From new state-based data to national roundtables with the biggest players action is seemingly on its way, and it couldn’t come sooner. Read on to discover more about the issue of textile waste in Australia and what’s being done to develop a circular solution.
What is the problem with textiles?
Australians are a fashionable bunch, perhaps even too much so. On a per capita basis, we are now the second highest consumer of textiles in the world, only trailing the United States. Each year, we purchase an average of 27 kilograms of new clothing and dispose an average of 23 kilograms of clothing to landfill.
That’s a staggering number of valuable materials being sent to landfill just to put clothes on our backs, representing approximately 93 per cent of all the textile waste we generate. Not to mention, every bit of clothing that ends up in landfill also represents a waste of the water and energy required to produce it.
Further compounding the issue is the composition of textiles globally, with approximately 60 per cent of all clothing made from synthetic materials. This is includes polyester, acrylic and nylon textiles, which are all derived from plastic.
In total, more than 800,000 tonnes of leather, rubber and textiles were discarded 2018-19 with a recycling rate of just 7 per cent according to the most recent National Waste Report.
To put it simply, there is clearly significant work to be done to build a circular economy for textiles in Australia.
What’s being done to address the issue?
In May this year industry, government and several other key stakeholders came together for Australia’s first National Clothing Textile Waste roundtable, hosted by the Australian Government at Parliament House in Canberra. Participants from across retail, fashion, charity, production, environment, research and waste management discussed key challenges and opportunities in the sector.
The roundtable represented the beginnings of a collaborative effort to reduce the 800,000 tonnes of textile waste being generated annually, drawing on a diversity of expertise across Australia to create an action plan. In a hugely encouraging sign, participants agreed that a circular economy for textiles is critical to achieving a sustainable textile industry in Australia.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley also announced that clothing textiles would be included in the product stewardship priority list, with a financial commitment of up to $1 million in funding to support product stewardship efforts. Product stewardship schemes (also known as extended producer responsibility) help share the cost of managing the end of life of a product among industry, government and consumers, minimising the health and environmental impact of a product over its entire lifecycle
Who is driving change?
A welcome recent introduction to the domestic textile sector is the Australian Circular Textile Association (ACTA), which was founded in 2019 at the Australian Circular Fashion Conference. ACTA is Australasia’s first collaborative industry body formed to realise full resource efficiency and drive the transition towards a circular economy for textiles within Australia.
One of the primary goals of ACTA has been to generate accurate data, as the breakdown in reporting and data gathering has likely resulted in underestimation and inaccuracies in portraying the impact of textile waste. Most recently the group worked with the NSW EPA to produce Thread Count, a data report intended to inform future waste initiatives in the state. This type of data generation will be crucial to creating the interventions necessary for circular solutions to textile waste.
The charity sector is another important vehicle for driving action through data gathering and analysis. Charitable Recycling Australia, a collective network of charitable, purpose-driven reuse and recycling enterprises including household names such as Salvos and Vinnies, recently produced the 2021 Impact Report to explain the role of charitable reuse and recycling in this sector.
The report showed that in the financial year 2019-20 charitable recycling helped divert over one million tonnes of waste from landfill, generating nearly a billion dollars for the Australian economy and over 5,000 full-time jobs. This provides a snapshot of the potential of a circular economy for clothing and textiles in Australia.
Where to next?
An important result of the Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable was broad agreement to a hold a National Summit later this year to develop a set of product stewardship goals for a circular economy for clothing textiles. An industry working group will be established to set the agenda, identify invitees and to develop proposals for discussion and endorsement at the summit.
Data will continue to be paramount to identifying the type of industry interventions required to achieve these goals. These interventions will require collaborative effort that draws on the diversity of expertise across Australia to create tangible action.
Most importantly, industry players need to recognise textile circularity provides a significant opportunity to drive innovation, better design, create new Australian jobs and recover valuable resources from items currently going to landfill.
It’s time for us to realise that a sustainable textile industry might be most fashionable after all.
For end of life options for clothing and other textiles: