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Chinese Target Textile Mills with New Water Protection Plan

The textile dyeing and finishing industries will be hardest hit by the Chinese government’s recently released Action Plan for Water Pollution Prevention and Control, which wants to clean up the country’s heavily polluted waterways by 2020.

China’s textile industry, which produces more than half of the world’s fabric, ranks as the country’s third largest discharger of industrial effluent. According to the Ministry of Land and Resources, about 40 percent of the water in seven major river systems, including the Yangtze, Yellow, Pearl and Huai, is currently unsafe to drink and contributing to widespread public-health problems, while the Ministry of Environmental Protection said 9.2% of groundwater is too polluted even for irrigation use.

The new water protection plan, unveiled last month by the State Council, proposes that at least 70 percent of the water in those river systems will be safe to drink within five years, increasing to more than 75 percent by 2030. It follows last year’s pledge by the government to prioritize environmental protection over economic development and mandates the closure by the end of next year of small-scale textile facilities that fail to meet stricter standards.

Larger factories, meanwhile, will be required to install or upgrade wastewater processing equipment to reduce emissions, as well as improve water consumption efficiency. Companies which exceed their pollution quota will be blacklisted from next year and serious violators will be ordered to shutter their operations.

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“[Textiles] is the only industry singled out for action across all the key areas. Moreover, new stricter standards and tighter deadlines in the Yangtze River and Pearl River Deltas where the sector is concentrated amount to a triple whammy hit,” said Debra Tan of China Water Risk in a blog post on the nonprofit’s website, noting that the plan is tougher than many had expected.

“In reality, the high cost of installing and operating wastewater treatment equipment will likely mean that some small factories with thin profit margins may be forced to close or merge with others,” Tan said.

And as a new Environmental Protection Law went into effect this year, threatening polluting businesses with higher fines and jail time, Tan warned of “crackdowns on illegal activities such as secret groundwater discharge, faking it with EIA (Energy Information Administration) approvals and monitoring data.”

There are an estimated 15,000 textile mills in China. While the government has said it expects some push back from the industry, the new measures could lead to lower costs and a bigger bottom line. Recent efforts by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) led to 33 of the country’s mills saving $14.7 million in 2014 by cutting water, energy and chemical use as part of the nonprofit’s Clean by Design program.