Greenpeace – Dirty Laundry and toxic chemicals

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Following the publication of their investigative report entitled Dirty Laundry – Unravelling the corporate connections to toxic water pollution in China, which focuses on the problems of toxic water and high levels of industrial pollutants being released into two main rivers in China by the textile industry and highlights major brands with commercial ties to the region, Greenpeace have now published Dirty Laundry 2: Hung Out to Dry – Unravelling the toxic trail from pipes to products.

The initial report referred to two textile manufacturers in China that are believed to be responsible for the release of hazardous chemicals in the area, one of them is China’s biggest integrated textile firm.

Greenpeace subsequently made a link between these two companies and a wide range of major global brands and called on the brands and suppliers identified in the investigation to become champions for a toxic-free future – by eliminating all releases of hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and their products.

Following the report, leading brands announced their intention to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from their products and supply chain by 2020, with more information pending as to how they intend to deliver on their commitment.

Dirty Laundry 2 reports on the presence of specific toxic chemicals, nonylphenol ethoxylates which Greenpeace research suggests have been found in clothing and fabric-based shoes sold internationally by global brands.

A range of articles which had been manufactured and purchased from locations around the world were tested and a large percentage were found to contain nonylphenol ethoxylates.

Although the level of NPEs in individual articles may be small, the volume of clothing being sold and subsequently washed means that the total quantities being released may be susbstantial.

Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) are man-made chemicals often used as surfactants in the textile industry.  Where released untreated, they break down in rivers to form the persistent, toxic and hormone disrupting nonylphenol (NP), that builds up in the food chain and is hazardous even at very low levels.

Even where wastewater treatment facilities are present, they are unable to fully break down NPEs and often speed up their conversion into the toxic NP. (It should be noted that NPEs are used in leather production and it is only a matter of time before these are restricted further by brands.)

The global nature of clothing production and trade means that articles are being imported into countries, such as members of the EU, where the use of these chemicals has effectively been banned.

The European Directive 2003/53/EC (amending the Council Directive 76/769/EEC) relating to the use of NP and NPEO is now in force.  This applies within European communities to restrict the use of these compounds and has been in force since 2005.

The Directive states the following:

‘(Nonylphenol and Nonylphenol ethoxylate) May not be placed on the market or used as a substance or constituent of preparations in concentrations equal or higher than 0.1% by mass for the following purposes:

Textile and leather processing except;

  • Processing with no release to wastewater,
  • Systems with special treatment where the process water is pre-treated to remove the organic fraction completely prior to biological wastewater treatment (degreasing of sheepskins).’

Furthermore, NPEO are listed as priority chemicals on the OSPAR Convention target list for ending discharges, emissions and losses of all hazardous substances ( and are also listed as a REACH Annex XV dossier, which is the regulatory instrument for the authorities or member states to propose and justify the identification of substances of very high concern or a proposed restriction.

It is clear that there is no sustainable future for the use of these chemicals and alternatives must be sought. Fortunately for our industry, alternative cost effective surfactants are available based on ethoxylated alcohol or fatty alcohol chemistry as an example and some companies have already phased out NPEOs from their products for leather production.

Greenpeace is urging brands to work with their suppliers to eliminate the release of all hazardous chemicals from production processes and their products.

Click the following link to access the full Greenpeace reports:

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