There has probably never been a time in the past when we have entered a new year with such reduced – but nevertheless realistic – expectations. Owing to the unremittingly brutal nature of 2020 and the world’s continuing struggle against COVID, 2021 was always likely to bring only incremental improvements in business conditions without ever permitting a return to pre-pandemic levels.
During last year’s divisional eForum and webinar, I warned that the textiles recycling industry could not expect to return to 2019 activity levels for at least 18 months to two years. This view chimes with those expressed by experts addressing BIR’s Keynote Session in October: neither Stefan Schilbe of HSBC Germany nor Prof. Philippe Chalmin of commodity research specialist CyclOpe anticipated such a recovery until 2022, and potentially even 2023.
The early months of the pandemic brought a steep decline in our business worldwide as many retail outlets were forced to close and processing operations became more restricted, leading initially to a huge increase in inventories of both raw materials and sorted goods, and thus a substantial decrease in prices. Around the world, the traditional mechanics of collection, sorting and sales became impaired and, at times, collapsed completely.
Although demand and payment levels for sorted goods had showed some improvement by the time of our October webinar, prices were still 15-25% lower than at the start of 2020, while demand for recycled goods had witnessed no improvement. Even late last year, many sorters were still working at reduced capacities while their stocks of originals were typically 50% to 100% higher than the seasonal norm. We have also been forced to contend with regular staff shortages owing to illness, self-isolation and parenting requirements in light of school/kindergarten closures.
Goods continued to flow into the export channel but, again, not at pre-COVID rates and values, and a lack of shipping containers did not help our business cause. In March, we were also hit by Kenya’s virus-related import ban on used clothing and textiles although, thankfully, this was lifted five months later.
The pandemic stretched our resilience and our resources at a time when we were already facing damaging trends, such as the negative impact of fast fashion on quality and therefore on the proportion of marketable second-hand textiles. In truth, we need to be smarter about fashion to ensure: clothes are worn for longer; recyclability is considered at the design stage; and less waste is generated. In line with the waste hierarchy forever supported by BIR, recycling is part of the solution – and a very important part – but waste reduction is critical too.
It is against this backdrop that the European Commission has ordered the publication in 2021 of a comprehensive strategy aimed at boosting the circularity of textiles. BIR representatives are actively involved in key discussions towards this goal, such as the first Policy Hub workshop which focused on extended producer responsibility (EPR).
This debate was continued at our eForum and webinar last year. In June, Mauro Scalia of European apparel and textile confederation EURATEX argued that EPR schemes should value different textiles that may need different recycling routes, and should avoid detrimental unintended consequences. And Maud Hardy of France-based Eco TLC suggested EPR made sense only if integrators of recycled materials could be connected with the manufacturers of those materials.
At our October webinar, EuRIC’s Emmanuel Katrakis contended that the textiles strategy should champion EPR so as to support a proper infrastructure and modulate fees based on textiles’ reusability, recyclability and recycled content, while also incentivizing reuse and incorporation of recycled fibres into new products. In line with waste hierarchy thinking, Hilde van Duijn of Netherlands-based Circle Economy stressed that the priority should not be recycling but rather ensuring products were used more and for longer. As she argued, it is essential that the end-of-life value chain – and not just brands and producers – are at the table when these issues are under discussion.
So while the impacts of 2020 will be with us for some time to come, we have no time to dwell on what has happened and on what we cannot affect. We at BIR, and we as an industry, need to look to the future so as to ensure that recycling and recyclers play the most active part possible in the new future for textiles that is currently under discussion.
Today, clothing does not simply answer a practical need; fashion has become a form of self-expression and the sheer volume and variety of textile products available on the market have reached unprecedented levels. The global apparel market alone is already worth more than US$ 1.3 trillion per year and the figure is continuing to rise; indeed, the Pulse of the Fashion Industry report from Global Fashion Agenda, Boston Consulting Group and Sustainable Apparel Coalition projects that, by the year 2030, global apparel consumption could have leapt by a further 63% to 102 million tonnes.
But textiles are not used just for clothes; they are also in our homes, hospitals, workplaces and vehicles - in the form of cleaning materials, upholstery, leisure equipment and so on. Overall, textile production is a major contributor to climate change and produces an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. According to the UK Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee report “Fixing Fashion”, this is more than the total produced by international flights and maritime shipping combined.
Textile production also entails substantial resource use: for example, to produce 1 kg of cotton takes between 10,000 and 20,000 litres of water. More alarmingly, the World Bank reckons 20% of global water pollution is caused by textile processing, making it the second biggest polluter of freshwater resources on the planet.
FACING UP TO THE CHALLENGE
Despite the positive impact clothing and textiles recycling could have on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental issues, many consumers do not realize to what extent their household textiles can be recycled, with the result that a significant proportion still ends up in landfills. At a recent BIR Convention, it was claimed that low recycling rates for used textiles represent a worldwide problem, with current rates estimated at 26% in Europe, 15% in China and 12% in the USA. Within Europe, the collection rates vary hugely from country to country: a report from the European Clothing Action Plan on used textile collections within cities has looked at separate collection rates as a share of quantities on the market and has listed estimates of 75% for Germany and 44% for Denmark, dropping to 30-40% for France, the Netherlands and the UK, and as low as 11% for Italy.
Against this backdrop, BIR and the textiles recycling industry as a whole have been underlining the recyclability of almost every form of used textile. BIR Conventions have also provided a platform to highlight latest research designed to maximise recycling rates - not only through reuse but also, for example, through chemical and biological recycling. Most recently, these global gatherings have showcased practical solutions to convert blended textiles into new fabrics and yarns, as well as a dry upcycling process (housed within a standard shipping container) that completes the entire garment-to-garment recycling chain - from sanitization and fibre opening to spinning and knitting - in a period of four hours to two days.
BENEFITS OF RECYCLING
The recovery and recycling of textiles provide both environmental and economic benefits by:
Reducing the need for landfill space. Certain synthetic fibre products do not decompose, while natural fibre such as wool does decompose but produces methane which contributes to global warming.
Reducing pressure on virgin resources. This includes materials traditionally used in textiles such as cotton and wool, as well as oil and other chemicals employed to produce synthetic fibres.
Reducing water and energy consumption.
Reducing demand for dyes and fixing agents. This, in turn, minimizes the problems caused by their use and manufacture.
APPLICATIONS & RECYCLING FACTS