Each year, an average European such as me or you consumes 26 kg of textiles and produces 11.3 kg of textile waste, which, across Europe as a whole, amounts to 5.8 million tonnes per year. Of that quantity, less than 1% goes to high-quality recycling. The production and transportation of all those textiles requires 1.3 tonnes of primary raw materials, 100,000 litres of water and 700 m² of land per person per year. The impact on the environment and the climate is therefore considerable. All the more reason to bring textiles, in addition to plastics, to the fore in the EU Green Deal as a crucial sector for the development of a European circular economy within the new ‘Circular Economy Action Plan’.
On behalf of the European Environment Agency, VITO investigated how the European textile industry can evolve in the direction of greater circularity and sustainability. In its report entitled ‘Plastics in textiles’, VITO states that the textile industry should focus on sustainable fibre choices, controlling emissions of microplastics and, of course, on improving the separate collection of waste, high-quality reuse and recycling.
In 2019, in its report entitled ‘Textiles and the environment in a circular economy‘, VITO set out the way forward for the transition towards a more circular textile sector in Europe. Until today, the production and consumption of textiles have mainly taken the form of a linear process: consumers buy and dispose of textiles. There is hardly any high quality recycling or reuse and cheaper and less sustainable clothing gains ground. A systemic change is now needed to turn the ship around; this will involve the widespread implementation of circular business models and support in the form of appropriate regulations that intervene in every part of the product cycle.
11.3 kg of textile waste per European per year and hardly any high-quality recycling
Each year, an average European buys 26 kg of textiles (clothing, shoes, household textiles) and produces 11.3 kg of textile waste, which, across Europe as a whole, amounts to 5.8 million tonnes per year. It is estimated that only one third of this is collected separately, with the remainder being sent to landfill or incinerated. Of the waste collected, approximately 60% is reused (often outside Europe), 10-30% is downcycled (insulation, padding, rags), and 10-20% is still waste. Less than 1% is taken for high-quality recycling into new textile fibres. This means that before we can speak of a circular textile sector in Europe, there is still a long way to go when it comes to ensuring the separate collection, reuse and recycling of textile waste.
The environmental impact of textiles
The production of all those textiles requires 1.3 tonnes of primary raw materials, 100,000 litres of water and 700 m² of land per person per year. Those figures in themselves already give an idea of the environmental impact of textiles.
60% of the textiles consumed are synthetic (polyester, nylon, elastane). Synthetic fibres primarily have an impact on our climate due to the use of fossil-based raw materials. This accounts for the emission of 650 kg CO2-equivalent per person per year.
Furthermore, synthetic textiles are also a major source of microplastics, in other words, of tiny plastic particles that are released during the production, washing, use and disposal of the textile product. Estimates suggest that worldwide, between 0.2 and 0.5 million tonnes of textile-related microplastics end up in our oceans every year. These are mainly released during the washing of clothes.
However, synthetic textiles are not the only culprit. Natural fibres also have a high environmental impact. Cotton scores badly as far as the use of land, water and chemicals is concerned. So, for textiles, it is not true that choosing natural or bio-based raw materials is always better.
Three pathways to achieve a circular textile sector
In order to reduce the environmental and climatic impact of textile production and textile consumption the sector must become more circular: a longer lifetime for products, more reuse, better recycling… This can be achieved without compromising the economic and social importance of the sector. Many consumers today are already willing to help shape that transition: 71% indicate that they are interested in investing in quality clothing and are considering buying second-hand, or reselling, repairing or renting clothes. Small players in the textile sector are already responding to this trend, so right now, it’s a matter of scaling up those good practices. Specifically in relation to synthetic fibres, we have identified three main actions to make the textile sector circular and environmentally friendly:
To reduce the environmental impact of textile products as much as possible, it is important to make sustainable fibre choices. The choice of fibre not only determines the properties and performance of the product, but also the environmental impact of the final product and the fate of the textile during the remainder of its life cycle. Although switching to natural or bio-based fibres can reduce the impact of using fossil-based raw materials, those fibres do not always have equivalent properties and are not necessarily more sustainable. The most important rule is that the choice of fibre must be in keeping with the expected application – the required properties, the predicted life span and the type of end-of-life processing that is expected.
- There is a need for more research so that we can properly understand and control emissions of microplastics. In addition to carrying out research into the effects of microplastics on human health and the environment, an in-depth study is under way to determine how to reduce emissions of microplastics throughout the life cycle of textiles.
- The EU is already taking the lead in that regard by implementing measures within its strategy for plastics to ensure that microplastics are captured more effectively (such as by means of filters), by improving measurement methods and by developing the knowledge about the emission of microplastics into the environment and estimating their long-term impact on ecosystems, people and animals.
- In order to avoid having to use new raw materials every time textiles are produced, it is important to take steps to ensure high-quality reuse and recycling and to bring about improvements with regard to the separate collection of waste. Closing the loop can strongly reduce the environmental impact of our textile consumption. The challenge lies in overcoming the technical, economic and social challenges that still stand in the way of reuse and high-performance fibre-to-fibre recycling. Thanks to the EU Waste Directive, an important first step has been taken – from 1 January 2025 onwards, the separate collection of textile waste will be compulsory in all Member States. Consequently, the installation of sufficient sorting and recycling capacity will have to be ensured.
Further information about this and about other ways of making textiles more sustainable can be found in the reports entitled ‘Textiles and the environment in a circular economy’ and ‘Plastic in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts’.
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