Textile waste continues to be the fashion industry's dirty problem. It is estimated that the average Australian sends 23 kilograms of clothes to landfill each year. On top of that, Australians are purchasing 60% more items of clothing than 15 years ago and are keeping them for half as long. While there are a number of ways to extend the life of a piece of clothing, from reducing clothing purchases and shopping consciously, and reusing, mending, up-cycling, donating or re-selling pre-loved items, none of these ways solve the end-of-life textile problem.
When you can't reduce, re-use, re-sell or donate anymore, how should you discard your unwearable, or unwanted, clothes?
A December 2020 report into Australian waste and circular economies found that textile waste has the lowest recovery rate of all waste types, with 87.5% going straight to landfill. Even clothing donated to charity bins is often found to be unfit for local selling and is either exported to developing countries, burnt for fuel or sent to landfill. Unlike glass bottles, cardboard boxes and plastic containers, textile waste is more difficult to recycle, with under 1% material recycled into new clothing.
The environmental impact of textile waste cannot be underestimated. Textile waste pollutes waterways and as it degrades, it releases toxic emissions into the atmosphere. For synthetic fibres favoured by fast fashion brands, this can take up to a thousand years to biodegrade.
There are a number of emerging solutions that can be used to solve Australia's textile waste problem. From innovative textile recycling technology to council recycling programs, it is evident that the solution requires innovation, collaboration and government-led circular systems change.
Solution 1: Chemical recycling technology
BlockTexx is an Australian textile recycling company that has developed technology to separate polycotton garments into their constituent parts and aims to open a recycling plant by the end of 2021. The technology works by turning polyester waste into pellets which can be re-used by the fashion industry, and turning cotton and other natural materials into cellulose which can be added to paints, cements and other products. BlockTexx is one of three start-ups internationally (another is RESYNTEX) with patent-pending processes to separate polyester and cotton, and can provide an innovative solution to Australia's textile problem.
Solution 2: Council textile waste recycling
In January 2021, Bathurst City Council started trialling a new recycling program targeting textile waste. The program involved the council partnering with Sydney-based company, Textile Recycler Australia (TRA), to provide consumers with textile waste bins to sort and recycle their textile waste. While the trial is still being reviewed, it was deemed a huge success where, in its first month, it saw 1.6 tonnes of used textiles recycled. In the EU, regulations will require countries to collect textile waste separately by 2025. Australia can follow suit and expand the Bathurst program to provide consumers with textile waste recycling programs.
Solution 3: Textile used as a sustainable fuel
While burning textile waste is far from ideal, if used as an alternative fuel, it can provide a solution to both textile waste and can reduce reliance on high emission emitting fuels. For example, Japan Airlines have begun using textile waste as a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Japan Airlines' SAF project commenced in 2018 in partnership with a number of research institutes, and saw 250,000 pieces of cotton clothing converted to SAF.
Solution 4: Garment recycling carbon offset scheme
Finally, carbon offsetting programs can provide an incentive for behaviour change. In China, Guangdong province became the first jurisdiction in the world to offer carbon credits in exchange for responsibly disposing of textile waste. Under the program, the quantity of credits issued are calculated based on how much carbon would have been emitted had the clothing been burned or dumped in landfill. Such a carbon offsetting method could easily be integrated into Australia's own carbon offsetting framework, and encourage Australian companies to generate offsets by diverting their textile waste from landfill.
What can you do?
The responsibility of solving the fashion textile waste problem falls squarely on the shoulders of companies, governments and local councils. However, as consumers, this doesn't mean we can't help. Consumers can help with the root cause of the textile waste problem in a number of ways. This includes by reducing consumption of fast fashion and synthetic textiles, opting for fewer, quality pieces, preferably in biodegradable natural fibres, re-wearing and repairing old clothes, and selling or donating unwanted items via consignment stores and online marketplaces.
Written by Georgia Monaghan
Georgia is a climate change consultant and lawyer, passionate about decarbonising food, fibre and agriculture.