Circular Economy, Opinion

Opinion: Australia’s material world is at crisis point

Australia is facing a growing waste disaster that is being totally overlooked by our government.

I’m referring to textile waste from the clothing industry, where more than 500,000,000 kilograms (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics) of unwanted clothing ends up in landfills across our country each year, and that’s not including the 94,000,000kg we export overseas, according to figures from the National Association of Charitable Recycling Organisations.

The Australian Government estimates that Australians are the world’s second highest (per capita) consumers of textiles, with around three out of 10 people admitting to discarding more than 10 items in the past year alone. Almost the same number admit to throwing away a piece of clothing they’ve only worn once.

That’s right ­– only worn once.

How is it that, unlike glass and plastics, textile waste is not tracked by any state or federal government waste strategies or waste management plans? Why is the growing textile waste problem not even on the radar of either tier of government?

And this, for me, is the biggest roadblock: You can’t solve a problem unless you acknowledge it exists.

By failing to track and importantly recycle these waste textiles, the government is ignoring a resource recovery infrastructure that is currently absent from Australia’s waste management initiatives.

And here’s one reason why it should be front of mind for governments and consumers; your favourite activewear is made from the same material that makes single-use plastic bottles – PET. 

In fact, Textile Exchange estimates that around two thirds of the world’s manufactured PET – about 50 million tonnes – is used to make our clothing.

The hard truth is that the textile industry – just like plastic, paper, glass and tyres – is at crisis point. Fabric and garment production is increasing year-on-year, meeting and driving fashion consumption to record levels, and the items that are subsequently discarded are pouring into landfill in rapidly increasing numbers, unchecked and unmeasured.

Unwanted clothing has, until recently, been held back by secondary markets, where clothing is resold into developing economies around the world. Globally the fashion industry pumps out more than 100 billion garments per year, according to McKinsey & Company. But the sheer volume means markets for unwanted clothing are closing or becoming too unprofitable to continue.

The gap between what is made and what is reused or recycled is widening.

In fact, Deloitte estimates that less than 13 per cent of textiles are recycled – 12 per cent is mechanically recycled by cutting it or shredding it into fibre, insulation material or rags; and less than 1 per cent is chemically recycled back to reuseable raw materials – which makes the need for authorities to acknowledge the problem all the more vital.

And while the textile waste problem approaches like a tsunami, the Australian government blindly continues to commit money to schemes for the recycling of plastic, paper, glass and tyres. Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced a fund of $20 million to assist the banning of the export of these items, a move which many commended. But I don’t.

Funding must be directed to raising the capacity of recycling initiatives in Australia, banning waste exports will drive at worse more stockpiling of waste or at the very least, sending high valued recycled materials into low value options such as road base.

My hope for the future is that there will be no textiles sent to landfill. And why not believe? We have learned to recycle paper and plastics and to separate our household rubbish for council collection. So why is there no textile recycling industry?

It’s time for this country to drive innovation in textile waste recovery and to realise the value in the reuse of what are, quite often, still high-quality products in one form or another.

The chemical separation of materials, for example, is an emerging technology, but an exciting one.

By separating everyday products such as sheets, clothing and towels back into their individual raw materials, the recovered resources can be reused in the textile industry or turned into other products such as plastic packaging or plastic bottles.

Recovering raw materials from waste also has a strong environmental impact. By intercepting the polyester waste that is flooding our landfills, Co2 emissions are reduced. And by using recycled materials in future products, we reduce the harmful effects of manufacturing virgin materials, especially those made from petrochemicals.

A textile recycling industry can deliver less reliance on the importing of materials or products, as recycled products, recovered in Australia, would be available for use in Australian-manufactured products.

This is a sector that is ready to deliver engagement across government, industry and community.

All stakeholders – government, industry and consumers must take action to help develop this new and valuable stream missing from Australia’s resource recovery infrastructure – textile recycling.

Our leaders need to acknowledge the existence of textile waste so it can be properly measured.  Industry and government should prioritise investment in recycling innovations, and we consumers, need to take note of our consumption habits – what is our end of life plan for unwanted clothing – donated or recycled. Not landfill.

Any investment in textile recycling will make a profound difference, environmentally and economically, and will play a part in changing the face of the resource recovery industry in Australia.

This has to happen now, not tomorrow.

Graham Ross is the co-founder of BlockTexx