Ellen MacArthur Foundation: Producer responsibility policy needed to achieve circular economy for textiles

Collection infrastructure for textiles is underdeveloped, with national separate collection rates averaging 14% and reaching a maximum of 50%.

Around the world, more than 80% of textiles leak out of the system when they are discarded. They are either incinerated, landfilled, or leaked into the environment. In the EU, 88% of discarded textiles end up in mixed household waste and are therefore incinerated or landfilled. In the US, it is estimated that 85% of textiles end up in landfill or incineration after having been discarded.

Population growth and the increase in disposable income in emerging markets are projected to continue to drive the growth in waste generation if we continue business as usual.

In a new report – ‘Pushing the boundaries of EPR policy for textiles’ – the Ellen MacArthur Foundation insisted that, to fix this “leaky system”, separate collection infrastructure for textiles needs to be scaled up “dramatically” and implemented in locations where it currently does not exist.

“A comprehensive circular economy approach is the only solution that can match the scale of the global textile waste problem,” the report states.

“In a circular economy, textile products are used more, made to be made again, and made from safe and recycled or renewable inputs.

“In this system, businesses contribute to supporting infrastructure commensurately with what they place on the market, to ensure their products are collected and reused, repaired, remade, or recycled into new textile products.”

New approach needed

It said EPR policies must be pushed to go “beyond traditional focuses” on downstream measures, such as waste management and recycling, to meet the challenge of textile waste.

Additionally, funding is essential to cover the net cost associated with managing all discarded textiles and not just those with a high market value.

The Foundation warned that, without EPR policy, the collection, reuse, and recycling of textiles is unlikely to be meaningfully scaled.

If this happens, tens of millions of tonnes of textiles will continue to be landfilled, incinerated, or will leak into the environment every year.

“In a world of finite resources, EPR policy helps create new sectors and employment dedicated to reverse cycle activities, such as collection, sorting, reuse, repair, and recycling,” the report said.

“As such, it can help shift the economic balance away from the production of new products and materials.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation senior policy officer Valérie Boiten said: “EPR can support a circular economy across borders, by contributing funding for the collection and management of discarded textiles in those countries where they ultimately end up.

“This report explores the next frontier of EPR policies and highlights the huge potential which can be achieved by focusing on circular outcomes, such as repair and other circular business models, as well as circular product design.”

The UK Government has promised to reform EPR for packaging, and then for other sectors, including textiles. However, this reform has been on the table since the end of late 2018 with little progress, due to challenges such as Brexit and two consecutive changes in Prime Minister in 2022.

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