NU alum gets Fulbright to help make Indian textile factories more eco-friendly

Courtesy of Ben Shorofsky

Recent graduate Ben Shorofsky came to Northwestern with a passion for the environment. After getting a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering last year, Shorofsky went on to complete the Master’s degree program of the same field, and earned a certificate in global and ecological health engineering at the same time. In his work for the certificate, Shorofsky worked with an NGO in the Rajasthan region of India last summer to help find solutions to the textile industry’s pollution of wastewater.

He took such an interest in the topic that he applied for a Fulbright grant to continue researching solutions—and he got accepted. Before he leaves for his nine-months-long stint in August, Shorofsky spoke with the Global Health Portal about his work, what needs to be done, and what he is looking forward to.

Q: Why is this especially a problem in India?

A: In India especially, the textile industry is huge. The difference is a lot of that textile industry is for local the developed countries—most of our textile products have been exported. That’s because of how difficult it is to treat these dyes and remove these dyes from wastewater. Where we have regulations, they don’t. In India there’s a decent amount of lack of oversight over the textile industries and now the government is stepping up and saying it’s time to do something. These are all small factories, so it makes it hard for them to afford treatment themselves. They send all their wastewater to a common effluent, central treatment plant and pool their money. But it’s not always maintained to the highest standard.

Q: How is this affecting the environment?
A: It’s an arid environment, a desert. The textile industry is located there because the water’s actually very salty and is good for the dyes in a certain amount. They were able to use that water for a long period of time. But now they’ve extracted so much water that the water table has sunk numerous feet. Nothing lives in that water. Nothing lives in the soil right below that water. It’s black from the dyes. They used to have a yearly cattle sale, where thousands upon thousands of cattle would be brought to the region. It was a huge event in the region, and that has actually died because of a lack of clean water. The farmers know that if their cattle drink from that water, they’re going to die. Certain plant species won’t grow there anymore. It’s very agrarian. But the water is incredibly salty, so it hurts the fields. The farmers are obviously the ones who are hurting the most.

Shorofsky, left, in India last summer
Courtesy of Ben Shorofsky

Q: Is it possible to restore the ecosystem to what it once was?
A: It’s going to take them a long time to actually figure something out and restore their ecosystem to what it was. There are a number of problems. They need to stop polluting. Where we’re stepping in is in trying to push for some low-cost ways to improve the treatment they already have, and methods for alternative treatment that may be better. That’s what I’ll be doing—testing one of those alternatives. The point of that would be to remove some of those contaminants, and have a system that maintains itself.

Cleaning up the river is important. Presently when the river flows—if it flows at all—it’s stagnant. It’s generally flowing green and red. In the United States that would all be dredged to a hazardous waste facility, but obviously they can’t do that. They don’t have the money, resources, equipment, or training. What can happen is a lengthy recovery process for the ecosystem where they flush the water out. And just not polluting it for a long period of time.

Q: Why has this been going on?
A: There are a lot of societal problems that factor into this. There’s corruption; the pollution control board really lacks staff and the ability to control what’s going on. There are roughly six pollution control board staff members for about close to 1,000 facilities. They don’t have the time to really monitor and inspect these facilities. There needs to be more oversight by the government by these industries, especially when it’s been riddled by corruption in the past.

Q: This is bad for the environment. Is it bad for the employees in the factories too?
A: The health conditions there aren’t great. There are dyes that are leaked out all over the place. The facilities are not the best kept facilities. The area hasn’t used that water for drinking for a long time because of the dangers of it. They presently truck in water and set up a reverse osmosis system.

Shorofsky, center, in India last summer.
Courtesy of Ben Shorofsky

Q: How did you feel when you got accepted? Are you excited?
A: This was the only Fulbright I applied for. It was exciting. I think I actually had an interesting conversation about whether or not what I was doing here was enough that I was going to continue this research, but it’s very beneficial for myself and for that part of India. I spent a month there last summer, so I’m pretty used to being outside of the environment I’m used to. Never for this long however. I think it’ll be nice. I’ll put in some roots and some foundation.

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