Textile consumption increased considerably in the past decades, meanwhile textile is discarded at an unprecedented rate. When textile is discarded, its best destination is a designated textile collection bin. Unfortunately around 55% of Dutch textile waste is currently discarded with household waste and ends up being incinerated.

The remaining 45% that is collected separately (in some cities like Rotterdam this share is as low as 29%) is sorted for reuse or, if reuse is not an option, for recycling. In the current situation, textile is mainly recycled into so-called lower-value products like wipers and isolation material. Only 1% of all textiles is recycled in a way that it can reenter the textile value chain, mostly through mechanical recycling technologies.  

While the rewearable fraction of collected textiles used to be the cash cow for textile collecting- and recycling companies, its share is decreasing resulting in a situation where costs for collection and sorting no longer outweigh the revenues generated with textiles. This problem will aggravate in the coming years: the quality of textile is deteriorating while the textile collection is increasingly scattered by brands’ textile collection initiatives. Due to the poor business case for textile collectors a large share of collected textiles are exported for sorting abroad, destination unknown. Meanwhile an increasing amount of developing countries establish import bans for used textiles. As a result, we are facing a growing waste mountain of “valueless” textile products without a meaningful destination as they are broken, dirty or out of fashion.

Starting 2025 the European Waste Directive will expect governments to collect textiles separately. Without a profitable solution for collected valueless textiles, this growing mountain of textiles will however not lead to a circular textiles value chain. Besides, not reusing and recycling waste which still has opportunities does not make sense from an economical and environmental point of view.

A local last resort for textiles is needed for all textiles currently left without a useful destination as they are not reusable nor resaleable. Ideally this last resort for textiles would be located in proximity to exporters of used textiles. Such a local last resort would consist of a recycling solution (or a combination of solutions) to process textile waste that is non-reusable and unsaleable as it does not currently have value as recycling feedstock. The outputs of this process are then returned as resources into the textile value chain.

The need for a last resort for textiles is more apparent than ever, illustrated by the devastating impact Corona related trade restrictions have on the export potential of Europe’s used textiles. As countries closed their borders for used textiles, storage and incineration are the only alternatives for the continuous offer of discarded textiles generated by European consumers. A last resort for textiles turning discarded textiles into new materials reduces the dependency on export, and could have limited the economic and environmental implications of the Corona crisis.

De oplossing

The City of Rotterdam is in a unique position to valorise valueless textiles: not only is textile collected from the Rotterdam citizens, the city is also a major transit port for used textiles from the Netherlands and abroad.

If we manage to capture and recycle (part of) these non-rewearable textile flows locally, Rotterdam could produce and export its own resources for the (textile) industry instead of volumes of textile (waste) with unknown destinations and future uses. Doing so Rotterdam could contribute to the realisation of its own, the national and European circular ambitions, while generating jobs in the region by incentivizing local sorting and recycling of used textiles.

The valorisation of the ‘valueless’ share of discarded textile could add a new chapter to the business model of textile collectors and sorters. Such financial incentives are fundamental to increase the share of collected textile and raise its circular potential.

A last resort for the ‘valueless’ share of the textile mountain does not emerge spontaneously yet requires the active collaboration between the (local) government, supply chain- as well as knowledge partners. The right (combination of) textile recycling technology can only be determined based on an assessment of the volume and composition of the textile flows in Rotterdam city and port to ensure it maximises the material, financial and societal value created.

Such a last resort for ‘valueless’ textiles could turn European cities like Rotterdam from exporters of low-value textile waste into producers of valuable and affordable resources for the (textile) industry.

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