Updated: Jun 2, 2019
Australians love their clothes. Each year, on average, we consume more than 27 kilograms of clothing per person and that trend is increasing. But what happens to our clothes once they’re past our personal use by date?
The fast fashion habits of consumers continue to see us fill wardrobes with the latest designs and freely donate clothing to charity stores who are at capacity. Given our consumption of fashion is the second highest per capita in the world, many are surprised to learn that textile waste still flies under the radar in Australia.
While recycling plastics, cardboard, aluminum and glass has been in the consciousness of Australians for decades and is something many of us now do without even thinking about, we are currently not given the opportunity to recycle textiles even if we wanted to.
Australia has continued to ignore the increasing problem of textile waste, allowing it to consume landfills and charity stores to the tune of more than 369,000,000 kilos every year - based on an average waste of 15kg per Australian.
If our lofty goal is - no textiles to landfill - as it should be, the problem of textile waste has to be recognised and from there all stakeholders will need to play their part in effective solutions.
Do we love our clothes too much?
Clothes are personal. They define what we like and what we love. They clearly represent the community we belong or want to belong to and share our values with.
Clothes also embody our mood, our personal style and sometimes our political beliefs. But I want to ask the question, do we love our clothes too much? Is it this connection with clothes and what they represent, standing in the way of us taking advantage of the opportunity to recycle and repurpose clothes.
No one ever says ‘I love your plastic water bottle.’ That’s because, we don’t have an emotional connection to plastic bottles and so throwing them into the recycling bin has become the norm for most of us. It’s this mind-set, that has supported the plastic recycling industry to develop into a mature industry.
It’s about time we adopted that same attitude to clothes.
Recycle them rather than throw them out.
To be clear, donating clothing to charities is not something we are discouraging at all. Good quality clothes in good condition can be resold, helping charity stores to raise valuable funds that support those in need. But where do all the torn, stained and frankly, loved to death clothes go?
While recycling plastics has been around for almost 50 years, textile recycling is very much in its infancy, held back by outdated business models and limited innovation efforts that struggle to cope with modern day multi-fibre clothing. Until now, the industry considered textile recycling to be the collection and shredding or ‘ragging’ of materials for use in products such as insulation, stuffing and for shop rags.
I concede that these processes have been supported, ensuring that at least some of the growing feedstock year on year of unwanted or used textiles are repurposed for at least one more lifecycle before they are destined for landfill. And there is a considerable textile export industry, in fact during 2016/17; Australia exported 94,000,000 kg of clothing.
Exporting used textiles was once a strategic and strong revenue stream, but global markets are now swamped by the tsunami of fast fashion, pushing down export prices and forcing waste import restrictions to tighten in many countries, such as China, Uganda and Vietnam.
Locally, for some textile industry sectors, exporting is not cost effective and where there isn’t a secondhand market, companies simply offload their waste textiles into landfill, and wear the waste levy costs.
So, who owns the problem?
More than 100 billion garments are made each year...100 billion.
Globally, 87 per cent of disposed textiles are sent to landfill or incinerated, 12 per cent are mechanically recycled by cutting or shredding into fibre, insulation material or rags and <1 per cent are chemically recycled.
As you can see, there is a massive gap between what’s made and what is currently recycled.
The fashion industry has acknowledged their significant impact on the planet caused through CO2 emissions. This includes the impacts made on land and water systems by product manufacturing and product waste. While recognising the problem is commendable, unfortunately the fashion industry has also proven, in the past, that change or action will take time.
And statements from concerned individuals and organisations telling retailers to sell less or consumers to buy less are simply unwanted noise that distracts from serious debate and most importantly the action required to deal with clothing consumption and the challenges it causes.
At a recent United Kingdom government enquiry into the impact of the fashion industry, one of the recommendations proposed was a ‘charge of one penny per garment on producers, could raise £35 million to invest in better clothing collection and sorting in the UK.’ In Australia, anyone who owns a car has paid into a similar scheme when replacing tyres or changing their engine oil, these programs ensure the user pays for the environmental impact of product waste.
I believe any such scheme allocated to the Australian fashion industry would take time to get the stakeholders to the table and be a sizeable challenge to implement, even if it was government mandated. And the user pay levy would need to be more than a couple of cents that’s been proposed to cover administration costs of the scheme.
“The solution to the problem of textile waste is not new schemes and consumer restrictions, but actually can be found in effective resource recovery models.”
The solutions lie in adopting circular economy principles that address key areas of product and supply chain - design, education, logistics and waste. These initiatives drive cost reductions and importantly create new revenue models.
Why we need government support?
For the recycling of textiles to become a feature of our lives, we all have to work together - brands, consumers, charities and governments to build a sustainable textile recycling industry.
I believe governments and councils will drive significant change by committing to a recycled content procurement target. This meets the issue of textile waste in Australia on two fronts, by encouraging textile waste collection and recovery and stimulating the recycled product industry. Thankfully, there are proposals on the table at Federal and state government levels.
To build a textile recycling industry, data is needed to identify waste flows and volumes - in fact, until we recognise textiles as a legitimate waste stream, funding for education and real solutions will be stymied.
While household textile waste collection may be a long way off - if it happens at all - we know that by councils agreeing to host recycling centres, their residents have the chance to be early adopters of textile recycling.
In fact, Councils could include clothing collection points at the existing recycling centres for our most loved clothes, those that are;
...torn, stained, ripped or just plain worn to death.
These clothes were once destined for the rubbish heap, but could be recovered and processed back into their raw materials by innovative textile recycling companies like ours.
Australia is well placed to deliver global leadership on the growing problem of textile waste, due to our overwhelming supply, combined with the local demand for solutions and recycled products.
Put simply, that overwhelming supply of textile waste is caused by being heavy consumers of imported clothing, and our recycling efforts that rely on exporting back into diminishing second hand markets.
Australian consumers are calling for real solutions to clothing sent to landfill. They don’t need mindset change, they need and want solutions for their unwanted clothing. We already happily donate clothing to the charity sector to extend the life of our garments and for many of us this removes our guilt around large consumption.
Retail brands are starting to offer take back schemes, yes to reward customer loyalty that drives sales and at the very least play their part in landfill diversion of clothing.
But...let’s not forget, we recycle only a small amount of textiles in Australia, and for those that are recycled, it is only by one more short lifecycle.
Now is the time to address textile waste and realise Australia’s recycled textile industry.
Any investment in textile recycling will be profound, environmentally and economically, one that will change the face of the resource recovery industry in Australia.
Generations will look back and wonder why it took us so long to recycle such high volumes of valuable resources.
Reposted from Inside Waste magazine April/May