Textile industry – the dirty frontier – needs ‘major rethink’ to cut down on waste
As many as 2,000 microfibres from fleece and polyester released during a single washing cycle
By Larry Pynn Vancouver Sun November 1 2017
The textile industry is the next dirty frontier when it comes to the need to recycle and reduce the amount of clothing that finds its way into landfills and oceans, a Zero Waste conference sponsored by Metro Vancouver heard Wednesday.
The question is what to do about it.
Metro Vancouver announced in 2016 it planned to look at a potential ban on textiles at disposal sites in the region, but for now has decided against it.
“It’s complicated,” Karen Storry, a regional zero-waste senior project engineer, said in an interview. “I don’t think we’re there yet.
“This is all so new. It’s a big problem and there aren’t a lot of solutions. The good news is the conversation has started and people are starting to invest in solutions.”
Storry said an estimated 40,000 tonnes of textiles — half of that clothing, the other half a variety of household products including pillows and linens — are delivered to disposal facilities in the region annually, representing about five per cent of total waste.
When someone brings old clothes to a thrift shop, they are usually put on the sales floor, but if they don’t sell, they may go to one of half a dozen sorter-and-grader companies in the region, she said, noting the sector accepts about 40 million kilograms annually.
These companies categorize the unsold garments for specific overseas markets where they are eventually sent, mostly in the developing world, she said. “Whatever sells well in their countries is what they’re asking for.”
Of the clothing that goes to sorter-graders, about 50 per cent is sold overseas, 20 per cent is made into absorbent material such as rags, 20 per cent is used in various other industrial uses — the so-called “shoddy and mungo” sector — such as automobile sound insulation, and 10 per cent goes for disposal, Storry said. Less than one per cent of garments is actually made into new garments.
“These companies are doing as much as possible with the materials they receive,” she said. “But whatever they can’t deal with in a responsible manner comes to our (waste) facilities. If we (want) a disposal ban, it’s not simple. Does it make sense to impact thrift stores and graders who are trying to find a home for these materials.”
Brock Macdonald, chief executive officer with the Recycling Council of B.C., said the textile industry needs a “major rethink on design, some entrepreneurial innovators who are going to look at how clothes are made, how we can be more efficient … to create clothes that are more durable and don’t just end up in the landfill, and can have secondary and tertiary uses,” Macdonald said.
The mixing of natural materials (such as cotton) with synthetics (such as polyester) creates added problems, he said.
Macdonald noted that Dutch MUD jeans leases its apparel to consumers and “when you’re finished, you take it back to get another pair of jeans, and they actually take all of those fibres, rip them out, recycle them, and incorporate them into the next pair of jeans. That’s really the model for a circular economy.”
Government incentives such as lower sales taxes on consumer goods better designed for longevity and improved recycling are one option, Macdonald added. He encouraged consumers to buy quality clothing that lasts. “I’ve got clothes that are older than some of my children,” he said. “That’s the way to do it.”
Close to 500 people attending the Zero Waste conference heard that preliminary work is underway into finding solutions to recycling textiles. The problem is that consumers buy clothes more often than they used to, including to keep up with the latest fashion trends, and, as a result, don’t keep them as long. The industry also has a large environmental footprint, extending from water use to sourcing materials to production and distribution.
Microfibres from clothing are also finding their way into the ocean, posing a threat to marine life. A recent study by Southampton Solent University found that as many as 2,000 fibres from fleece and polyester fabrics are released during a single washing cycle. Almost all of those find their way through municipal sewage systems to the ocean.
Peter Ross, director of the Vancouver Aquarium’s ocean pollution research program, has determined there are on average more than 3,000 particles of plastic in one cubic metre of sea water in the Strait of Georgia.
Microplastics can be ingested by plankton, invertebrates and other marine life forming the base of the food chain. Ingestion of plastics may also make organisms think they are full, causing them to starve.