In October-November this year, pollution levels in Delhi-NCR reached alarming proportions with stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana being one of the prime reasons for the hazardous haze that hung around the region for weeks. The textiles industry has a solution.

For one week the air pollution levels in Delhi and the NCR (National Capital Region) shot through the roof, forcing authorities to declare a public health emergency. Schools and colleges remained closed as Delhi-NCR choked under the dense fumes puffing in from neighbouring Punjab and Haryana. The capital region had its sources of pollution (from vehicular emissions to pollution caused by power plants), but the stubble burning in the two Northern states came as the last straw.

A satellite picture showing the extent and intensity of the smog hovering over Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) on November 4. Air pollution has reached hazardous levels in some areas.  Pic: Nasa Earth Observatory 

Even though, at its peak, stubble burning accounted for only 35 per cent share of the hazardous haze, it were the farmers of the two states who became the villains of the entire piece. Social media went into a tizzy and furiously-contested television debates kept flogging a dead horse-something that they had done last year as well. As also in the previous years. Worse, there had been early warnings in September itself about farm fires being recorded in the two states.

During a crisis it is easy to play the blame game. The point, however, is that the problem has existed for a while now, and nothing has been done about it. The same set of solutions (particularly those related to stubble burning) that were thrown around last year were discussed this year as well. All direct stakeholders have a role to play, but then also do some others who apparently do not come across as stakeholders. The textiles industry, for instance. Yes, it can indeed play a role.

Take this emphatic statement: "Agricultural waste which is burned in fields across states around Delhi would be enough to replace over half of global cotton production by building bio-refineries and textile fibre production plants to make efficient use of biomass." The words come from the head of the Bio2X programme at Fortum India, Faizur Rehman.

Fortum Oyj is a Finnish state-owned energy company focusing on the Nordic and Baltic countries, Poland, Russia and India. It operates power plants, and sells waste services such as recycling, final disposal solutions and soil remediation and environmental constructions services.

Its Bio2X programme is part of bio-based solution wherein by using fractionation technology, efforts are made to transform biomass and agro-residues into multiple sustainable high-value end products.

Rehman's assertion might sound too good to be true, but before discussing the feasibility as well as the numbers, one should look at the problem first.

The Disaster of Waste

Spinnova and Fortum have gone beyond the proof of concept stage. They showcased the first clothing made from agricultural waste—wheat straw, in this case—at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Vancouver this October. Pic: Spinnova/Fortum

Harvesting of various crops generates a large volume of residues both on and off the farm. The Union ministry of new and renewable energy in 2014 estimated that about 500 million tonnes (MT) of crop residues were generated annually. The problem was acknowledged at the policy level in November 2014 leading to the formulation of the National Policy for Management of Crop Residues (NPMCR). According to it, "crop residues are primarily used as bedding material for animals, livestock feed, soil mulching, bio-gas generation, bio-manure / compost, thatching for rural homes, mushroom cultivation, biomass energy production, fuel for domestic and industrial use, etc.

"However, a large portion of crop residue is burnt 'on-farm' primarily to clean the field for sowing the next crop. The problem of 'on-farm' burning of crop residues is intensifying in recent years due to shortage of human labour, high cost of removing the crop residue from the field and mechanised harvesting of crops. As per available estimates, burning of crop residues is predominant in four states, namely, Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal."

On December 10, 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) reacted by banning crop residue burning in Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Burning crop residue is a crime under Section 188 of the IPC and under the Air and Pollution Control Act of 1981. The policy had outlined the reasons why crop residues were being burnt in the country and had also listed a number of solutions. Since agriculture is a state subject, it was up to state governments to address the issue.

Implementation, however, left much to be desired, and the burning of crop residue has remained unabated. According to a 2014 study by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), crop residue burning in 2008-09 released 149.24 MT of carbon dioxide (CO2), over 9 MT of carbon monoxide (CO), 0.25 MT of oxides of sulphur (SOX), 1.28 MT of particulate matter and 0.07 MT of black carbon. And according to the Institute for Social and Economic Change (ISEC), Bengaluru, farmer families in rural Punjab spend ₹7.6 crore every year on treatment for ailments caused by stubble burning. Crop residue burning, besides adding to the pollution malaise in Delhi-NCR, is also said to be contributing to the melting of Himalayan glaciers far up north.

Waste to Fibre

The Delhi-NCR region has remained enveloped in a thick layer of noxious smog since Diwali in October with pollution levels entering the severe plus or emergency category. Schools and colleges remained closed for days. Pic: Shutterstock/Amandala123 

The NPMCR had chalked out a number of strategies and technological interventions, besides calling for pilot studies on management of crop residue. Surprisingly, the word "textiles" had figured nowhere in that document. Apparently, no one knew that the textiles industry can play a major role in both managing crop residue, as well as address its own fibre needs.

In December 2015, Preeti Sachdeva and Bhawana Chanana of the department of fabric and apparel science at Lady Irwin College in New Delhi had explored the possibility of using agro-residues as potential fibres for the textiles industry. They had looked at the pressure on cotton and noted, "This situation is aggravated and compounded with ever rising price of cultivating cotton and other natural cellulosic fibres like jute and linen; it's the need of the hour to look out for alternative cellulose resources. In order to address the critical situation, there is a requirement of substitutes to conventional cellulosic fibres, which are environmentally expensive to produce."

"Besides the availability of pure cellulose, other factors which influence the development and utilisation of lignocellulosics in the textiles industry," they pointed out, were: the ability to be spun; the availability in sufficient quantity; the cost or economy of production; and the desirability of their properties to consumers. Or else, this would remain as yet another lab experiment.

Sachdeva and Chanana were not the only ones looking into the prospects of agro-residues being used as alternative fibres by the textiles industry. Scientists and researchers across the world have been pursuing the subject. But what was just theory at one point is now a step away from being a reality.

Fortum, along with sustainable fibre company Spinnova, have gone beyond the proof of concept stage. They showcased the first clothing made from agricultural waste-wheat straw, in this case-at the Textile Exchange Sustainability Conference in Vancouver this October. The showpieces include a knitted t-shirt, as well as a jacket and skirt made of a woven fabric on organic cotton warp.

Spinnova's technology for spinning textile fibre out of wood-based cellulose "is also equally suitable for cellulosic waste streams. Spinnova has made initial trials with Fortum's biomasses with promising results." This partnership is funded by a programme run by Business Finland, a public agency providing research funding to Finnish companies to advance bio and circular economy.

The Supreme Court has pulled up the Centre and state governments for their inability to curb stubble-burning in Punjab and Haryana and bring air pollution in Delhi under control. The practicce of stubbleburning is, in any case, has remained an illegal activity after being declared so by the National Green Tribunal in 2015. Pic: Shuttersotck/Vaibhav Arora 

Unofficial estimates, collated from media reports, put the amount of crop residues being burnt in the three states around Delhi at roughly 50MT. Heli Antila, chief technological officer at Fortum India, says when this waste is converted into pulp and then textile material, the amount of fibre would be approximately onethird (close to 15 MT). This is, again, more than half of the global cotton production (expected to be around 27.2 MT in 2019). Easing pressure on cotton would also result in easing pressure both on land and water. Fortum officials say that water consumption can be reduced by one-fifth and land usage by one-third in the bargain.

To make this feasible and scaleable besides translating this into reality, Fortum is constructing a biorefinery in Assam with Numaligarh Refineries Ltd. Even though the product there would be ethanol, the technology is the same. For this to work with textiles, according to Antila, a number of things would need to be sorted out, including collection and storage of the straw to be supplied to a biorefinery round the year. Just because the residue is available somewhere does not mean that one can simply go there and collect it. Moreover, setting up a biorefinery for this purpose would entail an investment of €150-160 million, and need to have raw materials for 25 years.

The other thing to be kept in mind is that the eventual fabric is comparable both in terms of price as well as quality. According to Antila, spinners would not need to upgrade or replace their looms. The products that Fortum has produced so far have used the same machinery used for cotton yarn.

Says Rehman, "Although textile applications offer a relatively high value addition and a huge market for consumption of fibres from agro-residues, they require fibres of high quality. Locally available waste-based raw materials have huge potential in the circular economy. A massive amount of straw is burned in Asian countries causing significant emissions that contribute to climate change." In the future, biomass will be classified as the finest alternative to produce energy and textile fibre.

Meanwhile, Australia-based biomaterial technology company Nanollose Ltd has created a wearable garment using the company's eco-friendly Tree-Free Rayon fibre (Nullarbor), sourced from sustainable coconut waste. Nanollose's biomaterial technology process begins in a facility where microbes naturally ferment liquid waste products from food industries into cellulose, which then is transformed into their Nullarbor fibre. Their process to produce cellulose requires very little land, water or energy and the production cycle is just 18 days, compared to the eight months seen in the cotton-based textiles industry.

Other, similar, efforts are under way. In July last year, Archroma, a leader in colour and specialty chemicals towards sustainable solutions, announced a collaboration with Ternua, an outdoor brand with a strong connection with nature. Ternua has partnered with Archroma and its EarthColors technology, to create a capsule collection of recycled tee-shirts and sweatshirts, collecting, recycling and upcycling agricultural waste from the Basque region in Spain after food consumption.

Fortum India has also signed an agreement with Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar to manufacture textile fibre from paddy straw. The memorandum of understanding aims to protect the environment and to provide simple and economical options for the farmers to manage paddy straw. This project would be pure research.

Two Birds, One Stone

In an economy under immense pressure to go circular, the textiles and apparel industry has a chance not only to produce fibre and fabric without exerting more biotic pressure on land, but it can also take care of a problem that not just adds to pollution, but also adds to greenhouse gas emissions.

And, as Sachdeva and Chanana had concluded in their 2015 paper, "In a monetised economy, even where residues are at present freely available, everything which has a use will rather sooner than later acquire a monetary value."

This article was first published in the December 2019 edition of the print magazine.