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The Guardian - Opinion

Graham Ross

AUG. 27, 2019


It’s time for bold action. The impact of textile waste is a reality and governments across Australia must recognise the challenge and begin to address it. It’s time to acknowledge textile waste for what it is: a valuable resource ready to be transformed into raw materials.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, recently announced a fund of $20m to grow Australia’s recycling industry and a commitment to ban the export of plastic, paper, glass and tyres.

While this has been lauded as a step in the right direction, it does beg the question: what about Australia’s growing textile waste problem?

More than 501m kg of unwanted clothing ends up in landfills across the nation each year. This doesn’t include the 94m kg exported overseas.

These are just conservative figures because the sheer volume of the nation’s textile waste problem is just an approximation. Unlike glass and plastics, textile waste is not tracked by any state or federal government waste strategies or waste management plans.

As evidenced by the PM’s $20m commitment at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Cairns, it would seem the growing textile waste problem is not even on the radar of either tier of government. But you can’t solve a problem unless you acknowledge it exists and then identify ways to deal with it.

There’s an adage in business that you can’t manage what you don’t measure. Because we don’t track our growing textile waste problem, the environmental impact is not at the top of the minds of all key decision-makers.

Here’s one reason why it should be: your activewear is made from the same material that makes single-use plastic bottles – PET.

In fact, around two-thirds of the world’s manufactured PET (approximately 50m tonnes) goes into clothing, with the remainder used to produce plastic packaging and plastic bottles.

When we consider how to dispose of our unwanted clothing, many of us prioritise donating to charities as we should. But how many of us think about that old sheet, torn shirt or threadbare blanket when we put it in the bin? From the bin, the next stop is landfill.

Australians are the world’s second-highest per capita consumers of textiles, with around three out of 10 people admitting to discarding more than 10 items in the past year alone. Almost the same number of people admit to throwing away a piece of clothing that has been only worn once.

Around the world we hear voices calling out fast fashion’s overproduction. Globally the fashion industry pumps out more than 100bn garments per year, yet these messages of overconsumption seem to fall on deaf ears in Australia.

There is now an incredibly large gap between the amount of clothing made and the amount that is recycled. Fabric and garment production is increasing year on year, meeting and driving fashion consumption to record levels and eventually ending up in landfill.

Until now the tsunami of unwanted clothing has been held back by secondary markets, where clothing is resold into developing economies around the world. The sheer volume of textile waste flooding the globe means secondary markets for unwanted clothing are now closing or becoming too unprofitable to continue.

Globally, 87% of all disposed textiles is sent to landfill or incinerated; 12% is mechanically recycled by cutting it or shredding it into fibre, insulation material or rags; and less than 1% is chemically recycled back to reuseable raw materials.

We have learned to recycle paper and plastics and to separate our household rubbish for council collection. So why is there no textile recycling industry?

The answer lies in how we define textile recycling and the need to acknowledge textile waste for what it is: a valuable resource that should be recycled for reuse.

Currently, textile recycling methods include shredding or “ragging” of clothing for reuse locally or for export. The problem with this method is that it undervalues the materials and only extends reuse for one more life cycle before these materials are destined to end up in landfills.

It’s time for us to drive innovation in textile waste recovery to transform waste into new raw materials, track and collect systems to understand the scale of textile waste, and to identify high-value recycling streams and robotic sorting processes that will meet commercial-scale needs.

The chemical separation of materials is an emerging technology, but an exciting one. By separating everyday products such as sheets, clothing and towels back into their individual raw materials, the recovered resources can be reused back into the textile industry or into other products such as plastic packaging and plastic bottles. The benefit of this separation process and in using recycled materials is the reduced impact on the environment by not producing virgin materials – plus recycled products, recovered in Australia, are available for use in Australian-manufactured products.

It’s time for bold action. The impact of textile waste is a reality and governments across Australia must recognise the challenge and begin to address it.

There needs to be investment in recycling innovations to allow them to scale, in addition to existing systems and in time, to replace legacy ways. This will make a profound difference, environmentally and economically, and will play a part in changing the face of the resource-recovery industry in Australia.

This has to happen now, not tomorrow.

If not, generations will look back and wonder why it took us so long … and importantly, why it didn’t even factor as a problem for decision-makers until it was too late.

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