Brussels, 10 Feb 2005
As more and more dye manufacturers relocate outside of Europe, the need to address the difficulties that are forcing them out is becoming critical. These range from lower penalties for pollution to lower labour and production costs in third countries.
The situation is so urgent that, 'if we don't find an alternative, in 50 years there won't be an industry in Europe,' says Sophie Vanhulle from the Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) in Belgium, coordinator of the SOPHIED project, which is funded under the European Union's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).
The project is investigating sustainable bioprocesses for the colour industry, and has three principal aims: the development of bioremediation technology to detoxify coloured wastewaters; the development of safe enzyme-assisted processes for the production of existing dyes; and the creation of new dyes that are less toxic and that are synthesised using biotechnology.
The colour industry was, early in the 20th century, one of Europe's strengths. However, the dye formulas were established during the 1950s and 1960s, and nothing has changed since then. Until now, quotas have ensured that Europe keeps a foothold in the industry, but these quotas are set to end in 2005.
Traditionally, dyes are manufactured using many chemicals and are therefore highly toxic. This not only presents a risk to those working with the dyes, but leads to the presence of toxins in any wastewater produced by the industry, thus threatening living organisms.
Standard wastewater treatments cannot be used to clean water containing traces of dye, as dyes are manufactured to be resistant to bacteria. Key to the SOPHIED project's work is the discovery that a certain fungus can be used to decolour wastewater but also, and crucially, remove the mutagenic character of molecules in the water and reduce toxicity by 70 per cent. The method has been proved effective, and has already been patented.
The project brings together 26 partners - 16 small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), seven universities and three research centres - from ten European countries. Six of the partners are end-users, and are very enthusiastic about the SOPHIED research. The colour industry has not yet been specifically hit by EU legislation, but the coloured wastewater generated by the industry means that it is not popular among environmental groups or citizens. Dr Vanhulle is certain that if the project is successful, the industry will not need encouraging to exploit the results.
Once the research has been completed, Dr Vanhulle intends to use the results to lobby for tougher and more specific EU legislation on toxins in wastewater.
The involvement of so many small businesses was made possible by a special call for proposals for an SME Integrated Project. Preparation for the project was a challenge as 'SMEs don't generally have a habit of working together, sharing information or answering quickly,' said Dr Vanhulle. But now that work has begun, all partners are very involved. '[The SMEs] know it's their future, so they're more implicated,' she added. Dr Vanhulle regards involvement in such a project as an excellent opportunity for SMEs, enabling them to engage in high level research and to learn from academic research that 'sometimes it's better to be patient and to get better results.'
Dr Vanhulle is confident that collaboration will continue after the conclusion of the FP6 project, and she already has plans to apply for funding under FP7. In fact, the research will have to continue, explains the project coordinator, as the four year duration of SOPHIED is simply not long enough to complete the necessary research.
The consortium appears to be addressing all angles of the colour industry's activities, and has convincing arguments as to why the project is necessary and will succeed. One question remains, however. If so many companies have already relocated, and with the quotas that ensure trade for Europe ending this year, has the project come too late? Dr Vanhulle's response is that while it would have been preferable to have started work before now, there is still reason to be optimistic. 'We really need to work hard over the next 15 years,' she says, but such a concerted effort has the potential to save Europe's colour industry from extinction, she believes.