EU countries prepare for textile recycling big bang – EURACTIV.com
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- December 22, 2022
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Recycling textiles is no easy feat, with industrial processes still in their early years. Yet, recyclers say a looming obligation for EU countries to collect and sort used textiles will help the nascent industry get off the ground.
The environmental impact of the textile industry is significant. A 2021 report by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre found that around 4-6% of the EU’s overall environmental footprint can be traced back to textiles.
To address this, the Commission presented in March 2022 an EU strategy for sustainable textiles.
Under the strategy, textiles placed on the European market would need to last longer, be easier to repair, and their lifetime would be extended by recycling the materials they contain into new high-quality products.
Improving design at the manufacturing stage is also being considered to make recycling easier, with new standards expected to be adopted under the EU’s ecodesign regulation. The objective is that all textiles placed on the EU market are durable, repairable and recyclable, and made to “a great extent” from recycled fibres.
The incorporation of minimum amounts of recycled fibres in new textile products is “really quite promising,” says Valérie Boiten, senior policy officer at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a charity which works to accelerate the transition to a circular economy.
“There are different ISO standards out there, but for recyclability, not yet,” she told EURACTIV.
“The challenge is that a product’s recyclability depends on several factors, including material choices, the way components are assembled, and the availability of infrastructure to collect, sort, and prepare the product for recycling,” she explained.
Recycling rates for textiles are currently rather low, with 1.7 to 2.1 million tonnes of used textiles collected annually throughout the EU, according to the JRC study. The majority of the remaining 3.3 to 3.7 million tonnes are thought to be discarded in mixed household waste, the study found.
However, the data must be taken with “a pinch of salt”, Boiten argued, explaining that there is no Europe-wide obligation to report on the amount of textile collected from consumers or companies.
“There are obviously a lot of textiles that don’t get collected separately and that simply end up in people’s kitchen bins,” Boiten explained, adding: “We do not have a comprehensive overview of these flows.”
Policy big bang
Textile recycling will also be greatly encouraged by a policy big bang, with new EU-wide waste collection and recycling targets kicking in as of 2025.
The revision of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive requires EU countries to establish systems for the separate collection of textile waste by 1 January 2025.
At the moment, there are no targets for collection, so there is no obligation for member states to report, with only 13 EU countries currently doing some reporting, the JRC report says.
Of these, only Austria, France, the Belgian region of Flanders and Italy report annually on post-consumer textile collection, while other countries have mapped them once or twice over the course of the past decade, often with the assistance of non-governmental bodies.
Additionally, there is no clear definition for textiles or of what should be included in the reporting, which means figures are not comparable across EU countries.
The recent EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles has not offered a definition or a description of the products that would be covered from a regulatory perspective. The EU Textile Regulation applies to “all products containing at least 80% by weight of textile fibres”. But this definition would exclude the majority of footwear as well as accessories.
“Some might look at garments, some might look at garments and shoes, some might look at all possible textiles without really defining what a textile is. And I think that that’s already an issue where there is no EU-wide definition of textiles and what products fall under textile,” Boiten said.
The upcoming revision of the EU Waste Framework Directive will also include a proposal to harmonise so-called extended producer responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles – which place an obligation on manufacturers to finance waste collection systems at local level.
Mandatory EPR schemes can provide the funding needed to collect discarded textiles separately, and divert them from mixed municipal waste. They can also help finance the infrastructure needed for sorting and preparing textiles for reuse or recycling.
This is what is argued in a recent white paper by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, which highlights the need for harmonised EPR regulations across all EU member states. These would achieve “significant economic and environmental benefits” by improving the economics for waste from textile products, which currently ends up in landfills or incinerated, the paper argues.
France was a pioneer in this respect. In 2007, it became the first EU country to introduce an EPR scheme holding producers of textiles, household linen and footwear responsible for the collection and recycling of their products.
“The French EPR scheme was put in place to help the country towards reaching its collection and recycling targets,” said Jennifer Cuenca of Refashion/Eco TLC, an eco-organisation of the French textile, household linen and footwear industry.
The scheme promotes the ecodesign of products and supports repair and reuse. “It also supports efforts towards more transparency in the sector, improving consumer awareness, technological innovation, and overall better sharing between all stakeholders,” Cuenca told EURACTIV.
As a result, the amount of textiles sorted in France has more than doubled in 10 years, rising from 96,000 to 196,000 tonnes, according to a 2019 report by Refashion.
Dutch to follow French lead
For eco-textile advocates, similar schemes should be implemented EU-wide and harmonised as much as possible in order to generate economies of scale.
This is what the Netherlands have started doing. Next year, the country’s EPR scheme for textiles will come into force, obliging manufacturers of clothing, corporate wear and household textiles to contribute to the country’s waste collection scheme.
“Not included are for example shoes, bags, belts, returned products, blankets, curtains and carpets,” explained a spokesperson for the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.
The Dutch scheme will be implemented in three stages: from 2024 onwards, producers will need to report annually on their put on market for the year before. From 2025, new targets will start applying – 50% of textiles must be recycled and 25% must be reused. And from 2026, producers must report about their progress towards these objectives.
“At the moment we have a lot of EPR systems being developed in several EU Member States and they don’t all look very similar,” said Mariska Boer, corporate communications executive at Boer Group, a textile recycling company based in the Netherlands. “We envision a framework for an EPR system on the EU level, with enough room left for the member states to fill in the details themselves. But there needs to be a common framework,” she argued.
Under current EU rules, textiles will need to be collected separately from 2025 onwards, and every member state will need a system to facilitate that, Boer said.
“We are looking at a potential increase from 2.7 million tonnes of textiles being collected within the EU now, to 5.5 million tonnes of textiles in 2030. We do not yet have adequate infrastructure for collecting and capacity of sorting and recycling to handle this increased volume and rapidly need to expand,” she added.
Currently, there are significant differences among EU member states when it comes to infrastructure for collecting and sorting textile waste. Some countries have “hardly any infrastructure”, while others have well-developed systems already in place – such as the Netherlands and Germany, Boer told EURACTIV.
According to her, an EPR system could also facilitate in partially financing the expansion of capacity.
In The Hague, officials are keen to see EU rules implemented to harmonise the collection and recycling of textile waste. “The Netherlands specifically attaches importance to mandatory targets for recycled content,” said a spokesperson for the Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management.
Other priorities for The Hague include EU requirements to improve the durability and quality of textiles as well as product requirements to minimise the presence of harmful chemicals and microplastics, the spokesperson said.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon. Additional reporting by Kira Taylor]