What impact will the Circular Economy Bill have on our clothing habits?

5 August 2021

It’s estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions – which is more than international aviation and shipping combined. It’s a sector that needs to be addressed, and one such way it can be is through the Circular Economy Bill that Cabinet approved earlier this year.

But how does the Bill plan to tackle the impact of the fashion industry? And what will it change about how we shop for our clothes and how we dispose of them?

The Waste Action Plan

The Bill is set to implement many actions from the Government’s Waste Action Plan, which has a specific section dedicated to textiles.

A core element of the plan is going to be the creation of a Textiles Industry Action Group to explore options relating to textile circularity. It is understood that this action group will be formed by the end of 2021 and that it will include representatives from the voluntary/charity sector.

 A spokesperson from the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications told The Green News that focus of the Bill is “firstly on education and awareness – working with the public, retailers, and producers.”

“We also need to improve data on textile waste; to regulate for how clothes banks operate more effectively; and to promote better and more sustainable design,” they added.

https://twitter.com/CRNIreland/status/1413427040880001026

Separate Collection

The plan also states that textile waste will be banned from the general waste bin, landfill and incineration. This is in accordance with the EU Waste Framework Directive (WFD) which requires member states to set up separate collection for textiles from January 2021.  So what does this mean in practice?  Well, that’s still being worked out.  

Currently the EPA estimates that 63,000 tonnes of  textiles are going into our general waste bins annually. That’s roughly three times the amount that are donated to charity shops each year. Of this 12,000 tonnes of garments are sold for reuse (about 11 million clothing items) with the remaining 11,000 unsuitable for sale and sold to commercial textile recyclers. Due to a lack of regulation, it’s difficult to get an estimate on what percentage of this 11,000 tonnes are being exported for resale but it is understood that it is the majority of this figure.

The Community Reuse Network Ireland (CRNI), with support from the EPA, are currently working on a project to develop a circular textile system for Ireland.

As part of the project,  due for completion in October 2022, they are testing 3 different collection methods to see which works best to reduce the number of textiles entering general waste. The project also aims to gain a better understanding of the quality of the textiles that are going to be recovered through different collection streams and what can be done to reuse more textiles and manage them locally. 

So are we on track to achieve separate collection by 2025?

“The Department could probably argue that we have separate collection at the moment,” according to Claire Downey, Executive at CRNI.

“There are textile banks quite well distributed throughout the country at the moment. You can bring your textiles to charity shops and there are a few other random kilo sale shops and that kind of thing. What we are trying to see is how can we make it as easy as possible,” she said.

Second hand exports

As we discussed in a previous piece, the second-hand export trade in its current state is contributing to pressures on the waste management infrastructure of importing countries in Africa.

The Waste Action Plan doesn’t specifically outline how issues within this sector will be addressed, although it does state that in developing separate collection framework proposals account will be taken of “the potential global impacts of the international trade in used textiles and in consultation with existing collection operators.”

We reached out to the Department to gain some clarity on this point. A spokesperson told The Green News, “ The department is aware of issues surrounding the flow of second-hand textiles, particularly the concerns about the damage such material flows can cause for developing countries. That’s why data is now being gathered on textile waste flows, to give us a better understanding of what is happening to these materials.”

The spokesperson went on to say that as part of its work, the Textiles Working Group will look at existing regulations to see what changes may be needed.

The Bill does however, state that a review of regulations on textile collection banks will be undertaken to ensure compatibility with sustainable development goals, which should have an impact on the second-hand clothing trade.

Currently there’s no guidelines or permissions required apart from the local landowner when it comes to clothing collection bins. It’s something Claire Downey refers to as a point of contention in the sector.

“One thing that the charity retail sector is working on is to get some kind of obligation to declare who manages or who is the beneficiary of the donations,” she told The Green News.

She highlights that while most collection banks will have a charity name associated with them, there are only 5 charities that have collection banks and channel their textiles direct to retail stores. The rest are commercial recyclers who donate only 5 or 10 per cent of their profits to the charity they are affiliated with.

Overconsumption

Ms Downey is keen to stress that while there are issues to be tackled in the second-hand export sector, the problem needs to be tackled at its root.

“The very first thing we need to deal with in all of our countries is overconsumption. That is the real problem here. We are exporting because we don’t deal with our own textiles and we consume far too much and the textiles we consume are very low quality. So why are we generating all this stuff in the first place?”

The Waste Action Plan also opens the door to looking at an Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme down the line, something CRNI have pushed for at a national and EU level. Ms Downey also points to a number of regulations and policy initiatives that can be implemented at an EU level, including applying eco-design regulations to textiles. This would mean that manufacturers would be obligated to make sure products are repairable.

The Bill also states that reuse targets will be mandatory, something Ms Downey points to as a positive development as it means it should have some form of support for the second-hand industry behind it that will help build the industry.

“We need more options for people, more places you can get second hand. What if you had department stores that had second hand racks alongside new?”, Ms Downey said.

She also notes that more support needs to be given to those already in the industry through more sorting centres, supports to make second-hand online businesses more viable, quality marks and reduced rates.  

So are we on the right track and moving fast enough?

In Ms Downey’s view the pace of change has picked up in the last year or six months. 

“But is it fast enough? Probably not but it’s starting to move properly. I think we all need to buy into this, everyone needs to buy into this change.”

By Jane Matthews