Europe Textile Waste, An Increasing Export Problem

Europe Textile Waste, An Increasing Export Problem

According to a recent report, used clothing and shoes are among the discarded textiles that are a growing waste and export issue in Europe.

According to a European Environment Agency (EEA) briefing released this week, the rapidly rising exports of textile waste from the EU, some of which is recycled and some of which ends up in landfills, demonstrate the difficulty Europe has in managing its own used textiles.

The amount of used textiles exported from the European Union (EU) has tripled over the past two decades, and the amounts may increase further, according to the EEA briefing ‘EU exports of used textiles in Europe’s circular economy’. The briefing is based on a more detailed analysis by the EEA’s European Topic Centre of Circular Economy and Resource Use.

Europe faces major challenges in the management of used textiles, which are to be collected separately in the EU by 2025, the report states. Due to Europe’s limited capacity for reuse and recycling, a sizable portion of donated and discarded textiles are sent to Africa and Asia.

Contrary to popular belief, those areas do not always benefit from donations of used clothing. Once exported, the fate of used textiles is often uncertain, according to the EEA briefing which looks at the patterns of and trends in EU exports of used textiles from 2000 to 2019.

Data from the United Nations that has been analyzed show that EU textile exports have increased and have moved from mostly going to destinations in Africa to including both Africa and Asia. The briefing also outlines how current and proposed EU policies are attempting to address some of the difficulties associated with these exports. The necessity of addressing the issues from exports is specifically mentioned in the EU strategy on sustainable and circular textiles, published in March 2022.

Key findings:

  • Over the past two decades, the amount of used textiles exported from the EU has tripled, rising from just over 550,000 tonnes in 2000 to nearly 1.7 million tonnes in 2019.
  • Per person, used textile exports in 2019 were 3.8 kilograms on average or 25% of the roughly 15 kilograms of textiles used annually in the EU.
  • The continent of Africa received 46% of the used textiles exported from the EU in 2019. Since there is a market for inexpensive, second-hand clothing from Europe, the textiles are primarily used locally. Most materials that are unsuitable for reuse end up in open landfills and unregulated waste streams.
  • In 2019, Asia received 41% of the used textiles exported from the EU. The vast majority of these textiles are sent to designated economic zones where they are sorted and processed. Most of the used textiles are then downcycled into industrial rags or filling, or they are exported again for recycling in other Asian nations or for reuse in Africa. Landfills are likely the final destination of textiles that cannot be recycled or exported again.

Many people believe that bio-based fibers used in clothing and other textile products are more environmentally friendly alternatives, but a recent technical report by the European Topic Centre of Circular Economy and Resource Use of the EEA shows that this view needs to be approached with some caution.

While bio-based fibers have the potential to replace synthetic textiles made of plastics (which are primarily made from oil and gas), they also put additional environmental pressure on the environment through the use of water and land for agricultural purposes, deforestation, and fiber processing. The report also emphasizes how their bio-based origin does not exempt them from environmental issues involving microfibres, waste, and recyclable materials.

A new project network for the European Union (EU) was introduced last week with the goal of fostering faster cooperation in textile sustainability.

It is a follow-up to the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, which was released in March 2022 and sets forth a vision and related European policy objectives for a transition of the European textile ecosystem to a green and digital one. The strategy focuses on key textile sustainability aspects, such as eco-design, waste and pollution prevention, safe and bio-based materials, circular material flows and responsible supply chains and new business models.


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