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WHAT HAPPENS TO OUR DISCARDED TEXTILES Dietmar Laue
The EU Commission classifies used textiles as waste. However, an amendment to the directive on waste currently in force has been under discussion since 2008 to establish new conditions in all the EU countries by 2020. Its premise is the fact that urban waste increased by 19% in the EU between 1995 and 2003. Currently 49% of this waste is deposited in landfill sites, 18% is incinerated and 33% is recycled or composted. In some countries the landfill rate is 90%, in others it is 65%. Unless new measures are put in place, the absolute amount of waste deposited in landfill sites will not go down. The European Parliament has ensured that the new directive contains clear objectives for waste management: 1) Prevention and reduction of waste generation; 2) Reuse or multi-way use for the same purpose; 3) Recycling 4) Other recovery operations, including incineration; and 5) Disposal.
Incineration processes must produce a certain amount of usable electricity or district heating. Taking textiles alone, the current situation appears somewhat better. Some 35% of all used textiles were recycled in EU countries 1) in 2006. However, we need to take into account that conclusive statistical data for the waste industry is not available on a European level. All information on textile recycling is based on estimates!
The organisations affiliated to the Brussels Bureau of International Recycling (BIR), Textiles Commodity Division 2), assume that the lifetime of clothing and household textiles is three years. They note that although there is a steady increase in the quantity of textiles purchased and later discarded, these show an equally steady decrease in quality. Next to the North Americans, Swiss and Irish, the Germans are among the largest consumers of textiles, using some 25 kg per capita per annum (worldwide average: ~ 7 kg), and the second largest exporters of used clothes each year.
Recycling textiles at Whitehouse & Schapiro in Baltimore/USA, in the trade with used textiles since over 100 years http://www.webuyrags.com
THE EXAMPLE OF GERMANY In 2008, Germany was one of the very few countries for which an analysis of domestic textile recycling was compiled; interestingly enough, it was produced by a Chinese student, Yinan Gu. On behalf of two associations 3) and 10 years after publication of a comparable analysis of similar quality, she completed a student research project entitled “Textilrecycling in Deutschland (Textile Recycling in Germany)” at the Department of Processing and Recycling, RWTH Aachen University, led by Professor Thomas Pretz and supervised by Indra Weranek.
According to her findings, on the reference date in 2007 (three-year lifetime assumed) German private households owned more than 1.126 million tonnes of used textiles, consisting of 13% household textiles and 87% clothing. In comparison, the proportion of domestically produced clothing decreased by 84% between 1993 and 2006 (13 years)! In 2006, just 3% of our everyday clothing was still produced in the country! Correspondingly, clothing expenditure in the basket of commodities decreased from 6.9% (1995) to 4.9% (2008). Clothing produced in low wage countries is considerably cheaper (and of lower quality) than clothing manufactured at home.
Of the 1.126 million tonnes of used textiles, some 0.75 million tonnes of used textiles – 66% of the population’s annual textile consumption – was recovered by commercial companies, local authorities and charities, either through street collections or used textile banks. According to the above-mentioned research project, ca. 43% of this recovered material was reused, for instance in charity clothes stores and second-hand shops; ca. 16 % was reclaimed to produce wiping cloths or secondary raw materials, such as shredded textiles or rags for cardboard production; and 31% was used for thermal conversion. This equals a recovery rate of 90% of the material collected. The remaining 10% of unusable waste recovered in collections, and the 34% of used textiles not collected, which probably end up in domestic waste, account for some 44% of landfill. This means that improved collection methods offer a great deal of recycling potential. Prognos AG, a German company estimates that, in favourable conditions, we can expect a recovery rate of nearly three quarters of used textiles generated each year by 2020!
Photos below: The Prato Recycling Srl. company in Prato, Italy, known for its wool recycling http://www.pratorecycling.com
22 TextileForum 1/2011 RECYCLING IS A NECESSITY Collection, sorting and recovery of old textiles creates jobs in the low wage sector. At least this is a point argued by the recycling industry, with a view to women’s jobs in-country and the army of people in low-wage countries, of whom 80% depend on second-hand textiles. Industry tells us that in our own countries, sorting fabric qualities is a job for skilled people, usually females who can be enlisted at low wages. According to information provided by Fachverband Textilrecycling, a professional German association for textile recycling, some 10,000 workers currently subsist on the used clothes business. In consequence, they are concerned about the national trade unions’ demands for minimum wages; these could bring sales of used textiles to a standstill in view of cheap imports of new textiles from low wage countries. (The way poor people in highwage countries are played off against those in low-wage countries is not the subject of this discussion).
Ecological considerations provide far more compelling reasons for recycling used textiles, although recognising their feasibility requires political insight rather than a quasi-market economy perspective. Textile production uses a vast amount of natural resources, and its economic cost is out of proportion to the worldwide economic damage it causes.
According to the Bureau of International Recycling, 1 kilo of recycled textiles saves 3.6 kilos of CO2 emissions, 6,000 litres of water, 0.3 kilos of fertiliser and 0.2 kilos of pesticides. We should remember that, for instance, production of 1 kilo of cotton fibres requires 22,000 – 25,000 litres of water. Production of 1 kilo of viscose f ibres still requires 350 litres. In contrast, the manufacture of chemical f ibres from polyester uses just 17 litres! Only 0.8% of the petroleum extracted is used to make chemical f ibres. Burning petroleum, and the consequent risk of global warming which threatens our survival, is one of the wisdoms of the prevailing economic philosophy. Moreover, production of polyester f ibres uses 40% less energy than that of cotton f ibres. As regards the surface area required for f ibre production, 0.8 hectares of land suffices to grow 1 tonne of cellulose f ibres (viscose); cotton consumes 1.3 hectares, while wool uses as many as 67 hectares. In addition, the latter leaves a huge amount of methane gas produced from sheep’s excrements that is extremely harmful to the climate.
An indescribable amount of toxic substances is used in cotton cultivation, cotton processing into textiles and subsequent treatment (“f inishing”). In the production of a cotton t-shirt, twice to four times the weight of the garment is used in chemicals, including pesticides, surfactants, sequestering agents, formaldehyde, dyes and pigments. Moreover, as early as 2007 some 43% of f ields were planted with genetically modified cotton plants, i.e. 15 million hectares, mostly in the USA, China and India. These details were made available in a publication by the German WWF in July 2010 4).
Recycling textiles is a necessity as reuse and recovery of textiles causes only a fraction of the environmental, health and social damage involved in the manufacture of the same amount of new textiles.
Top right: Cloth bank in Munich with two visitors re-using the clothes http://www.kappy.com Right: Used textiles in Prato at Prato Recycling Srl. http://www.pratorecycling.com Below: Youngsters collecting used clothes http://www.dpsg-rath-heumar.de Photo: DPSG, Stamm Johannes Bosco e.V. Köln
COLLECTION, SORTING AND RECOVERY Used textiles require more elaborate collection and storage systems than used glass. Street collections and installation of special textile banks yield the most effective results in terms of dry, clean and largely undamaged textiles, although improved collection management would increase the efficiency of used textiles returns. The ratio of street collections to textile banks is 1:3 in Germany.
Clothes banks often bear the logo of a charity, creating the illusion – at least in Germany – that the clothes deposited there will benefit the organisation in question. However, as a rule this is not the case. In the best case commercial collectors will have paid a charity for the right to use its logo for advertising purposes. Sometimes not even this is the case, but the charitable purpose is merely a pretence.
As there are many black sheep in the waste textiles industry, an umbrella association called FairWertung was established in Germany in 1994 5); its member organisations, now numbering more than 100, have committed to the fair recovery of, and fair trade in, used clothes. This was a necessary step as the volume collected doubled from 300,000 tonnes in 1994 to 600,000 tonnes in 2008. The umbrella association raises awareness of the fact that the global
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