Australia is the second highest consumer of textiles per person in the world, behind only the United States of America. Each year, we acquire on average 27 kilograms of new clothing per person, and discard around 23 kilograms of it to landfill. In total, approximately 800,000 tonnes of textiles are sent to Australian landfills each year (and more has been historically sent overseas).
According to the World Economic Forum's recent report "Net-Zero Challenge: The supply chain opportunity", textiles and fashion supply chains are the third largest polluter globally and generate emissions which surpass those of the shipping and aviation industries combined.
There are several reasons for our current predicament. These include:
- a large amount of textile waste is comprised of non-renewable, synthetic materials that are made entirely or partially out of non-degradable plastics. This makes effective recycling of these materials complicated (especially for the average Australian) and results in large quantities of textiles being sent to landfill where they will take hundreds of years to break down and continue to release damaging carbon emissions as they do;
- until recently, the waste produced by textile and fashion industries has not been heavily regulated or tracked at the state and federal levels in Australia (unlike other materials such as glass and plastic).
Transitioning to a circular economy
Managing the waste problem generally in Australia requires a shift to a circular waste economy.
A fundamental philosophy of a circular economy is a "take-make-recreate" model. Unlike with a linear economic model, the goal is to avoid wastage and promote the creation of recyclable and re-usable products and materials keeping them in economy for longer and thus minimising further use and degradation of natural resources.
In its recent report "The State of Fashion 2022", McKinsey & Company outlined one of the key themes of 2022 as being "circular textiles":
"One of the most important levers that the fashion industry can pull to reduce its environmental impact is closed-loop recycling, a system which is now starting to be rolled out at scale, promising to limit the extractive production of virgin raw materials and decrease textile waste. As these technologies mature, companies will need to embed them into the design phase of product development while adopting large-scale collection and sorting processes."
Solutions from the public sector
In May 2021, Environment Minister Sussan Ley hosted the Industry Clothing Textiles Waste Roundtable and Exhibition. This event sparked important discussions around the need to reduce clothing waste, the impacts of fast fashion and the necessity for nation-wide co-ordinated action. Attendees agreed that a circular economy approach to the textile waste problem is critical to accomplishing sustainability in the relevant industries. This would create further opportunities to drive innovative and efficient solutions to prevent the mass exodus of products to landfill as well as create new jobs in in the sustainable resources field.
In November 2021, $1 million was awarded to the Australian Fashion Council through the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund to establish Australia's first National Production Stewardship Scheme for clothing textiles, which will provide "a roadmap to 2030 for clothing circularity in Australia in line with National Waste Policy Action Plan targets". The money will be used to fund the commission of three reports by March 2023 on:
- Data and material flow;
- Analysis of global initiatives, policies and technologies promoting circularity in textiles; and
- Recommendations on practical steps forward and a guide on progress to 2030 in light of the National Waste Policy Action Plan targets.
Money from the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund has also been given to the Australasian Circular Textile Association Ltd in relation to the Circular Threads project which will "develop a business case and design a product stewardship scheme to collect, reuse and recycle uniforms and workwear".
Solutions from the private sector
Several companies are providing innovative and resourceful solutions for Australia's textile waste problem.
BlockTexx, a clean technology company, in collaboration with researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, has created a process that can recover polyester and cellulose from textiles and clothing. This chemical separation process, coined S.O.F.T ("separation of fibre technology"), generates raw materials of polyester and cellulose that can be utilised in all industries, including as plastic pellets and polyester fibre suitable for use in textiles, packaging and building products. BlockTexx is building a textile recycling plant in Logan, Queensland, which is projected to recycle 4000 tonnes of textile waste in its first year as a result of using the S.O.F.T technology. BlockTexx estimates it will be able to offset about 120,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.
Worn Up is another organisation working within this space. Its aim is to keep uniforms out of landfill by making new products from up-cycled non-wearable uniforms and production offcuts. Their Textile Rescue Program is designed to work with schools, corporates, local governments and sporting associations to keep uniforms out of landfill as well as help businesses identify sustainability challenges in their uniform supply chains. They have created the Responsible Textile Disposal Tick which is a stewardship and certification program that operates to hold organisation accountable for their waste and ensure they dispose of it responsibly.
Key takeaways for textile waste
Australia has become one of the world's leading contributors to textile waste and this is something that must be addressed in our transition to net zero. Arguably, the fashion and textile industries contribution to our growing waste problem and emissions has been historically underestimated, however, companies and governments (from the Federal to local levels) are now creating opportunities to combat the problem head-on.
In "The State of Fashion 2022", McKinsey projected that another theme of 2022 will be consumers engaging in a "wardrobe reboot" and, for some fashion markets "revenge shopping", as social freedoms (and commitments) increase. Whether this will eventuate is unclear: however, it is clear that our waste problem has the potential to get worse and that more needs to be done.