Home Science Environment Clothing, Furniture Also Contribute to Ocean and Freshwater Pollution

Clothing, Furniture Also Contribute to Ocean and Freshwater Pollution

Think summer holidays and you’ll likely call up images of a beautiful beach or a glittering blue lake. But more and more lakes, rivers, and coastal areas are plagued by an oversupply of nutrients that cause algae to grow at an explosive rate, which can eventually lead to water bodies that can’t support aquatic life.

Scientists call this type of water pollution eutrophication, and it is an enormous problem worldwide. There are more than 400 marine “dead zones” caused by over-fertilization, covering an estimated 245,000 km², which is an area six times the size of Switzerland. In some water bodies, eutrophication causes huge fish kills and toxic blue-green algae blooms, which affects food supply, biodiversity, and your favorite swimming spot.

Governments around the globe have battled eutrophication by working with farmers to control nutrient-laden runoff from fields and feedlots. But there’s more to the picture, a new study published in Nature Sustainability shows. Using a detailed modeling tool called MRIO, a team of researchers identified important, but often overlooked, sources of water pollution: namely clothing and other manufactured products and services.

When they did their analysis, the team found that the overall demand for non-food products in 2011 accounted for more than one-third of the nutrients causing eutrophication in both marine and freshwater systems worldwide. This was a 28 percent increase compared to 2000. Helen Hamilton, a postdoc at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme and first author of the paper, said:

Wealthier world, more pollution

Agriculture will most likely always be the most important cause of eutrophication, the researchers said. But as countries develop and people become richer, the amount of money that is spent on food relative to the total GDP decreases. With increased wealth, people have the opportunity to spend their extra cash on products that can also depend on agriculture in their supply chains, such as textiles, clothing, and furniture.

A second challenge with goods and services is that they can often have long, complex supply chains across a number of countries before reaching the consumer, Hamilton said, adding:

All those reasons make it even more important to know how much goods and services contribute to eutrophication worldwide, Hamilton said, explaining:

Nitrogen and phosphorus most important

Fertilizer typically contains a mix of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, all of which are vital to plant growth. But when excess fertilizer reaches water bodies, it’s mainly the nitrogen and phosphorus that matter in feeding algal blooms. The production of non-food goods, such as clothing, can involve the release of nutrients directly, as when a farmer grows cotton or linen for the fabric to make the clothing.

There are also more indirect sources, such as when electricity or another energy source is used to power the factories where the clothing is made. That can release NOx (oxides of nitrogen) as air pollution that then can be absorbed by the oceans and add to the nutrient load. Knowing the importance of these nutrients and how they can be released in any number of different steps during production gives researchers the ability to nail down when and in which stage of production the pollution occurs.

Eutrophication footprints

By looking at how much nitrogen and phosphorous are released along the entire global supply chain for the product, they can then figure out how much the production of different goods and services contributes to eutrophication. Using their MRIO (which stands for multi-region input output) method, the researchers calculate country-specific “eutrophication footprints,” which are simply the sum of all the pollution that occurs worldwide due to a country’s consumption.

This includes both the pollution that occurs within the country’s own borders and the pollution that is generated in other parts of the world due to the production of imported goods. A good example of this is the EU. Hamilton says:

A phenomenon that researchers call displacement.

The researchers found that the EU drives the largest global non-food eutrophication displacements, to the Asia-Pacific region for marine eutrophication and to Africa for freshwater eutrophication.

U.S., China play a major role in overall eutrophication

Not surprisingly, the U.S. and China have some of the biggest eutrophication footprints, the researchers found — although most of this pollution occurs within their own borders due to the high consumption of domestic goods, both food and non-food. China had the largest non-food eutrophication footprint for marine ecosystems.

The country’s total marine eutrophication footprint was 8.6 metric tons of nitrogen equivalents, with fully 3 metric tonnes of this attributable to the consumption of both imported and domestically produced non-food goods. Hamilton said:

The researchers also found a similar trend with China’s food marine eutrophication footprint, which increased by over 25 percent from 2000, peaking at 5.4 metric tonnes of nitrogen equivalents in 2011 for marine eutrophication. That’s the highest country-level food footprint. Hamilton said:

However, when considering total eutrophication, or the sum of both food- and non-food related eutrophication, the U.S. takes the lead. In 2011, the U.S. was the largest overall country-level contributor for both marine and freshwater eutrophication. This is nearly triple its 2000 values, which highlights how much U.S. consumption is growing over time. More than one-third of eutrophication is due to clothing and other products.

When they looked at the big picture, the researchers found that clothing, goods for shelter, services, and other manufactured products accounted for 35 percent of global marine eutrophication and 38 percent of the global freshwater eutrophication footprints in 2011, up from 31 and 33 percent, respectively, in 2000.

In the end, from a production standpoint, agriculture is the most important contributor to the problem, accounting for 84 percent of the total footprints for both marine and freshwater eutrophication. But the researchers pointed out that approximately one-quarter of these agricultural impacts in 2011 were due to non-food consumption.

Another important aspect about non-food consumption is that, compared to food, it is also significantly more sensitive to changes in wealth and is more likely to be traded across borders. Hamilton explained:

Wealthy countries can drive improvements in developing countries

As economies develop, this points to the need for trade agreements and policies to consider the displacement of ecosystem impacts, the researchers said. And while the EU has developed frameworks and strategies for tackling eutrophication within Europe, for example, there aren’t many policies that integrate international supply chains for addressing eutrophication abroad.

It also provides consumers in wealthier countries a way to drive improved environmental policies in developing countries, the researchers said, since wealthy regions can more easily afford the resources needed to support the implementation of these policies in developing countries.

Provided by: EurekAlert! [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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