Like it or not, what you wear has just as much environmental impact as anything else you do. That probably isn’t something you think about too often. After all, it’s just clothes, right? How much damage could a single T-shirt printing process really do? More than you might think. We’ll go over a few ways T-shirt printing may cause environmental harm, then conclude with a few suggested alternatives.
Manufacturing is a Thirsty (and Dirty) Process
Like it or not, manufacturing is a part of the T-shirt printing process. T-shirts need to be made, and dyes need to be produced. Unfortunately, neither process is exactly what you’d call green.
A single, generic T-shirt requires approximately 766 gallons of water to produce, per sustainable technology vendor Ricoh. Cotton is even worse, requiring about 2700 gallons, according to the World Wildlife Fund. For context, that’s enough water to keep someone hydrated for two and a half years.
Ink Production is a Big Source of Emissions
Dye manufacturing has the potential to be even worse than T-shirt manufacturing. Certain types of plastisol dyes can release a massive amount of carcinogenic chemicals into the air during manufacturing. And even environmentally sustainable alternatives, such as water-based ink, still generate emissions.
Textile Dyeing is a Serious Water Contaminant
As noted by The World Economic Forum, textile dyeing, including screen printing, is the world’s second-largest polluter of water. This is primarily tied to the fact that many printing shops and manufacturers don’t bother to dispose of their dyes and cleaning agents properly. Instead, they simply dump the leftovers into the nearest river or ditch and hope nobody notices.
Speaking of water, dyeing can be highly unsustainable as well, using enough water to fill two million Olympic-sized swimming pools every year.
Screen Printing Can Produce a Lot of Waste
Water waste and emissions aside, screen printing has the potential to generate a great deal of pollution on its own. For one, you have the printing machines, which both use a great deal of water and energy. You’re also inevitably going to wind up with other waste as well, such as clothing scraps and chemical runoff.
The good news is that this is relatively simple to address. So long as you maintain your equipment, properly store and dispose of all chemicals, and find a way to recycle clothing scraps rather than tossing them, screen printing can be quite sustainable.
Transportation Leaves a Big Footprint
What happens once a T-shirt has been printed? Occasionally, it’ll be sold in a nearby storefront or simply taken and worn by someone at the printing company. Most of the time, however, it must be delivered to the customer.
And deliveries mean considerable emissions from transportation and logistics providers.
There Are Eco-Friendly Options
A single t-shirt can have a surprising environmental impact, particularly if it’s custom-printed. The good news is that you aren’t without recourse here. There are several things you can do to cut the environmental footprint of your shirts.
- Explore alternatives to screen printing, like direct-to-garment printing.
- Use water-based ink rather than plastisol ink.
- Properly clean and dispose of all waste products.
- If possible, try to find a sustainability-focused logistics provider.
About the Author: Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.