My earlier study, “Improving Recycling of Textiles Based on Lessons from Policies for Other Recyclable Materials,” published in 2020 in the Sustainable Production and Consumption Journal, investigated the challenges in textile recycling and looked for solutions in the successful recycling policies of other industries. The study called for improved and universally standardised textile waste management procedures.
The European Union (EU) has since acknowledged the need to enhance textile recycling and has been guided by successful strategies from other industries. Their strategy for sustainable and circular textiles, set out by the European Commission in March 2022, confirms the textile industry’s current low recycling rates. It stresses the urgency to augment these rates to balance industrial output and environmental sustainability.
This strategy compares the textile sector with industries like paper, aluminium, and glass, which have considerably higher recycling rates. The comparison underlines the potential for the textile industry to enhance recycling and contribute more to the circular economy. This is critical considering the 40% rise in per capita clothes purchases in the EU in the last few decades due to price drops and speedy fashion delivery.
The EU’s strategy highlights the challenges of the textile industry’s low recycling rates and the increasing demand for textiles. It explains the substantial environmental impact of consumer usage due to water, energy, and chemicals used in laundering and ironing and the microplastics released into the environment.
The strategy argues for simultaneous development in consumer awareness, sustainable manufacturing, and high recycling rates to address these issues. It points out that fewer than half of used clothes are gathered for recycling or reuse, and a mere 1% are recycled into new clothes. The strategy underlines the need for a comprehensive approach that includes consumer behaviour, sustainable production, and recycling, stating that sustainable manufacturing alone cannot achieve environmental sustainability.
The EU strategy advocates for the compulsory implementation of harmonised Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles across all EU Member States. These schemes would make producers accountable for textile waste management and incentivise them to minimise waste and enhance the circularity of their products. The strategy adds that contributions to the EPR scheme will be revised according to the environmental performance of their textiles, thus promoting greener practices.
In addition, the strategy proposes limiting the export of textile waste to ensure responsible waste management within the EU. It aims to contain textile waste within the region to establish a resilient and sustainable recycling infrastructure. This commitment aligns with the EU’s dedication to the circular economy and promotes the transition to a closed-loop system for textiles.
The strategy also stresses the need to encourage circular business models, including reuse and repair sectors, to prolong the life of textiles and reduce waste. It acknowledges the role of social enterprises in collecting and treating textiles and highlights the business opportunities and benefits from a flourishing circular textiles ecosystem.
To execute the strategy effectively, the EU introduced several regulations and initiatives like the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, the Empowering Consumers in the Green Transition Directive, and the Waste Shipment Regulation, all aiming to boost sustainability, transparency, and accountability in the textile industry.
In summary, the EU’s strategy for sustainable and circular textiles aligns with the insights from my previous article on textile recycling improvements. The EU is making significant strides towards a greener and more sustainable future for the textile industry by addressing low recycling rates, incorporating successful policies from other sectors, enforcing waste management regulations, encouraging circular business models, and fostering collaboration among stakeholders.
Several factors, including a substantial increase in clothing consumption, drive the textile industry’s growing focus on sustainability. From 1996 to 2012, per-person clothing purchases in the EU rose by 40%, fueled by falling prices and the shift to fast fashion models. This led to a ‘disposable’ attitude towards clothing, intensifying the environmental impact.
While the recycling of textiles into new clothes is still in its early stages, the environmental footprint of the textile and clothing industry is vast. The production of raw materials requires substantial amounts of water and chemicals, and consumer usage further adds to the environmental burden due to the water, energy, and chemicals used in washing, tumble-drying, and ironing, as well as the microplastics released into the environment.
Given the gravity of the situation, efforts to recycle textiles into new clothes are intensifying. Less than half of used clothes are collected for reuse or recycling, with only 1% recycled into new clothes. Emerging technologies that allow clothes to be recycled into virgin fibres show promise.
Various strategies are being proposed to tackle these issues, including creating new business models for clothing rental, designing products to facilitate reuse and recycling (circular fashion), urging consumers to buy fewer but higher quality clothes (slow fashion), and generally nudging consumer behaviour towards more sustainable choices.
The EU’s strategy echoes these ideas and proposes further regulations on eco-design requirements for sustainable products and a directive on empowering consumers for the green transition. These initiatives aim to make all products in the internal market more sustainable while educating consumers about sustainability.
The effects of these measures on the textile industry will be detailed in delegated acts, primarily planned for 2024. Such initiatives signify a positive shift towards sustainability in the textile industry, emphasising collaboration between stakeholders, comprehensive waste management regulations, and promotion of circular business models.
The EU’s textile and clothing industry, which in 2019 turned over €162 billion and was composed of 160,000 companies (mainly small and medium-sized enterprises) employing over 1.5 million people, will be significantly impacted by these changes. These policies should motivate the industry to adopt more sustainable practices and, over time, create a more circular, sustainable textile industry.