The Impact of Clothing Waste
This post summarises the key points of the recently published article by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future.
The report states that clothing is the largest application of textiles and this number is expected to increase. In the last 15 years, clothing production has doubled due to a multitude of factors such as: a growing middle class population, increased buying power in developing countries and the phenomena of fast fashion.
What is fast fashion?
Fast fashion is defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as ‘a fast turnaround of new styles, increased number of collections offered per season, and significantly lower prices’.
Although sales are increasing, the utilisation of each clothing item is continuing to fall drastically, with the average number of times a garment is worn decreasing by 36% in the last 15 years.
What happens to our clothes?
Of clothes actually purchased and worn by consumers, 87% of the clothing waste goes to landfill or incineration. This is simply poor waste management and is resulting in multiple losses: a loss of material value, a loss of landfill space as well as a loss of money. When clothing ends up in landfill, it causes harmful impact. Synthetic fibres take many years to decompose, with the average polyester item surviving for at least 200 years. Most clothing is synthetic or a blend of synthetic and natural fibres. Of 100% natural fibres such as cotton or wool, once they end up in landfill, they generate methane which can be released into the environment if the site is not sufficiently controlled. Methane has a global warming potential four times higher than carbon-dioxide, hence this contributes significantly to greenhouse effect.
Of the material used to make clothing, less than 1% is recycled into new clothing items, resulting in a loss of over 100 billion euros each year. There are also extremely high costs associated with disposal of clothing into landfill sites, as many countries have initiated a landfill tax.
Some material is recycled, however this is usually for low value applications such as producing cleaning material, or insulation. These materials are again not recyclable after use due to economical reasons, hence they are again discarded in landfill or incinerated.
What about the clothes we donate?
Many countries have started to employ restrictions on the import of used clothing. Countries such as China are already enforcing these bans and no longer taken our used clothes. Many East African countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Rwanda also want to propose an import ban of all worn clothing.
An astonishing 70% of the unwanted clothing collected in Europe is considered reusable. 20% is resold within Europe however the remainder is sold to merchants who sell them to lower economically developed countries. Of this, 70% is reused, 20% is used in lower value applications and 10% is sent to landfill or incinerated.
Energy use in the textile industry
Unfortunately, textiles are mostly produced using non-renewable sources such as oil and gas. This includes, the production of synthetic fibres, fertilisers, chemical dyes, etc. The industry also uses approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water. This is resulting in water scarcity in many textile producing regions.
It is such a shame to see that so much energy and resource is going into materials that are barely worn.
20% of global industrial water pollution is caused by material dyeing and textile treatment. Textiles are also a large contributor to micro plastics ending up in the ocean, with the value potentially amounting to 22 million tonnes by 2050.
What about the future?
If we continue to purchase clothing at our current rates, sales will hit 160 million tonnes in 2050 which three times todays purchasing amount. With increased demand, decreased usage and an ever-increasing global impact, it is vital to think of innovative solutions to overcome the environmental impact we are producing.
Circular economy principles will allow us reduce waste within the textiles systems and capture the value of textiles after their use.
Using circular economy thinking would drive out the harmful impacts of textile waste on the environment, reducing the amount of greenhouse gases and hazardous chemicals released into the atmosphere. Clever design will ensure that there is a secondary use of textiles.