiple benefits: not only does it transfer colour into the material more efficiently than water (using 50% less chemicals and 50% less energy), but also automatically results in the recycling of the transfer medium (the CO2) itself."
Nike, which it says has been exploring this technology for the past eight years, teamed up with Dutch start-up DyeCoo Textile Systems in 2012 and last month announced plans to launch sportswear early this year made using the ColorDry process.
The fabric is being produced in a new water-free dyehouse that opened in Taiwan in December, set up with Taiwanese contract manufacturer Far Eastern New Century Corp (FENC).
The facility is understood to be one of three, the other two located in Thailand, Although the number has not been confirmed.
Innovators on board
Behind this technology, however, is another firm: Huntsman Textile Effects. The textile solutions firm partnered with DyeCoo Textile Systems in October 2012 to develop and grow the technology.
Ian Burnell, technology alliances director for Huntsman, is keen to highlight the benefits of the process. He describes it as a revolution, with no system like it on the market to date.
"It is bringing developments to the textile industry which have not happened for quite some time, and is delivering on the environmental impacts," he tells just-style. "The use of supercritical carbon dioxide is about 95% recycled, so there is very little which isn't reused.
"From an innovation point of view, for ourselves, it's an exciting opportunity to work on new chemistry, which is focused at the moment around polyester, but then working towards polyamide and cotton."
From Huntsman's perspective, however, the technology is new, it is growing and there is commercial brand awareness.
"There is more than one brand interested in the technology, so the main driving force going forward will be the number of machines that are in operation to deliver the technology," says Burnell.
A question of investment
The costs involved in adopting one of these machines, however, is a crucial detail that has so far been left unanswered. For all the hype behind the new technology and its environmental benefits, the cost to manufacturers of setting up such new technology appears to be unknown.
According to Burnell, from a processing point of view, the machines are "cost neutral" once the initial investment is made.
Yet, Malcolm Ball, technical chairman of the Association of Suppliers to the British Clothing Industry (ASBCI), suggests the use of a gas instead of water to dye clothes makes the capital cost higher in comparison.
Ball says he first looked into the technology in the mid 90s with a view to applying it to the dyeing of sewing threads. He adds: "At that time the economics were not proven, the machinery was prohibitively expensive and although it was a good process, sewing thread was not the best product to use it.
"I believe the technology being used by Adidas and Nike is exactly the same technology but optimised and value engineered for use with fabric, so costs are presumably now competitive."
The lack of detailed information on this new technology, including costs, appears to be a sticking point for many industry observers. This in turn, has led some to question Adidas and Nike's reasons for taking it on.
Andrew Filarowski, technical director for the Society of Dyers and Colourists (SDC), says he is cynical about why the two sportswear giants are involved.
"The lack of information. That's what frustrates me. It is fantastic [technology] but the questions have not been answered on the cost of the machinery. Questions that, if you were going to set up a new dye house, you'd want to know about. They've also never explained what percentage of production within the company in Thailand is given up to that type of dyeing."
Filarowski also questions the commercial viability of replacing a large proportion of the industry's traditional water dyeing machines with supercritical CO2 machines.
"Textile companies are well-known for not wanting to invest large amounts of money. They are also not daft. They have to make money. You have to put everything into the context of the whole textile industry. Two machines sitting with a company in Thailand ... I can't comment on how much they produce ... but in terms of the total volume and total value of fabric produced worldwide, it's a tiny, tiny percentage."
Filarowski's concerns also stretch to lack of information on safety, production rates, maintenance costs and the amount of pressure used in the machinery, which he says is "unbelievably high". He adds: "You are literally sitting on a bomb."
"For me, if I'm going to be a real cynic about this, it's a really nice marketing exercise for both Nike and Adidas."
While he is somewhat optimistic that other firms may in time follow the lead of Nike and Adidas in the take-up of the waterless dyeing process, he remains adamant there are "inherent problems" in the system.
"It is such a massive mind-change for the industry that I think it will struggle with it. There is still a lot of development to be had before it becomes commercially viable for more people."
Indeed, waterless dyeing certainly appears to make perfect environmental and economic sense. But while the technology is seen as the ideal solution to the sustainability issues associated with traditional dyeing methods, there are still many questions left unanswered.
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