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Europe’s textiles waste exports trebles in last two decades, says EEA

The amount of used textiles exported from the EU has tripled over the past two decades and is expected to increase further, according to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) EU exports of used textiles in Europe’s circular economy briefing published on 27 February. The briefing was based on a more detailed analysis by the EEA’s European Topic Centre of Circular Economy and Resource Use.

Europe faces major challenges in the management of used textiles, which are to be collected separately in the EU by 2025, the EEA said. As reuse and recycling capacities in Europe are limited, a large share of discarded and donated clothing and other textile products are exported to Africa and Asia.

Common public perceptions that used clothing donations are always of use in those regions do not reflect the reality, the agency highlighted. Once exported, the fate of used textiles is often uncertain, according to the EEA briefing which looked at the patterns and trends in EU-used textiles exports from 2000 to 2019.

According to analysed data from the United Nations, EU exports of textiles have increased and shifted from mainly African destinations to both Africa and Asia. As noted in the briefing, some challenges related to these exports are being addressed in current and proposed EU policies. In the EU strategy on sustainable and circular textiles, published in March 2022, the need for addressing the challenges from exports was specifically mentioned.

Breaking down the numbers

The amount of used textiles exported from the EU has tripled over the past two decades from slightly over 550,000 tonnes in 2000 to almost 1.7 million tonnes in 2019. The number of used textiles exported in 2019 was on average 3.8 kilograms per person or 25 per cent of the approximately 15 kilograms of textiles consumed each year in the EU.

In 2019, 46 per cent of used textiles exported from the EU ended up in Africa. The textiles primarily go to local reuse as there is a demand for cheap, used clothes from Europe. What is not fit for reuse mostly ends up in open landfills and informal waste streams.

In the same year, 41 per cent of used textiles exported from the EU ended up in Asia. Most of these textiles are directed to dedicated economic zones where they are sorted and processed. The used textiles are then mostly down-cycled into industrial rags or filling or re-exported for recycling in other Asian countries or for reuse in Africa. Textiles that cannot be recycled or re-exported likely end up in landfills.

Can bio-based fibre products offer a ‘greener’ alternative?

Bio-based fibres that are used in clothing and other textile products are often regarded as more sustainable alternatives. However, a new technical report by the EEA’s European Topic Centre of Circular Economy and Resource Use found that this requires some caution.

While bio-based fibres offer the potential to steer away from synthetic textiles made from plastics (mainly derived from oil and gas), they cause other environmental pressures, including water and land use related to agricultural activities, deforestation and fibre processing. Moreover, the report highlighted that their bio-based origin does not free them from environmental concerns related to microfibres, waste and recyclability.

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