Wool Environmental Issues, Pesticide Problem. Just as in cotton production, pesticides are used in the cultivation of wool, although quantities are considerably smaller and it is thought that good practice can significantly limit any negative environmental impact. Sheep are treated either with injectable insecticides, a pour-on preparation or dipped in a pesticide bath to control parasite infection, which if left untreated can have serious welfare implications for the flock.

Wool Environmental Issues, Pesticide Problem

When managed badly, these pesticides can cause harm to human health and watercourses both on the farm and in subsequent downstream processing. Organophosphates (OPs) for example, widely used in the UK until recently to treat sheep scab, are linked to severe nerve damage in humans. Their replacement, dips based on cypermethrim (a pyrethoid), while safer for farmers, has been linked to a significant growth in incidences of water pollution, as they are 1000 times more toxic to aquatic life than organophosphates. These dips now have been suspended from sale in the UK because they are linked to a high number of water pollution incidences.

For almost all countries, wool is a secondary product of sheep farming, the primary product being meat. As a consequence, sheep are rarely bred for the fineness and quality of their wool and as a result the fibre, which tends to be fairly coarse, has low market value and is generally a wasted resource. An exception to this is wool from Australia’s Merino sheep the most important type of wool for apparel production. A single Merino fleece can produce around 5kg of fine, good quality wool.

As the raw wool is cleaned (scoured) significant environmental impacts arise. Raw wool, like all other natural fibres, contains many impurities; it is both dirty and greasy, resulting in it being the only fibre type to require wet cleaning before yarn manufacture, although in some techniques, like Wooltech’s wool cleaning system, the solvent trichloroethylene replaces the use of water. Where wool is scoured with water this is at hot temperatures to emulsify the grease. Scouring produces an effluent (wool grease sludge) with high suspended solids content and a high pollution index.

World’s clothing waste problem

For each kg of scoured wool, 1.5kg of waste impurities is produced. Wool grease is traditionally reclaimed from the scouring process for use as lanolin. However, pesticides applied to sheep have been found to be persistent even in refined grease, although the switch away from OP sheep dips, as well as maximizing the ‘withdrawal period’ (the duration of time between the last application of insecticide and scouring), is helping to reduce this.

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Alternatives: choose wool scoured in factories with strict effluent treatment protocols; or if solvent scoured, where reclamation and recycling of the solvent is ensured; specify organically grown wool.