Nearly 1.7 million tonnes of used fabric were exported to other countries — primarily in Asia and Africa — in 2019, but whether they are destined for recycling, re-use or landfill is “highly uncertain,” according to a report published Monday by the European Environment Agency.
Just five countries accounted for 75% of EU textile waste exports, and the top 10 receiving countries imported 64% of total volumes, according to the report, which examines UN Comtrade data between 2000 and 2019. However, evidence of how these textiles are sorted, reused, recycled, or disposed of remains ambiguous and largely anecdotal. While Asia, which now receives 41% of global exports, is known for dedicated sorting facilities where fabric is frequently downcycled for industrial rags or re-exported globally, it is generally accepted that clothing and textiles exported to Africa are re-used and sold domestically. Textiles deemed unfit for reuse are sent to landfills in both areas.
The value of used clothing and fabric has decreased as well; in 2019, 1kg of used textiles traded for €0.57 ($0.60), down from €0.76 in 2000. The report noted that rising export volumes at a time of falling prices might be a sign of stable demand or a market that is saturated and the textiles’ quality has declined. Future regulations requiring all EU nations to have specialized textile waste collections by 2025 could boost volumes even more.
The EU’s sustainable and circular textiles strategy, released in March of last year, also noted the shortcomings of the current system of sorting and classifying textiles and called for increased transparency in the world market for used textiles. This report follows closely on the heels of that strategy.
The report also made note of the possibility that the supposedly beneficial environmental and social effects of clothing recycling and donations could be questioned given the precarious future of used textiles.
“The avoided environmental impacts related to reuse depend on whether this reuse actually replaces new textile or fibre production,” it said. “To put it another way, used textiles exported from the EU may not actually replace new production or benefit the environment if they are of too poor a quality to be reused, are not reused for a long time, or do not replace purchases of new clothing.”