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May 7, 2024

Upcoming circularity regulation should focus on Europe’s textile waste

Vendors wait for customers at the Kantamanto textile market in Accra, Ghana
Large amounts of used clothing are exported to the global south, with exports from Europe almost tripling between 2000 and 2019, contributing to adverse environmental and social impacts, says the report © Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Bloomberg

European policymakers must increase circular economy requirements and reduce exports of textile waste, Zero Waste Europe says 

Sustainability network Zero Waste Europe is urging European policymakers to take “immediate action” to better manage the growing problem of textile waste, which it describes as “staggering”. According to a ZWE report, Europe incinerates or puts into landfill more than eight megatonnes of post-consumer textile waste annually.

Meanwhile, large amounts of used clothing are exported to the global south, with exports from Europe almost tripling between 2000 and 2019.  “Large fractions of the textiles are likely not reused and therefore contribute to adverse environmental and social impacts,” the report says.

Today, only 1 per cent of textile waste is recycled back into the industry, the report says — a figure that must increase significantly if Europe is to comply with the EU’s circular economy action plan to reduce pressure on natural resources.

The report outlines measures the EU should adopt to cut textile waste. Policymakers should strengthen existing legislative frameworks to increase circular designs for textiles, reduce the use of harmful chemicals and introduce requirements for recycled content, it says. 

These goals could be met by fully implementing the EU’s Ecodesign for Sustainable Products regulation, which requires products to be designed with “durability, reusability, upgradability and reparability” in mind and includes provisions for textile waste. The European parliament and council signed a provisional agreement on the regulation in December 2023 but it is yet to be formally adopted by the EU institutions.

Policymakers should also adopt stricter requirements on using virgin materials to produce textiles, ZWE says. When it is not possible to use reused or recycled materials, bio-based materials should be prioritised, the report suggests — though it also warns sourcing biomass may carry other sustainability risks, including deforestation.

Measures to increase demand for local reuse of textiles would also help to avoid their export, ZWE says, and could include extended producer responsibilities for clothing companies and improved collection infrastructure for consumers. 

According to ZWE, the main barriers to textile circularity in Europe are “overconsumption” and the “shortlived” nature of clothing design. The most effective way to increase reuse and recyclability of textiles in the EU, it concludes, is a “substantial reduction of material input into the system”.

The report is available to read here.

A service from the Financial Times