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Australia recycles paper and plastics. So why does clothing end up in landfill?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a fund of $20 million 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, for which I don’t agree, it does beg the question: what about Australia’s growing textile waste problem?

More than 501,000,000 kilos (average Australian has 23kg of waste) of unwanted clothing ends up in landfills across the nation each year. This doesn’t include the 94,000,000 kilos that is 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 $20 million 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.

And here lies the main problem, as you can’t solve a problem unless you acknowledge it exists and then identify ways to deal with it.

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

And here’s one reason why it should be; your favourite 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 (approx. 50 million 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 ten people admitting to discarding more than ten items in the past year alone. Almost the same number of people admits 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 100 billion garments per year - yet these messages of over consumption 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 currently recycled.

The hard truth is that the textile industry, just like plastic, paper, glass and tyres, is at crisis point. Fabric and garment production is increasing year-on-year, meeting and driving fashion consumption to record levels and eventually ending up in our 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 per cent of all disposed textiles is sent to landfill or incinerated, 12 per cent is mechanically recycled by cutting it or shredding it into fibre, insulation material or rags and less than 1 per cent is chemically recycled back to reuseable raw materials.

If we are to truly realise our goal of no textiles to landfill, the problem of textile waste must first be recognised and from there all stakeholders will need to contribute to effective solutions, or at least add it as a matter of priority.

“What we shouldn’t do is burn it, bury or send it overseas if it ends up in someone else’s landfill.”

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.

Recycling is a system that reuses materials at their highest value along multiple life cycles. 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 lifecycle before these materials are destined to end up in landfills.

For too long we have identified waste as waste, and only realised its value in collection and removal.

The good news is there are new solutions emerging, technologies that will begin to solve the challenges facing the textile industry.

It’s time for us to drive innovation in textile waste recovery. Innovation which transform waste into new raw materials, track and collect systems to understand the scale of textile waste and to identify high value recycling streams, 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.

This is a sector that is ready to deliver engagement across government, industry and community. It’s time to properly measure textile waste, change waste management and focus on resource recovery processes.

However, 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.

Existing landfill levies act as a deterrent, but to truly change mind-sets we have to highlight new ways of thinking and behaving.

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.

Any investment in textile recycling 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 key decision-makers until it was too late.

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