Every second of every day, the equivalent of a full dump truck’s worth of textiles is either sent to a landfill or burned. This is the estimate of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, and this process – which destroys some $500 billion of textiles per year – is the context within which we should greet the decision of the SA government to support the design of products and packaging that reduces waste by encouraging reuse, repair and recycling. That, at least is the core of the National Waste Management Strategy 2020 published last week. Although it doesn’t directly mention the textile industry, it should begin to influence decisions in the industry.
Textile waste is estimated to increase by about 60% between 2015 and 2030, according to Circular Apparel, which predicts that, on current trends the world will be producing 148 million tons of fashion waste per year by 2030, the equivalent of 175kg for every man, woman and child on the planet.
Closer to home, post-consumer textile waste makes up 6,4% of the overall waste stream in Cape Town. This is a huge problem in the context of a shortage of landfill sites: Green Cape reports that of the 25 municipalities in the Western Cape, 22 have less than five years left of airspace.
Which brings us to the win-win possibilities of a carefully crafted waste management strategy focused on reusing and recycling waste: “The waste economy contributed ±R24 billion to the South African GDP in 2016,” Green Cape reports. “It provided 36 000 formal jobs and supported ±80 000 informal jobs/livelihoods. A further R11.5 billion per year could be unlocked by 2023 by diverting up to 20 million tons of waste (a tonne is a metric unit of weight that is equal to 1 000 kilograms). The anticipated spin-offs could include 45 000 additional formal jobs and 82 000 indirect jobs, as well as create 4 300 SMMEs.”
Diverting waste from landfill to value-add solutions is not only an environmental imperative, but a social and economic one
Sam Smout, the waste sector desk analyst at Green Cape sums it up: “Diverting waste from landfill to value-add solutions is not only an environmental imperative, but a social and economic one that supports business development, creates and secures jobs, secures livelihoods, and reduces the burden of waste management on budget constrained municipalities.”
All of which makes it somewhat tragic that Green Cape believes that textiles are currently unrecyclable. Critically, however, this can change. This is amply demonstrated by McKinsey and Company, which shows in its fashion-on-climate-full-report that brands can and should drive sustainable decision-making at the design stage, increase sustainable material usage, minimise production waste and encourage end-of-use recycling.
Indeed, some textiles are already recyclable. Rewoven, a South African textile recycling start-up, is facilitating the mechanical recycling of 100% cotton, polycotton, denim, 100% acrylic jersey and 100% polyester pre-consumer waste.
But we have a long, long way to go. And, for now, to avoid post-consumer waste, we must buy less, buy better and ensure that the clothes you do buy are made from recyclable fabrics. Everyone in the value chain – including you, dear reader – has a responsibility to ensure that clothes don’t end up on a dump, or worse, in the natural environment.
Meet founders of Rewoven, Esethu Cenga and Tshepo Bhengu in this interview we did with them earlier this year: