Recycling does not solve textile waste, says Greenpeace

A new report from Greenpeace Germany says that recycling is not the solution to textile waste because technological challenges make it economically unfeasible to recycle clothing into new fibres.

The new report Timeout for fast fashion, published by Greenpeace Germany, reveals that the average person buys 60 per cent more items of clothing every year and keeps them for about half as long as 15 years ago, producing immense volumes of textile waste.

The environmental impacts of this overconsumption are alarming: chemicals from textile factories are polluting rivers and oceans, high levels of energy are needed to produce the clothing, and pesticides used to grow cotton are contaminating agricultural land.

One of the biggest costs to our planet comes from the rising use of synthetic fibres, says Greenpeace. Polyester, for example, emits nearly three times more CO2 in its lifecycle than cotton and can take decades to degrade. Already present in 60 per cent of clothing, it is also responsible for polluting marine environments with plastic microfibres.

According to the report, 95 per cent of the clothes thrown out could be used again – re-worn, reused or recycled – depending on the state of the textile waste. And yet recycling is not a solution for most unwanted clothing as on-going technological challenges mean that full recycling of old clothing into new fibres is still far from commercially viable.

For example, buttons, zips and other non-textile parts need to be removed before processing, and mixed fabrics, such as cotton/polyester blends, cannot be recycled chemically without prior separation of the fabric fractions. Colour pigments, coatings and prints cause additional problems. The mechanical recycling of cotton and wool, on the other hand, results in a loss of quality.

The second-hand clothing market faces its own set of challenges. Overloaded with unwanted clothes, it is “on the brink of collapse”, said Kirsten Brodde, head of Greenpeace’s Detox my Fashion campaign.

According to Brodde, the solution lies in the hands of fashion brands and consumers alike.

“Fashion brands need to urgently re-think the throwaway business model and produce clothing that’s durable, repairable and fit for re-use. As consumers, we also hold the power. Before buying our next bargain item, we can all ask ‘do I really need this?’.”


Image credit: Visit Britain, flickr/Creative Commons

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