Why the waste export ban should include textiles

Photo by Lauren Fleischmann on Unsplash

The Prime Minister’s recent announcement of a $20 million fund to grow Australia’s recycling industry and ban the export of plastic, paper, glass and tyres has generally been seen as a positive initiative to combat our poor track record in recycling.

What struck me as missing from the discussion was any mention of textile waste. Neither the exporting of textile waste nor textile recycling in Australia was included in any of the fanfare.

Despite the growing concern in this space, unlike glass and plastic, we do not measure these figures accurately across the country.

For me, this explains why the government does not talk about it; the old management rule of ‘what gets measured, gets managed’ clearly applies to textile waste. If it’s not measured, it can’t be managed.

I believe this is driven by the personal relationship we have with our clothes. Would you take your ‘beautiful’ drink bottle collection, which contains memories of friends and great times, and leave them with a charity store to sell, so someone else can appreciate them?

No, of course not. They would be disposed of properly in a yellow top bin because they are plastic, and plastic is bad, and plastic hurts the planet!

Yet, more than 65 per cent of the world’s clothing is made out of PET, or polyester, which is exactly the same material as a drink bottle. And when our clothes go into the bin, or landfill, they have exactly the same environmental impact as burying a drink bottle.

Last year, the retail sector produced 50 million tonnes of polyester for garments. That’s 50 million tonnes of the same material that is used for drink bottles, and only 13 per cent of that was recycled, and only 1 per cent of that was chemically recycled back into reusable polyester. The rest was burnt or buried.

This is a clear sign that we still, even in 2019, have little knowledge of what goes into our garments, and our belief that they do less damage than plastic bottles is misguided.

But if we did know this, would we allow our textiles to end up on landfill or would we take different decisions about recycling our textiles? Would we take a stronger view of not allowing textile exports for somebody else’s landfill? I think we probably would.

But let’s return to the Prime Minister’s announcement. The government can no longer be a quiet observer regarding the issue of textile waste, as it is growing relentlessly and causing massive harm to the land, air and ocean.

France recently passed laws banning supermarkets from disposing of unsold food, and it is reviewing extending this to excess clothing and electronics.

While this action may feel ‘heavy handed’, there is increasing frustration at the lack of product stewardship in relationship to textile waste. No one appears to own the problem; we just pass it from retailer to consumer to charity to exporter to landfill. Who pays for this? Who takes accountability for the problem?

I would encourage the Australian government to continue to drive the right behaviour in the whole recycling space, but with particular reference to textiles. To do this, they need to:

Measure: Treat textile waste with the same seriousness as plastic, as it is the same thing, and start to gather accurate data on what is disposed of, where to and from whom?

Legislate: Extend and enforce mandatory government procurement of recycled polyester. The government need to lead by example by insisting that its own departments procure locally produced recycled polyester from domestic textile waste. Introduce textile kerbside collection so textiles can be sorted and reprocessed before they enter landfill.

Innovate: Extend and simplify R&D legislation and innovation grants that allow Australian retailers and startups in the textile recycling sector to develop innovative and environmentally sustainable solutions to scale and quickly. The government needs to become more entrepreneur-friendly and
innovation-focussed and needs to encourage the retail sector to take some more risks and be more aware of its long-term footprint. One idea is to use the landfill levy to directly support waste reduction grants. The days of not recognising textile waste and not treating it as seriously as plastic, paper, glass and tyre waste are long past us.

It’s time to ban textile waste exports and build a more vibrant textile recycling industry in Australia – and this needs to be led by the retail sector.

Adrian Jones is the co-founder of BlockTexx.

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