From Europe to Africa and Asia: the journey of discarded textiles
European countries are struggling to handle ever-growing amounts of used textiles and clothing. Most of it ends up being exported to Africa and Asia, according to the European Environment Agency.
Textiles constitute the fourth largest source of pressure on the environment and climate change after food, housing and transport, according to the EEA.
For each person in the EU, textile consumption represents about 1.3 tonnes of raw materials and 104 cubic metres of water every year. And the vast majority of these resources are consumed outside the EU – 85% for raw materials and 92% for water.
But the environmental pressure of textiles is not only exerted upstream in the production process – it also comes back at the end of the value chain, when textiles are discarded.
As reuse and recycling capacity in Europe is limited, a large share of used textiles are exported to Africa and Asia, where their fate is “highly uncertain, as limited and mostly anecdotal evidence is available,” the EEA says.
The amount of used textiles exported from the EU has tripled over the last two decades – from 550,000 tonnes in 2000 to almost 1.7 million tonnes in 2019, according to the report.
In 2019, 46% of used textiles ended up in Africa. The imported used textiles go mostly towards local reuse, with the remainder ending up in open landfills and informal waste streams, the report found.
EU exports of used textiles to other regions, 2000, 2010 and 2019, percentage. Note: Groupings of countries are based on those of the United Nations Statistical Office (UN Statistics Division, 2022). Source: (UN Comtrade, 2022b)
“I had a recent discussion with a colleague from Kenya, he said that 90% of their clothing market is actually our clothes,” said EEA’s director Hans Bruyninckx who spoke on Monday (27 February) at the Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference in Brussels.
Asia is also a common destination, with 41% of used textiles being exported there in 2019, according to the EEA.
However, most used textiles sent to Asia are imported to dedicated economic zones where they are sorted and processed, and eventually re-exported to other Asian or African countries.
“When we set up these markets, or try to mess with them, or govern them, we need to reflect also on what is happening on the other side, on the receiving end. And that opens up a whole set of really interesting discussions about equity,” Bruyninckx explained.
Overall picture unclear
Improved monitoring of used textile flows could help better manage the situation and address the issue since at the moment there is high uncertainty around the types of textiles exported, as well as their quality, the report notes.
There is a lack of consistent data on the quantities and fate of used textiles and textile waste in Europe as different countries collect and classify them in various ways, and this constitutes a challenge in terms of transparency and traceability.
“There is very little visibility about what’s happening along value chains,” said Maria Teresa Pisani, economic affairs officer at the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).
“About 70% of the purchasers and procurement officers in companies have visibility only up to tier one – so what is happening with their immediate suppliers,” she explained. “The more we move upstream the value chain, the highest the impacts on human rights, society and the environment,” she added.
According to Pisani, this tends to erode consumers’ trust in the textile and fashion sector. “There is no trust because there is very little clear understanding of how these products are produced,” she said.
However, this can also be fixed, she added, saying “clear rules of the game” that go “beyond the EU and other advanced economies” could provide policy coherence and harmonisation in the textile industry.
Promoting a circular business model
The fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions, according to estimates.
When it comes to microplastics, washing synthetics releases an estimated 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean every year, with a single laundry load of polyester clothes potentially discharging up to 700,000 microplastic fibres.
“Less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is recycled into new clothing. I am sure we can do better than that,” stressed Veronika Hunt Safrankova, head of the Brussels Office of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), who also spoke at the Brussels conference.
According to her, an improved circularity model could constitute a solution from both an environmental and economic point of view.
“If we double the average use of existing garments, that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 44%. So there’s a huge potential to contribute to the fight with climate change,” she said.
“There are also potentials from an economic point of view: several business models have the potential to grow from 3.5% of the global fashion market, which we have today, to 23% by 2030,” Safrankova added.
EU countries prepare for textile recycling big bang
Recycling textiles is no easy feat, with industrial processes still in their early years. Yet, recyclers say a looming obligation for EU countries to collect and sort used textiles will help the nascent industry get off the ground.