Taking action on textile waste

Jan 31, 2022 | Waste & consumerism | 1 comment

When you open your wardrobe or drawers you will probably see things that you haven’t worn in ages. Chances are most were bought new, on a whim.

All those shirts, singlets, pants, dresses, skirts, tops, scarves, jackets, socks, novelty clothing and of course school and sports uniforms …

Then there are your curtains, sheets, carpets, sofas and so on.

Many of us have things passed onto us from family and friends, or we buy preloved items and repair things. This is a great way to support local charities and businesses, but our economy is skewed towards the ‘new’. We have now reached a tipping point in the love affair with (tr)ashion.

Australia is the second-highest consumer of textiles per person in the world after the US and 93% of it goes to landfill. Then there are the clothing ‘recycling’ challenges. You only need to look at the clothing bins near the Macleod station, where good intentioned people try to give clothing a second chance. We have an understanding that recycling of quality clothing has its place. But this can turn into a problem with the sheer volume of items – they spill out from the bins and over the footpath, or are dumped and then rained on. This creates a secondary waste problem. Charities such as the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Salvation Army face huge bills each year to get rid of soiled clothing and textiles left at their network of stores.

In terms of clothing, each Australian consumes an average of 27kg of new clothing per year. An average of 23kg of clothing is sent to landfill each year. Doing your bit by reducing new purchases, buying second-hand, swapping with friends and re-styling are easy actions you can take and are a positive start. Still, systematic change has to occur to revolutionise our attitude to fashion and the way we consume and dispose of the textiles in our lives.

Last year the Federal government held its first industry roundtable to deal with textile waste.

It bought together leaders in textiles, retail, innovation, fashion and the circular economy. The group pledged to look at starting product stewardship for textiles. Product stewardship means whoever designs, produces, sells, or uses a product takes responsibility for minimising the product’s environmental impact throughout all stages of the product’s life cycle, including waste management.

The upshot is that the Australian Fashion Council will lead a consortium including manufacturers, retailers, reuse charities, fibre producers, academics and waste management companies to create Australia’s first National Product Stewardship Scheme for clothing textiles. This aims to improve design, recovery, reuse and recycling, providing a roadmap to 2030 for clothing “circularity” in Australia.

Helen Millicer, a Melbourne expert in the circular economy and director of One Planet Consulting, welcomes this new focus and initiative, and is making recommendations to the Federal Government on better designed products for a sustainable future for Australia.

‘The clothing and textile industry is diverse and complex,’ she says. There are so many formats, fabrics, materials, players and issues. Not only do we have natural and synthetic fibres, textiles (whether jackets, mattresses, carpets and curtains) often have zips, fasteners, dyes, and multilayered constructions.

“It is excellent that first steps are being taken to better measure, manage and minimise this giant unsustainable, linear waste problem.

“What we must do is improve the lifespan of textiles, their reuse, repair and recyclability for circular systems. It is essential that industry and governments build upon existing successes with better design and systems for longer life and many lives for more of our textiles.

“This means industry and governments will set targets and pursue these improvements in design and composition that enables (not inhibits) repair and recyclability, and that brands, retail and charity outlets actively support repair, reuse and recycling.”

Further resources

Here are 10 tips for reducing, recycling and reusing clothes from Clean Up.

Worn up works with schools, corporates, local councils and sports associations to keep uniforms out of landfill and turn them into a raw material for new products.

Apparel is an innovative award-winning Melbourne company that takes your unwanted textiles away and makes them into other consumables. The motto is to ‘move mountains, not make more mountains,” and to “reduce the number of textiles ending up in landfill due to massive garment overproduction and non-existent recycling and upcycling initiatives.”

Written by Amanda Tattam