EEA Report Highlights Urgent Need for Sustainable Textile Practices

Textile Waste EEA

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by | Feb 28, 2023

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Textile Waste EEA

(Credit: Canva Pro)

The issue of textile waste is becoming more pressing as the global population grows, and consumerism expands. According to a report by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the amount of used textiles generated by households and other sources in the European Union (EU) has increased significantly over the past decade. In 2016, around 6.4 million tons of textiles were generated in the EU, compared to 5.8 million tons in 2012, an increase of almost 10%.

EU exports of used textiles in Europe’s circular economy’ was part of the 2022 work program of the ETC/CE and was supervised by Lars Mortensen from the EEA and Saskia Manshoven from the ETC/CE. The lead author of the report was Dina Lingås, with support from Freja Lund Paulsen.

Textile waste is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted solution. Used textiles can be recycled, reused, or repurposed, but a significant proportion still ends up in landfills or incinerated, causing environmental and health risks. The EEA report highlights the importance of reducing textile waste generation, increasing the recycling of used textiles, and promoting sustainable production and consumption patterns.

Key Findings From the Report:

  • The volume of used textiles exported from the EU has increased threefold over the past 20 years, rising from just over 550,000 tons in 2000 to nearly 1.7 million tons in 2019.
  • The average amount of used textiles exported per person in the EU in 2019 was 3.8 kilograms, representing 25% of the approximately 15 kilograms of textiles consumed per person each year.
  • In 2019, 46% of used textiles exported from the EU were sent to Africa, primarily for local reuse due to the demand for inexpensive second-hand clothes from Europe. Used textiles that cannot be reused are mainly disposed of in open landfills and informal waste streams.
  • In 2019, 41% of used textiles exported from the EU were directed to Asia, where they are usually sorted and processed in dedicated economic zones. The majority of these textiles are downcycled into industrial rags or filling, re-exported for recycling in other Asian countries, or reused in Africa. Used textiles that are not recyclable or re-exportable are likely to end up in landfills.

To address the issue of textile waste, the EEA recommends a range of actions, including:

  • Consumers can play a significant role in reducing textile waste by choosing to buy high-quality, durable textiles, and by avoiding fast fashion trends. Educating consumers about the environmental impacts of textile production and disposal can also help to raise awareness of the issue and encourage more sustainable choices.
  • To increase the recycling of used textiles, better collection and sorting systems are needed. This includes expanding the availability of textile collection points, improving the sorting of textiles to ensure they are suitable for recycling, and increasing awareness of the benefits of textile recycling.
  • The textile industry can reduce its environmental impact by adopting sustainable production methods, including using eco-friendly materials and reducing the use of hazardous chemicals in the production process. Sustainable design and production practices can also help to extend the lifespan of textiles, reducing the need for new products and reducing waste.
  • Innovation and research are essential for developing new technologies and processes that can help to reduce textile waste and increase recycling. This includes the development of new textile materials and the improvement of textile recycling processes to increase the recovery of valuable materials.

The impacts of textile waste are significant. The production of new textiles requires large amounts of natural resources, including water, land, and energy, and generates significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. The disposal of used textiles in landfills or incinerators can also lead to the release of toxic substances, including hazardous chemicals and microplastics, into the environment.

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