Transforming textile waste from an environmental problem to a valuable resource

In Europe, every citizen produces about 11 kg of textile waste per year: this is the result of a research by the European Commission aimed at shedding light on the post-life trend of products in the textile sector, which as we know is one of the most polluting in the world. Suffice it to say that according to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2017 alone generated about 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.

From the surveys conducted by the EU, it also emerges that 87% of discarded garments are incinerated or taken to landfills, without allowing them to be recycled or reused, in a circular economy perspective. The other part is exported outside Europe, to become waste or be reused in other countries, with often unpredictable or negative consequences on the environment. In fact, on a global level, less than 1% of clothing is recycled as clothing, partly also due to inadequate technologies to be able to initiate virtuous recovery processes.

It’s therefore clear that in order to contain the volume of textile waste and implement smarter and cleaner end-of-life management, new rules and profound reforms of the textile product management system are necessary.

The European answer to textile waste management

To tackle the problem of textile waste, the EU continues to move in the direction of regulating the sector, with clear but unfortunately still evolving actions. In fact, last spring, the European Commission approved the new European Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, with which it wants to promote the ecological and energy transition of the textile sector by 2030, with the aim of making it greener and more competitive. In addition, as regards the disposal of garments, Europe has decided that from 1 January 2025 the separate collection of textile products will be mandatory in all EU countries. At the moment, however, the situation is still uncertain and travels along different paths from territory to territory, given that each country can take autonomous decisions to follow up on the European directive.

Transforming textile waste from an environmental problem to a valuable resource

In this context, emblematic is the case of Italy which has decided to bring forward the obligation of separate collection of waste textiles to January 1, 2022, even if to all intents and purposes there is still a long way to go. Waste disposal is in fact only one of the issues to be addressed to make the management of post-use textiles more correct and sustainable. The development of these policies must in fact lead institutions and players in the sector to encourage the creation of supply chains for the correct management of pre- and post-consumer textile waste (from collection to selection of goods, from sorting to the first treatments and so on). Last but not least, the need to develop specific, increasingly advanced technologies to be integrated into specialized plants and sites.

Textile waste in Italy

According to the report “L’Italia del Riciclo 2021”, promoted and implemented by the Foundation for Sustainable Development and by FISE UNICIRCULAR (Unione Imprese Circolare Economy), the Italian textile sector produced a total of about 480,000 tons of waste in 2019, of which about half comes from the textile industry, followed by urban waste which accounts for 30% of the total. Compared to 2010, the sector’s waste increased by 39%, with post-consumer urban waste even tripling in the same period. According to the 2021 report, this phenomenon can be attributed to the constant development of “fast fashion” but also to the improvement of the ability to intercept, in a differentiated way, this type of waste.

The percentages relating to waste management in Italy are also interesting: in 2019, 46% of waste from the textile sector was sent for the recovery of materials, while 11% for disposal; a very significant share of waste, around 43%, is instead destined for intermediate type activities, such as pre-treatment and storage for industrial processes for the recovery of raw materials. The numbers for developing textile waste recovery projects in favor of greater sustainability seem to exist, therefore, but in a market that has yet to be invented.

Transforming textile waste from an environmental problem to a valuable resource

The new economy of textile waste

According to the report “Scaling textile recycling in Europe” published in July 2022 by McKinsey, the recycling of textile materials in Europe could become a real business rather than being a problem, with annual profits that could go from 1.5 to 2, 2 billion euros by 2030, leading to the creation of about 15,000 new jobs, in European countries alone. An encouraging evolution, if we consider that according to a Policy Hub estimate, textile waste in Europe would be destined to go from 7-7.5 million tons produced currently to 8.5-9 million tons by 2030.

Not to mention the environmental benefits. According to McKinsey, with the launch of a circular management system for textile waste, CO2 emissions could reduce by about 4 million tons (in practice, the overall emissions of a country as large as Iceland). While, by quantifying at an economic level the secondary effects on GDP deriving from the creation of new jobs, the reduction of air pollution and the use of water and soil (two of the most exploited resources by the textile industry worldwide), the ‘analysis shows that this “new sector” could generate from 3.5 billion euros to 4.5 billion euros by 2030.

What is textile waste

Let’s start with the consideration that a textile product that is disposed of because it is unused or unusable becomes waste. Each garment, however, is made up of specific materials, natural or synthetic, and can be made up of 100% or in a mixed form (the most difficult to recycle at an industrial level).

Taking into account that to reduce the amount of textile waste released into the environment the most purist way is always that of reducing the overproduction and excessive consumption of garments, there are other ways to ensure that the management of the end of life of textiles has a lower impact. on our planet: from the circular and intelligent design of new products, for example, to post-consumer management.

Here the roads become manifold. It is in fact possible to reuse and reuse the garments by donating or reselling them, fueling the so-called “second hand” fashion, or following the new production trend of upcycling (i.e. the creative reuse of textiles from discarded or unusable garments to create new ones) and, of course, provide for the industrial recycling of textile products. In the latter case, the textile fiber of which a garment is made is recovered.

Transforming textile waste from an environmental problem to a valuable resource

The issue concerning recycling methods is long and complex and deserves a dedicated study. Despite this, as the McKinsey report states, currently one of the most sustainable and scalable choices for the recovery of textiles remains “fiber to fiber” recycling, which allows textile waste to be transformed into new fibers which are then used to create new clothes or other textile products.

Essential in this area is therefore the role played by technological innovation, to allow recycling processes to achieve the best results in terms of quality and on large-scale volumes, reducing costs and consumption. Indeed, the report indicates that, while some technologies, such as mechanical recycling of pure cotton, have been consolidated for some time, others, such as chemical recycling of polyester, are still undergoing profound development and experimentation. However, thanks to the technological progress expected in this sector, McKinsey estimates that in the future 70% of textile waste could be recycled from fiber to fiber, while only the remaining 30% will require forms of open-circuit recycling (cycles that allow the transformation of discarded materials in new products of lower quality or with reduced functionality) or the use of other industrial recycling solutions, such as thermochemical recycling.

Textile waste management in Italy: what opportunities

In order for the recovery and recycling of textile waste to become a profitable business for the market (think for example of the problem of scarcity of raw materials), but above all for the environment, there are still many institutional and formal issues to be addressed.

It is certainly essential to establish specific rules, useful for starting and supporting the development of new circular business models. For example, in the indications contained in the EU strategy, attention was paid to the concept of extended producer responsibility (EPR), i.e. the need to give producers financial and operational responsibility for managing the life cycle of products. textiles and when they become waste to all effects, in order to reduce the impact on the environment, to create a more correct and shared way of managing products destined for disposal.

Transforming textile waste from an environmental problem to a valuable resource

No less important is the creation of new industrial and commercial synergies, capable of encouraging the application of circular production models and proper management of the end of life of textiles. In this sense, the proactive approach adopted by Italy for waste management has allowed the birth of a series of special consortia. For example, within the Ecolight System Ecoremat and Ecotessili were born, promoted by Federdistribuzione, dedicated respectively to the management of disused mattresses and upholstery and to the management of textile waste. To these is added RETEX.GREEN, a consortium of Italian producers of the fashion supply chain, sponsored by SMI – Sistema Moda Italia and the Italian Textile Foundation, a collective EPR system, for the management of waste from the textile, clothing sector, footwear and leather goods, in order to promote greater environmental sustainability along all the industrial segments involved.

The National Recovery and Resilience Plan (PNRR) of the Italian government and, in particular, the investment action “Flagship projects of circular economy” of Mission 2, “Ecological Transition”, which allocates funding to strengthen the separate collection network and the treatment and recycling plants, contributing to the achievement 100% recovery in the textile sector through “Textile Hubs”.

The prerequisites for giving life to a new sustainable economy of textile waste, safeguarding the environment, are all there and we will gradually see the trend. In the meantime, it’s important not to forget the key role of the consumer in building this new value system. Institutional and corporate responsibility also passes through personal commitment and each of us is called to do his part by promoting a new approach to consumption and a more sustainable lifestyle and action.

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