#CircularEconomy_6: More closed-loop clothing: Textiles must be recycled

[Translate to English:] Kleidung wird immer mehr zu einem Wegwerfprodukt. Unsere Analyse zeigt, welche Wege es in der EU für eine Kreislaufwirtschaft im Textilbereich gibt.

Clothes are increasingly being regarded as disposable products: people are buying more and more – with significant impacts on people and the environment. The Oeko-Institut and PlanMiljø have studied the European textile and recycling market and explored the opportunities for a circular economy in the European textile sector. Their findings are set out in a newly published project report.

A pair of jeans for 13 euros, a T-shirt for just six: rock-bottom textile prices mean that clothes are ever more often being treated as something to buy quickly and then throw away. Some 4.4 million tonnes of clothing were purchased by private households in the EU in 2018. That amounts to 12.3 kilos per person – 20 per cent more than in 2003 – and is a development that has significant impacts on people and the environment. The textile industry accounts for between four and six per cent of Europe’s environmental footprint. “These environmental impacts arise from the production of raw materials – and the pesticide use and water consumption that this entails – and from consumption of the energy needed to make and transport the clothing,” explains Dr Andreas Köhler of the Oeko-Institut.

In a study for the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) researchers from the Oeko-Institut and the environmental consultancy PlanMiljø have explored how the concept of the circular economy can be applied to textiles. In the course of the project they

  • produced a comprehensive analysis of material flows and waste arisings in the textile sector,

  • evaluated existing and emerging technologies for sorting and recycling clothing and other textiles, and

  • considered approaches to the circular economy and the necessary conditions.

Textiles in Europe

“The textile sector is an important part of the European economy – it employs more than 1.6 million people,” says Andreas Köhler. At the same time, the EU is the second-largest importer of textiles, ranking behind only the USA, and also the second-largest exporter, surpassed only by China. Since 2010, exports from the EU have increased by an average of six per cent per year. Private households in the EU account for the largest proportion of textile consumption. In 2018 households spent an average of 591 euros on clothing and 67 euros on household textiles; these figures have increased by 14 and 17 per cent respectively since 2000. “The majority of these textiles are imported,” says the Oeko-Institut researcher. “The exports consist in the main of fibres, yarns and fabrics.”

Recycling in Europe

Under the EU Waste Framework Directive, Member States must introduce separate collection of textile waste by 2025. There is in fact major potential for a circular economy in the European textile sector but – partly because there is no binding legislation – this potential is barely being utilised. “At present only France and Estonia have introduced separate collection requirements; Sweden and the Netherlands are planning to do so,” says Dr Andreas Köhler. “At the moment it is therefore mainly dealers in new and used clothing and profit-oriented and non-profit schemes that are collecting clothing.”

The quantities of clothing and other textiles that are collected also vary widely from region to region, amounting in Lithuania to just 0.3 kilos per person but in Flanders to 8.3 kilos. It is thought that between 1.7 and 2.1 million tonnes of used clothing are collected in the EU each year and then sorted. Up to 1.3 million tonnes of still-usable second-hand clothing are exported from the EU to other countries. The rest is shredded and used as sound and heat insulation or for stuffing in the automotive industry. “However, the existing recycling of second-hand clothing is not a genuine example of the circular economy, because the textiles are hardly ever made into new clothing products,” says Andreas Köhler.

The circular economy in Europe

The European Commission’s plans envisage a more sustainable use of clothing in the EU and the creation of a market for the reuse of textiles. “There are already models that focus on the durability of clothing, sharing or renting clothes, clothing repair or collection and reuse,” says the Oeko-Institut’s Senior Researcher. “Until now it has been very difficult for such models to succeed in a competition-oriented market in which low-cost providers are not required to bear the environmental and social costs.” A crucial aspect is the need for consumers to act sustainably – which only a small minority currently do. “If sustainable providers are to move out of their niche position, there must be even more public awareness and appropriate policy conditions must be in place.”

At the Oeko-Institut Dr Andreas Köhler works on a variety of projects involving the assessment of technologies and materials, sustainable production patterns and issues of disposal, reutilisation and recycling. Topics on which he focuses include reducing plastic consumption, the environmentally sound disposal of electrical and electronic devices and the energy and resource consumption of digitalisation.

Further information

Topic page “Consumption and enterprises” on the Oeko-Institut website

Topic page “Sustainable consumption and procurement: from Germany to the world” on the Oeko-Institut website

Analysis “Circular economy perspectives in the EU Textile sector” on the website of the Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Topic page “Bekleidung” [Clothing] on the website of the Federal Environment Agency

Topic page “Textilindustrie” [The textile industry] on the website of the Federal Environment Agency

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