Textile waste is a large and rapidly growing problem. It has the lowest recovery rate of all waste types with 87.5 per cent of waste going to landfill.
Each year, the average Australian purchases 27 kilograms of clothing and disposes of 23 kilograms to landfill. Australians buy 60 per cent more items of clothing than 15 years ago and keep them for half as long. As succinctly stated by Ms Nina Gbor, the problem for many people ‘is not that they don’t have enough clothing but have too much and don’t use it.’
A major driver of this situation is ‘fast fashion’ — the trend of clothing retailers selling cheap, mostly synthetic clothes inspired by the latest fashions, designed to be worn for only a short time before being thrown out and replaced by new clothes once fashions change. Mr Graham Ross, Founder, BlockTexx told the Committee that fast fashion is ‘causing greater pressure on landfill and donated clothing associations’.
In addition to this, the recycling rate for synthetic materials in clothing is often much lower compared to other products. For example, the recycling rate for PET from plastic bottles is around 30 per cent globally, while for PET in clothing (polyester) it is less than one per cent.
The current used textile recovery industry is economically dependent on exports. While charities are able to recover a large proportion of the textiles donated to them, they can only sell about 15 per cent of donated clothing in their shops and have to recover the rest through export or recycling.
The Australian Circular Textile Association (ACTA) and BlockTexx submitted that the economic viability of this industry in under threat. This is because export prices are falling and will continue to fall as fast fashion causes a glut in the supply of used textiles globally and some countries tighten their regulation of imports.
King Cotton rejected this claim stating that overseas demand for Australian used clothes is strong and the main challenge to the economics of the industry is the expense of land on which to place collection bins.
The ACTA notes that most textile waste is not from ‘post-consumer clothing’ but from ‘post-industrial sources’ (such as hotel linens, furniture and upholstery and uniforms).While this waste is poorly documented, in Victoria it comprised 68 per cent of all textile waste sent to landfill in 2018. There was relatively little focus on post-industrial waste in evidence to the Committee compared to waste from post-consumer clothing. However, Miss Camille Reed, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, ACTA, was optimistic that such textiles may be easier to recycle because ‘these are cleaner streams of homogenous, huge-volume textiles which are reliable, easily recoverable, [and] can create a stable or economically viable business case.
Opportunities in textile recovery
While textile waste poses significant challenges, it offers great potential for innovative solutions. The National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations (NACRO) submitted that charities are already achieving recovery rates for textiles of up to 90 per cent and are collaborating with industry and academia. Strong results can be achieved merely by scaling up what already works. As Mr Omer Soker, Chief Executive Officer, NACRO, told the Committee:
The good news is that we have capacity for lots more. With the right support we can double that impact. The more textile donations we receive, the bigger our impact. We already have the infrastructure: 3000 charity shops; 10,000 collection bins; a massive workforce. We have logistics, sorting, warehousing capabilities. We already are the biggest active solution to textiles in Australia. We are your low-hanging fruit.
A considerable amount of research is already being done into methods for recycling textiles and manufacturing new products, including by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT Centre) at the University of New South Wales.
Some submitters argued that the industry could substantially benefit from a higher recovery rate for textiles. For example:
recycled material could provide price stability for textile mills, which they do not currently have;
demand for recycled polyester is strong, including in China which still requires it for its clothing manufacturing while its domestic production suffers from its restrictions on plastic waste imports (recycled polyester being made from recycled PET, commonly sourced from beverage bottles);
due to landfill levies there is financial incentive for industry to divert post-industrial textiles away from landfill; and
consumers are increasingly mindful of the corporate values of their clothing brands, meaning there is value to those brands in being seeing as sustainable and not being associated with waste.
A common theme in submissions to the inquiry was the need for a ‘mindset change’ in relation to textile waste; in essence, an acceptance of a circular economy for textiles. There were numerous calls for relevant stakeholders to collaborate more, either formally or informally. As explained by Miss Reed:
It’s going to take more than one party to help overcome the financial challenges and/or burdens. Also, it shouldn’t be seen as competitive. Most people don’t see it like that — the sustainability, not so much the competitive notion as to who gets there first to crack the puzzle — and so it’s more of an opportunity for how we can best divvy up resources to share and learn from each other.
The Committee heard about some examples of collaboration that are already occurring in the industry, including:
A ‘think tank’ on textile waste co-hosted by the Southern Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (SSROC), the SMaRT Centre and the NSW Circular Innovation Network;
The recent formation of ACTA itself, which is aiming for a 95 per cent recovery rate for textiles by 2030; and
A partnership between the Vinyl Council of Australia (VCA) and the Specialised Textiles Association, which is working to establish a product stewardship scheme for post-industrial polyvinyl chloride (PVC) textiles.
King Cotton shared with the Committee two basic ways in which the resource recovery rate for textiles can be substantially increased:
Expanding re-use (either domestically or overseas) through the network of textile collection bins, online systems and similar means; and
Expanding recycling proper (such as for manufacturing new textiles).
King Cotton advocated for the first option as being more commercially viable, as did NACRO on the basis of the results of the current system. By contrast, stakeholders involved in developing new recycling technologies such as the SMaRT Centre and BlockTexx had a more optimistic view of technology’s potential. Both sides of the debate nonetheless acknowledged that both re-use and recycling must play a role in better managing textile waste.
There was strong support for a national textiles policy. For example, NACRO and the Salvation Army called for the development of a ‘National Textiles Reuse Policy’ in consultation with all stakeholders and including long term targets for the recovery of textiles from landfill. The SCRgroup suggested a policy modelled on the European Union’s Waste Framework Directive and France’s Extended Producer Responsibility Policy for Textiles. It also called for long term targets. Similarly, ACTA proposed the introduction of national standards for textile imports and a requirement that new synthetic textiles contain at least 70 per cent recycled material while NACRO called for more uniform state and territory legislation.
In addition, NACRO and ACTA both put forward their own three-stage ten-year ‘roadmaps’ for addressing textile waste.
Exports and landfill levies
Protecting used clothing exports, and landfill levies were two specific issues raised with the Committee. For example, several stakeholders were concerned about protecting used clothing exports from what in their view would be excessive regulation. It was argued that exports of used clothing should be seen as exports of a commodity rather than waste and that they are vital to the viability of the domestic clothing re-use system. As Mr Soker, Chief Executive Officer, NACRO explained:
…we view these exported textiles as a resource. They are only not reusable in Australia because of the demands of Australian consumers, whereas they meet the demands of lower-income individuals in other markets. The point we are trying to make is that the exported clothing is not a waste product; it is a resource, because it can still be used.
Mr Soker stated that ‘one of the things we need to do, and it’s on our agenda, is audit the supply chains so we have a good understanding of what happens to it at those end markets.’ King Cotton also stressed the importance of having ‘export rules that provide certainty’ and called for these to be introduced.
BlockTexx criticised the fact that ‘landfill levies are not used to fund recycling innovation’, and that in its view funding is unfairly skewed in favour of ‘established operators’, to the disadvantage of ‘early stage companies’. ACTA submitted that a landfill levy rebate should be provided on textile diversion and that a ban on textiles going to landfill would support the textile recovery sector. The SCRgroup stressed however that ‘alternatives for textile re-use and recycling must be in place’ before any landfill ban is introduced.
There was general support among stakeholders for the role charities play in textile recovery. NACRO argued that its members’ activities in this area are not only vital to textile waste management but important to society as a whole because of their social and economic benefits. NACRO noted that the recovery rate for textiles donated to charity is high, but for textiles outside the charitable sector it is low.
NACRO submitted that charities face various challenges in their textile re-use operations, including in coping with unusable donations and in identifying ‘appropriate end markets’. BlockTexx stated that charities could play an important role in solving the textile waste problem, but struggle to manage the current volumes being donated to them, with unusable donations being a particular problem.
This was strongly disputed by the charities and for-profit clothing recovery organisations. For example, Mr Tony Rallis, Business Development Manager, King Cotton, stated:
The point that we’re saturated is totally fabricated and untrue. The charities will support me in this case.
Similarly, Mr Matthew Davis, National Director, Salvos Stores, commented:
It’s true to the extent that, once we’ve sorted through it all, there is a large percentage of material that isn’t suitable for resale. What’s not true is that we don’t want donations. It’s really important that we encourage the Australian community — and the solutions that we come up with — to prioritise reuse. It’s absolutely incorrect to say that we are not still very much in the market for donations, to create value for the community.
A vital aspect of the re-use system is the network of collection bins operated by charities and private companies. King Cotton submitted that 85 per cent of clothing collection occurs through such bins, and only 15 per cent through other means. Submitters agreed that government needs to take action to ensure more bins are available and that they are better located, while acknowledging that this is largely a matter for local councils.
Mr Rallis drew the Committee’s attention to the cost of leasing land for collection bins. Specifically, he told the Committee:
My biggest problem is that we as exporters deal in cents. When you’re selling something for a certain number of cents per kilo and it gets dropped by 15 per cent, if I had real estate through government partnerships — which we do, but in a broader sense — and I could put out another 700 bins, I would have no problem with the market taking that product. My problem is that 25 per cent of your sale goes towards leasing fees of that land, that’s the problem.
The SCRgroup advocated for the inclusion of provisions relating to bin placement in its proposed National Waste Framework, including a target of 1 bin for every 1500 head of population (the target in place in France). Both the SCRgroup and King Cotton were highly critical of some councils’ regulations that favour charitable bin operators over commercial ones.
A key challenge for operators of clothing re-use bins is illegal dumping, and the expense of over $14 million each year cleaning up such activity. SCRgroup identified a number of responses to this problem including:
providing landfill levy relief for bin operators (who currently have to pay levies on the dumped items they clean up);
consistent nationwide anti-dumping penalties and signage (along the lines of the signage it has developed for its own bins); and
a campaign to encourage the public to report dumping.
In addition, NACRO advocated for the Commonwealth and state and territory governments to each invest $10 for each tonne of illegally dumped waste that charities have to manage.
The repair of clothes was another important aspect of re-use identified in the submissions. For example, the World’s Biggest Garage Sale (WBGS) explained that it is working with several major retailers to repair and resell their faulty stock in its ‘Retail Repairs’ program. The SSROC called for an exemption on GST for the labour costs of repairs, and Ms Amy Blain suggested the promotion of ‘repair cafes’ where people can bring their damaged clothes to be repaired and ‘clothes swap’ events where people can swap their old clothes with each other. Ms Nina Gbor also advocated for clothes swap events. The WBGS already operates similar events it describes as ‘re-commerce events’, except that it resells the clothes (and other goods) that are donated.
Submitters to the inquiry were consistently critical of Australia’s current capacity for recycling textiles. For example, the ACTA stated that ‘currently, there is no scaled capacity to recycle textiles onshore in Australia’. NACRO described the sector as ‘currently underdeveloped’ and not commercially viable. The Salvation Army suggested that ‘there is no underpinning domestic processing capacity’ for low-grade textiles. And IKEA noted that in Australia ‘a lack of scaled infrastructure for reprocessing plastics’ and ‘a lack of textile recycling’ were two of the main obstacles to its goal of being 100 per cent circular by 2030.
The Committee heard that technologies for recycling textiles can be divided into two basic categories — mechanical and chemical.
In mechanical recycling, the textiles are shredded, and generally used to manufacture products such as insulation and rags although some brands use this material to produce new garments. Mechanical recycling works well for single fibre textiles, but is less effective for mixed fibres. Nonetheless it is the main form of recycling in use today, and currently 12 per cent of global textile waste is recycled mechanically, compared to less than one per cent chemically — the remaining 87 per cent is sent to landfill or incinerated.
While chemical recycling is not currently commercially used in Australia, there was debate over how developed it is overseas. Drawing on a 2019 Swedish research paper, the SCRgroup presented a list of ‘recycling technologies existing on market scale today’ that includes methods of chemical recycling for pure PET textiles, pure cotton cutting waste and pure ‘nylon 6’ products such as fishing nets and carpets. The Salvation Army stated that ‘there are international examples to draw insight from’ and provided brief summaries of nine of these. BlockTexx suggested ‘textile recycling is very much in its infancy’ and struggles with multi-fibre clothing. Green Connect submitted that ‘there is no viable solution for recycling textiles’.
ACTA noted that two ‘first-of-a-kind’ facilities for hydrothermally recycling cotton and polyester blends were opened in Hong Kong in 2018 by a partnership of the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel and H&M Foundation; however these are not commercial facilities. BlockTexx outlined its Australian-developed S.O.F.T (separation of fibre technology); a technology capable of separating cotton and polyester blends. This technology is not yet in commercial use.
Regardless of the exact current state of chemical recycling technology, there was agreement amongst stakeholders that significantly more research and development needs to occur in Australia. Support for the development of new technology was a key recommendation of NACRO and the Salvation Army. Green Connect and ACTA called for government funding to support this. The SCRgroup submitted that state governments should increase ‘funding into textile re-use and recycling before landfill bans for recoverable clothing are [introduced]’.
There was support among stakeholders for new recycling technology, and for this to be developed in collaboration. For example, Miss Reed of ACTA stated:
there’s still an opportunity for companies to get on and do their own thing, but there has to be more collaboration and open-source knowledge.
Mr Matthew Davis, Chair, NACRO, stated that his members are willing to ‘collaborate to establish an infrastructure solution’ and that ‘NACRO, as that representative body, is positioned to facilitate that dialogue.’
As with many other waste streams considered by the Committee, product stewardship was promoted as a solution to manage textile waste. Some submitters suggested that any scheme or schemes should be mandatory while the WBGS called for the imposition of penalties on companies that destroy unsold or returned items.
There was considerable optimism about the prospects of successfully introducing textile product stewardship schemes, with Zero Waste Victoria suggesting that they could be ‘readily implemented’ for ‘soft furnishings, including carpets and textiles’ and RMIT University advising that researchers at its School of Fashion and Textiles could ‘support emerging stewardship schemes’ for waste textiles and other similar products.
The Committee heard evidence that there is already considerable activity occurring in relation to product stewardship for textiles. Mr Soker of NACRO explained that his organisation is working on developing a product stewardship scheme for clothing together with the Australian Fashion Council, the National Retail Association, with advice and support from WRAP UK and a number of other organisations.
IKEA Australia shared with the Committee its business model that includes ‘innovative circularity programs’ such as a furniture buyback service. This service aims to give IKEA furniture a second life by allowing customers to return previously purchased IKEA furniture in exchange for an IKEA refund card. This returned furniture is then resold by IKEA as is. IKEA offers buy back 10,000 products up to 10 years old.
IKEA is looking to implement further product stewardship for textile waste but is facing difficulties in doing so. As Ms Melissa Miller, Country Sustainability Manager, explained:
our procurement team is supporting us on sourcing potential partnerships; however, a challenge is finding a national manufacturer, especially with the legislation and rules around exporting waste between states.
In its submission, the ACTA put forward a number of proposals for change including:
an operational national Textile Stewardship Scheme, requiring $4 billion of investment from government, industry and individuals;
a tax rebate for products complying with stewardship policies; and
the inclusion of textiles on the Product List published by the Minister for the Environment under the Product Stewardship Act 2011 (Cth).
ACTA outlined its efforts to establish a ‘takeback system’ by 2022 and its plans to promote extended producer responsibility.
The Committee heard about the work of VCA who is combining with the Specialised Textiles Association to establish a national product stewardship scheme for a range of industrial PVC textiles. These include ‘grain covers, tarpaulins, advertising banners, tents and marquees, truck tarps, marine fabrics, swimming pool liners and upholstery fabrics.’ The two associations are seeking funding from the National Product Stewardship Investment Fund in this endeavour.
Product design and procurement
A related solution proposed by several submitters was improved product design. Green Connect suggested a specific focus on replacement of ‘problematic textiles’ with more ‘environmentally friendly’ alternatives as part of its proposal for more government funding of textile recycling as a whole. RMIT University called for ‘increasing emphasis…to be given by government to funding sustainable fashion production cycles.’ And ACTA noted that one of the projects on which it is working is ‘designing products with end-of-life in mind’.
Both NACRO and the Salvation Army submitted that there has historically been too much focus on managing products at the end of their lives at the expense of making improvements earlier in their lifecycles such as improving their design, although this attitude is changing. Several submitters advocated for government regulation of the clothing production cycle to ensure circularity or the use of exclusively biodegradable materials.
Mr van de Graaff, Product Stewardship Manager, VCA, endorsed the idea of governments doing more to encourage development of product design skills, but noted:
The issue that sometimes we strike is that the actual benefits are hard to measure and so government shies away from doing that, or they’re cut short because it’s not clear what those benefits are. They are, I understand, very hard to measure, which is very different to some of the other programs that government runs where you can see increases in resource recovered. But there is certainly an opportunity for us to do more of that and to look at how we can upskill industry.
In addition to government regulation to improve product design, there were calls for government procurement of recycled textiles to help manage waste. For example, the ACTA suggested national standards for the procurement of textiles and explained that its own efforts to improve procurement are focused on ‘sectors with significant textile use’ such as hospitality (linens, towels, and uniforms), construction (carpets) and hospitals (linens and uniforms). Similarly, BlockTexx suggested procurement targets or even ‘mandated procurement of recycled materials from government or industry’.
Public awareness and education
Greater public awareness and education was identified as a necessary measure to help reduce textile waste. BlockTexx suggested that while plastic has long been perceived as a major source of pollution, there has been much less community awareness of the problem of textile waste, although in its view this may be starting to change. The Salvation Army explained that consumers do not fully understand what they can donate to charity or how, and that charities are engaged in several initiatives to improve this situation. The ACTA stated that public advocacy is one of its main areas of focus, including ‘educating consumers on the impacts of consumption decisions’ while the SCRgroup recommended that the Commonwealth Government run a national educational campaign in co-ordination with campaigns by state and territory governments (including in schools) and local councils.
The volume of textile waste generated in Australia is remarkable. Equally remarkable is the potential for textiles to be reused and recycled, with some industry stakeholders aiming for a 95 per cent target in the next decade. This is an important opportunity.
The Committee’s examination of waste from textiles and household goods focused on three key areas: consumer waste and turnover of goods, opportunities to recycle and reuse products, and current impediments. The Committee was encouraged by the willingness of stakeholders to work together, and sets out a series of recommendations designed to ensure a more sustainable textile industry that focuses on designing out waste, recycling textiles, and changing community attitudes and behaviours.
While many of the recommendations set out in this report can be applied to all waste types, the Committee makes three specific recommendations for textiles and household goods.
That the Commonwealth Government examine the flow of textile waste and other household goods in Australia, as well as Australia’s current and future capacity to process and recover this waste. The aim of this assessment is to identify challenges and opportunities to better manage this waste stream.
That the Commonwealth Government develop a specific national textile waste policy which is underpinned by the principles of a circular economy. It is recommended this policy focus on, but not be limited to:
greater investment in domestic recycling technology and infrastructure;
improved product stewardship and design;
introduction of standards and specifications for recycled content in textiles;
targeted government procurement policies for recycled textiles;
consistency across state and territory policy; and
greater consumer education and awareness regarding textile waste, reuse and repair.
That the Commonwealth Government, in consultation with state and territory governments, examine options for:
improving the placement and availability of charitable and commercial clothing recycling bins in local government areas; and
minimising the costs associated with managing illegally dumped goods or unsuitable donations.