Waste management: The textile future is circular
August 21, 2023

All textile producers within the EU will soon be fully responsible for the whole lifecycle of their products. The European Commission has recently proposed new rules to implement this responsibility. This bluntly means: don’t let your textiles go to waste, neither before, nor after you finished producing your textiles.

The new proposal is part of the work within the EU Directive for waste management. With this Textiles EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) only a few years away, is becomes extra important to understand what wastes come from designing, producing, and using any textile. Most importantly, the new proposal underscores the commitment to the “polluter pays” principle. This ensures that the manufacturers are responsible for managing the end-of-life processes for textile waste products.

Old time was linear
For textiles, it might seem harder to create a circular economy than for other material fractions. This because the products are more complex. But with the right mindset, the waste created could instead be new materials in a circular economy.
For many, many years, all our consumption was based on the linear economy model. Simply explained it is when we: Take – Make – Use – Dispose of materials. Neither the produced textiles, nor the fibres they are made of are ever recycled or reused. They are instead disposed of, either in landfills or incinerated (mainly for energy recovery). This means that the virgin materials the textiles are made of are totally wasted. Plus, landfill textile waste normally takes a long period of time to decompose. While decomposing it also often leaks toxic chemicals and dyes into the soil and nearby water sources. It is estimated that five per cent of all global landfills is created by textile waste.

The future is circular
In a circular economy, the wastes produced are recycled, reused, or perhaps never produced. There are already many ways to produce textiles in a more efficient way, as well as ways to take care post-consumer textiles. The materials used for creating something are never disposed of, but instead used again and again. There are many advantages with the circular model, for example we use a lot less energy to produce “new” textiles with reused fibres.

When is the waste produced?
Textile waste is defined as both the material discarded during the production (pre-consumer or post-industrial waste) and the materials left post-consumer. For example, household recycling is post-consumer content, whereas trim scraps from manufacturing processes sent directly into recycling is pre-consumer content.
To be able to create a circular economy for textiles, both the pre-consumer and the post-consumer waste flows must be addressed. And to be able to minimise the waste, we must have a holistic view on the entire life span of textiles. From the design process to the end-of-life of the product. Therefore, the new EU Commission proposal.

Many pre-consumer waste flows
Textile waste is produced in all the different processes of making fabrics and textiles: spinning, weaving, knitting, dyeing, finishing, and clothing. And, in the clothing industry, where there also are different types of production processes. Some of these are cutting, bundling & shorting, sewing, printing, embroidery, and finishing. All these processes produce waste. The waste can either be accidental or intentionally created (for the purpose of efficiency).

To create a circular textile economy, everyone involved must act. The manufacturers can put emphasis on new technologies to reduce wastages and the consumers should be more aware about it. Post-consumer textile recycling is a must, and reducing waste in the production processes is just as important.

What do we do about it?
Whether we are consumer or producers, we all have the same need: Stop creating waste. Depending on where we are in the textile loop, we need to act in different ways. For example:

  • collect, don’t throw away
  • reuse
  • up-cycle
  • redesign production/upgrade production processes
  • design management
  • collaborations on waste management.

It is possible
There are already many initiatives around Europe, on how to both minimising textile waste and to take care of the waste already produced.

  • Read about Fibersort. A project for the sorting and recycling fibres from post-consumer waste.
  • There are several local projects around Europe working with the upcycling of old textiles. This means making either new garments or using the old textiles for other products. Spanish Didaltruck is one and Austrian Noamol is another of these local projects.
  • There are organisations working for an updated fashion design process. Redress design awards is talking about the different ways to approach circularity in fashion. They have defined four core circular design strategies to guide fashion professionals to create smarter products: Design for low waste, Design for low-impact materials and processes, Design for longevity, Design for recyclability. Click here to read more.
  • There are initiatives among European municipalities to work for “slow” fashion. Read about the Slow Fashion Declaration here.
  • Collaborations and finding partners within the textile and fashion industry is a smart way to be able to handle the future challenges. Read what Lutz Walter says about building a prosperous textile business here.

The EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD)
This Directive defines the basics principles related to waste management for Member States of the European Union. Key musts for municipal waste in general:

  • by 2025 preparing for an increase a minimum of 55% by weight of recycling and reuse of municipal waste
  • by 2030 preparing for an increase a minimum of 60% by weight of recycling and reuse of municipal waste
  • by 2035 preparing for an increase a minimum of 65% by weight of recycling and reuse of municipal waste.

March 30th, 2022, the EU published its Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. It basically says that by 2030 textile products placed on the EU market should be long-lasting and recyclable. They should to a great extent made of recycled fibres free of hazardous substances. And they should be produced in respect of social rights and the environment. The key action points in the strategy are:

  • introducing mandatory Eco-design requirements
  • stopping the destruction of unsold or returned textiles
  • tackling microplastics pollution
  • introducing information requirements and a Digital Product Passport
  • green claims for truly sustainable textiles
  • extended producer responsibility and boosting reuse and recycling of textile waste
  • driving consumer behaviour change
  • supporting innovation
  • accounting for the costs of disposal.

On July 5th, 2023, The European Commission proposed new rules to make producers responsible for the full lifecycle of textile products (EPR). These rules also support the sustainable management of textile waste across the EU. This initiative aims at accelerating the development of the separate collection, sorting, reuse, and recycling sector for textiles in the EU. All in line with the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles. Increasing the availability of used textiles is expected to create local jobs and save money for consumers in the EU and beyond. At the same time, it will alleviate the impacts of textile production on natural resources.
The Commission is proposing to introduce mandatory and harmonised Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes for textiles, in all EU Member States. The proposal on a targeted amendment of the Waste Framework Directive is to be considered by the European Parliament and the Council in the ordinary legislative procedure.
You can read more about the Commission’s proposal here.

What is pre-consumer waste
Three main stages in making a textile (all producing waste):

  • Spinning the fibres into yarns
  • Weaving or knitting yarns to make fabric
  • Finishing fabrics into textiles
    On average, some 15 per cent of the fabric used in garment production is lost as pre-consumer waste.

Examples of pre-consumer waste
Textile swatches are leftover textile sample swatches from the production process.
Cut-and-sew waste are textile scraps generated during garment manufacturing. They are often discarded as they’re uneven and small.
End-of-rolls are factory surplus textiles that have been left over from garment manufacturing.
Sampling yardage is factory surplus waste left over from textile sample manufacturing.
Damaged textiles are damaged unused textiles, for example by miscolouring or print defects.
Clothing samples are clothing samples from the design and production of clothing.
Unsold clothing waste is never sold finished or unfinished clothing

Post-consumer waste
Second-hand clothing waste are any clothing or fashion accessories that have been owned and then discarded by consumers (both used and unused).
Second-hand textile waste are any finished non-clothing textiles (such as curtains, bedding, etc) that have been owned and then discarded by consumers (both used and unused)

On the impact of Textile Production and waste:
The European parliament on the impact of textile production
The EU Commission’s proposal on ERP for textiles
Factsheet: Extended Producer Responsibility for textiles

Global Fashion Agenda on the implications of EU EPR for Textile producers:
The EU Policy matrix and the text on harmonised EPR for textiles

Other sources
Re-Design Awards “Circularity in fashion guide”.
Text on Recycled and Post-consumer textiles (pdf).
Text on how to reduce waste in a textile industry
Fibre2Fibre text on Harmful effects of Textile Waste

Read more about European textile waste management in the ACTE White Paper? Click here!