The environmental impact of textile waste is rapidly gaining attention from government, retailers, and consumers alike. In 2018, the Resources and Waste Strategy identified textiles as one of the five priority waste streams for which Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is to be considered before the end of 2025. In March 2021, the Waste Prevention Programme chose textiles and fishing gear to be the two of these five for which consultation is to be completed by 2022.
The environmental impact of textiles
‘Fast Fashion’ and the associated overconsumption of textiles has put huge pressure on the environment at every stage of the textile life cycle from production to waste.
Lack of accountability in the supply chain has led to human rights violations and widespread environmental abuse, such as chemical water pollution from factories, excessive irrigation for cotton fields and uncontrolled emissions. The Environmental Audit Committee has called on the UK government to address these issues, but as it stands there is limited enforcement in place.
Additionally, low quality and synthetic items cause as many as 700,000 microfibres to be washed into the water system with a single load of laundry - the washing of synthetic textiles has been found to be the main source of ocean microplastics, highlighting the need for more durable clothing.
Around 60 percent of garments that are donated in the UK are exported abroad, at which point many statistics consider these to have been reused, even though many items are unsellable and are directed straight to landfill, and there is typically no recycling infrastructure in place for clothes that are sold. In Kantamanto in Ghana, one of the largest second-hand textile markets in the world, vendors estimate that around 40% of the 15 million garments arriving at the ports every week are directed straight to landfill.
Upcoming changes: legislation, technology, and consumer perspectives
EPR would aim to be a means of enhancing collection services, supporting design for durability and recycling, encouraging reuse, and supporting circular business models like rental schemes. As the consultation is ongoing, demand for sustainably sourced garments is growing; consumers increasingly want to buy from retailers demonstrating consciousness of environmental issues, and shareholders want to see response to this.
WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Plan) has recently launched Textiles 2030, a voluntary initiative set up to promote collaboration between stakeholders. Many retailers, reuse and recycling organisations and affiliates have already signed up as signatories. WRAP will work with government to help to shape EPR, and with signatories to develop solutions to work towards a circular system.
One of the most exciting area of development in textile waste is Fibre to Fibre (F2F) recycling – the recycling of textiles into fibres of high enough quality to be used to make new textiles, with no need to ‘downcycle’ the resource. Although this is estimated to be a few years away from full commercialisation, it provides a promising outlook for textile circularity.
What could EPR achieve?
A 1p levy per garment (although it has been argued that a higher levy should be applied) would raise £35 million a year to contribute towards recycling technologies, improved collection and automation systems, and consumer awareness campaigns.
If EPR is implemented, it is likely that eco-modulation of fees will be introduced. In France, the home of the first textile EPR (introduced in 2007), producers pay lower fees for garments that meet durability standards or incorporate recycled materials. This promotes longevity of items, reducing the number of ‘unwearable’ items donated which end up landfilled, and increasing the lifespan of each item - it has been found that wearing a garment for 9 months longer can reduce its environmental impact by 20-30%.
The French EPR has shown how a government mandated EPR can remove barriers caused by defining used textiles as waste, stimulating demand for recycled materials, increasing collection rates, and increasing reuse rates.