Non-food products overlooked as water pollution sources: Study

London: Besides industrial waste, rising demand for non-food products like textiles, clothing and furniture are often the overlooked sources of water pollution, says a study.

The researchers said that the overall demand for non-food products like clothing in 2011 accounted for more than one third of the nutrients causing pollution in both marine and freshwater systems worldwide.

Compared with 2000, there was a 28 per cent increase in eutrophication — the situation where water bodies are plagued by an oversupply of nutrients that causes algae to grow at an explosive rate, exhausting its ability to support aquatic life.

It is because production of non-food goods involves the release of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium directly, as when a farmer grows cotton or linen for the fabric to make the clothing.

“Normally, we think of food production as the culprit behind eutrophication. However, if we’re trying to fully understand and control eutrophication, ignoring the contributions from other consumer products such as clothing and furniture means that we’re only addressing a part of cause of pollution,” said lead author Helen Hamilton from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

For the study, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, the team used a detailed modeling tool called MRIO to identify important, but often overlooked sources of water pollution, namely clothing, and other manufactured products and services.

They found that the European Union (EU) drives the largest global non-food eutrophication displacements, to the Asia-Pacific region for marine eutrophication and to Africa for freshwater eutrophication.

Further, the US and China have some of the biggest eutrophication footprints, although most of this pollution occurs within their own borders due to the high consumption of domestic goods, both food and non-food.

“Countries responsible for the largest footprints could set consumption-based targets, such as a 40 per cent reduction in the EU’s global eutrophication footprint,” Hamilton said.

“That could help increase the transfer of technology or skills, such as improving fertilizer efficiencies or animal waste management, in producing countries,” she added.