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strewn textiles in a big pile
A pile of discarded clothing and textiles in Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINIONSocietyMay 12, 2021

A global avalanche of used clothing is coming. NZ needs to do more to save it from landfill

strewn textiles in a big pile
A pile of discarded clothing and textiles in Jakarta, Indonesia (Photo: Getty Images)

The government has announced aggressive targets for tackling plastics, but has remained largely silent on the issue of waste textiles, writes Bernadette Casey, part of the team behind a product stewardship scheme for the textiles industry.

As an industry, clothing and textiles are up there with agriculture and oil and gas as the top three sources of carbon emissions worldwide. Clothing production has doubled in the last 15 years to more than 100 billion units per year, and as “fast fashion” has become the norm, clothing durability and utilisation (the number of times an item is worn) have declined over the same period. Only a tiny fraction of this global fabric avalanche is ever recycled, with the bulk flowing to landfill where it releases up to three times its weight in greenhouse gases. Meanwhile the draw on virgin natural resources to replace those landfilled textiles keeps on increasing.

Every year here in New Zealand, we import over 380,000 tonnes of textile products, with well over half that amount ending up in landfill. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions from decomposing textiles, the synthetic and blended clothing which now makes up the bulk of what the world wears generates huge amounts of plastic pollution. A 2019 study found that around 87% of the microplastics polluting Auckland’s waterways came from synthetic textiles.

Yet despite the scale of the issue, right now New Zealand has no specific plans or systems in place at a national level to manage it. Last year the government identified six material waste categories as “priority products” for policy intervention and investment, but textiles weren’t included. Plastic waste is a priority if it comes from a farm or product packaging – but not if it’s a polyester tracksuit.

Organic matter is a focus for landfill reduction initiatives because of the emissions generated during decomposition. But while food scraps and garden clippings are classed as organic waste, natural fibres like cotton, linen and wool are not. This despite them rotting in the same way, in the same landfills, producing millions of kilograms of CO2 every year.

Getting rid of one-use plastics such as takeaway cups is a good start – but it isn’t going to solve our waste problems on its own

The purpose-driven company I co-founded, Usedfully, has a mission to radically reduce the environmental impacts of what we wear by building a circular system for clothing and textiles in Aotearoa. In a report delivered to government this week, we outlined how the country is at risk of missing a major opportunity to reduce our waste and carbon footprint, and presented a straightforward plan to address this. Compared with the challenges and compromises involved in limiting carbon emissions in sectors like agriculture even further, reducing the environmental impact of clothing and textiles is simple, practical and within reach. So why isn’t this low-hanging fruit a higher priority on the country’s climate change agenda?

We believe clothing and textiles should become an emissions and waste reduction priority for the government. Not only does their impact warrant it, doing so would open up clear pathways towards making tangible improvements.

For example, product stewardship schemes are fundamental to how the government intends to tackle the other priority material categories. These schemes shift the cost of dealing with products at their end-of-life from the general public (such as ratepayers paying for overburdened municipal landfills) to those who profit from them.

However, unless textiles are prioritised by the government, implementing a large-scale product stewardship scheme is impractical, even though many in the local industry are calling for it. We work with businesses from across the sector – from designers to retailers and manufacturers. Together we’re co-designing a product stewardship scheme for clothing and textiles to show that major players in the industry are ready to take a leadership role in demonstrating how it could work. But no voluntary product stewardship scheme can deliver a step-change in New Zealand’s textile emissions. That requires government support via a mandated, regulated scheme which puts all players on a level playing field. Again, this is simply a case of bringing our approach to textiles into line with other priority waste products.

At that point, we can move from the “design” to the “build” stage, as a regulated product stewardship scheme provides funding and certainty for investment in plant and system infrastructure for the collection, processing and reuse of textile resources. Not only would this infrastructure directly generate jobs and economic returns, it would incentivise investment in the untapped commercial opportunities in used textiles as a resource.

For example, we’ve successfully run pilot projects to extract raw PET from polyester uniforms which can be moulded into new plastic products, and to extrude cellulose from cotton fibre for use as a road mix additive (New Zealand currently imports cellulose for this purpose). There are “fibre-to-fibre” solutions under development that enable used textiles to be processed back into raw materials for manufacturing new fabric products. Internationally, new technologies are making these recycling applications more commercially viable every day. With the scale a mandatory product stewardship scheme would provide, the opportunities to apply those technologies commercially here in New Zealand naturally multiply.

In the paper we have just delivered – developed in conjunction with over 200 local clothing and textile industry stakeholders – we present six key recommendations for significantly moving the dial on how we manage textiles in this country. Those six recommendations are for the government to:

  • Include funding for responsible disposal of the textiles it procures in its contracts
  • Add textiles to the existing list of waste reduction priorities by adding synthetic fibre products to the plastics category and natural fibres to organics
  • Co-invest with the private sector to establish commercial scale regional infrastructure for textile waste sorting and processing
  • Mandate product stewardship schemes on all textile products
  • Use subsidies and tax levers to enable recycled textiles to be competitive with virgin materials to incentivise re-use (in line with the Tax Working Group recommendations on “green taxes”)
  • Set a time frame for banning textiles from landfill (following Europe’s example)

Action on any of the recommendations would make a measurable difference to the environmental impact of textiles in New Zealand, taken together they would enable the entire industry to transition to a low-carbon future.

The benefits of tackling textile emissions are both environmental and economic. We’re calling on the government to support the local sector’s desire for change and help create a more resource-efficient, low-emissions industry that extracts new value from old clothes.

Usedfully’s paper is available on its website via this link

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