The government has announced aggressive targets to tackle plastics, but has remained largely silent on the issue of textile waste, writes Bernadette Casey, a member of the team behind a product stewardship program for the textile industry.
AIt’s an industry, clothing and textiles are up there with agriculture, oil and gas as the top three sources of carbon emissions in the world. Clothing production has doubled over the past 15 years to over 100 billion units per year, and as “fast fashion” has become the norm, the durability and use of clothing (the number of times ‘an item is worn) have declined over the same period. Only a tiny fraction of this global fabric avalanche is recycled, most of it going to landfills where it releases up to three times its weight in greenhouse gases. Meanwhile, the consumption of pristine natural resources to replace these dumped textiles continues to increase.
Each year here in New Zealand, we import over 380,000 tonnes of textile products, more than half of which ends up in landfills. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions from the decomposition of textiles, synthetic and mixed clothing which now constitutes the bulk of what the world wears generates enormous amounts of plastic pollution. A 2019 study found that about 87% of the microplastics polluting Auckland’s waterways came from synthetic textiles.
Yet despite the magnitude of the problem, New Zealand currently has no specific plan or system in place at the national level to deal with it. Last year the government identified six categories of material waste as “priority products” for policy intervention and investment, but textiles were not included. Plastic waste is a priority if it comes from a farm or product packaging – but not if it is polyester outerwear.
Organic matter is at the center of landfill reduction initiatives due to emissions generated during decomposition. But while food scraps and garden clippings are classified as organic waste, natural fibers like cotton, flax, and wool are not. This is despite the fact that they rot in the same way, in the same landfills, producing millions of kilograms of CO2 each year.
TThe company I co-founded, Usedfully, is on 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 to the government this week, we highlighted how the country risks missing a major opportunity to reduce our waste and carbon footprint, and presented a simple plan to address it. Compared to the challenges and trade-offs of limiting carbon emissions in sectors like agriculture even more, reducing the environmental impact of clothing and textiles is simple, practical and within reach. So why isn’t this handy fruit a higher priority on the country’s climate change agenda?
We believe that clothing and textiles should become a priority for the government when it comes to reducing emissions and waste. Not only does their impact justify it, but it would open clear avenues for tangible improvements.
For example, product stewardship programs are central to how the government intends to tackle other priority material categories. These systems shift the cost of processing end-of-life products from the general public (such as taxpayers who pay overloaded municipal landfills) to those who benefit.
However, unless the government prioritizes textiles, implementing a large-scale product stewardship program is impractical, even though many players in the local industry are calling for it. We work with companies from all industries – from designers to retailers and manufacturers. Together, we are designing a product management program for apparel and textiles together to show that the major players in the industry are ready to take a leadership role in demonstrating how it could work. But no voluntary product stewardship program can make a dramatic change in New Zealand’s textile emissions. This requires government support through a mandatory and regulated system that puts all actors on an equal footing. Again, it’s just a matter of aligning our approach to textiles with other priority wastes.
At this point we can move from the ‘design’ stage to the ‘build’ stage, as a regulated product stewardship program provides funding and certainty for investment in plant and plant infrastructure. systems for the collection, treatment and reuse of textile resources. Not only would this infrastructure directly generate jobs and economic returns, but it would provide an incentive to invest in untapped business opportunities in used textiles as a resource.
For example, we have successfully conducted pilot projects to extract raw PET from polyester uniforms that can be molded into new plastic products, and to extrude cellulose from cotton fiber for use as an additive. for road mixing (New Zealand currently imports cellulose for this purpose). There are “fiber-to-fiber” solutions under development that transform used textiles into raw materials for the manufacture of new fabric products. Internationally, new technologies are making these recycling applications more commercially viable every day. With the scale that a mandatory product stewardship program would provide, the opportunities to apply these technologies commercially here in New Zealand naturally multiply.
In the document we just delivered – developed in collaboration with more than 200 local players in the clothing and textiles industry – we present six key recommendations to significantly move the dial on how we manage textiles in this country. . These six recommendations aim to ensure that the government:
- Include funding for the responsible disposal of purchased textiles in its contracts
- Add textiles to the existing list of waste reduction priorities by adding synthetic fiber products to the category of plastics and natural fibers to organics
- Co-invest with the private sector to set up a regional infrastructure on a commercial scale for the sorting and treatment of textile waste
- Mandate product stewardship programs on all textile products
- Use subsidies and tax levers to allow recycled textiles to be competitive with virgin materials to encourage reuse (in line with recommendations of the working group on taxation on “green taxes”)
- Set a deadline to ban textiles from landfills (like in Europe)
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 move towards a low carbon future. carbon.
The benefits of combating textile emissions are both environmental and economic. We call on the government to support the local sector’s desire for change and help create a more resource-efficient, low-emission industry that extracts new value from old clothing.
Usedfully’s article is available on their website via this link.
Subscribe to Rec Room, a weekly newsletter bringing the latest videos, podcasts, and other recommendations from The Spinoff straight to your inbox.