Fast fashion fills the oceans with plastic, the cure is the circular economy

Fast fashion fills the oceans with plastic, the cure is the circular economy

Every week 15 million second-hand clothing items arrive at the Kantamanto market in Accra, the capital of Ghana. Here, in the largest second-hand market in Africa and probably the world, a large part of the clothes discarded by consumers from the north of the planet, especially European and American, ends up. Old clothes shipped thousands of miles away with the belief that they are doing something good for people and the environment. But that often turn into a much more complicated affair.

The bales of second-hand clothes bought from the merchants of Kantamanto in fact, they contain about 40% of clothes of such poor quality as to be unsaleable. Unusable clothes that end up in local landfills.

Mountains of waste

Around the markets where, in theory, used clothes are sorted, real mountains of waste have been created. Open-air landfills climbed by the poorest in search of a rag worth a few cents. Environmental activists from Ghana Water and Sanitation Journalists Network explain that often, to control its volume, this waste is burned, releasing clouds of toxic fumes. Or the rains drag away the clothes that end up in the waterways, polluting them. Over time, clothes release dyes, microplastics and other chemicals that are harmful to the entire ecosystem. Tangles of textile waste clog the drainage channels causing flooding in the streets. And aggravating an already serious health situation: hundreds in 2014 the victims of a cholera epidemic that broke out in Accra and probably started from the landfill.

All of this happens not only in Africa, but in many parts of the world. In Chile, for example, the dunes of the Atacama Desert are covered by 39,000 tons of textile waste arriving from the US and Asian countries. Proof that the transition to a circular fashion based on reuse and recycling is still a distant goal. “Moving clothes from one place to another is not an example of a circular economy. The point where we throw textile waste has just changed. If before we threw the waste in landfills in the West, now it ends up in African ones “, is the comment by Liz Ricketts, director of The OR Foundationa US non-profit organization active in Ghana on these issues.

An unsustainable consumption

To aggravate the problem, the so-called fast fashion, disposable fashion. Since the mid-2000s, the production of clothes in the world has doubled. Today the clothes have a short stay in the closets, then they are quickly discarded and replaced. A European buys an average of 26 kilos of clothes (37 kilos for Americans) every year and throws away 11 kilos.

The trend towards disposable consumption seems to worsen, to the point that we no longer speak of Fast Fashion but of Ultra Fast Fshion. This is the case of the Chinese e-commerce platform Shein – the most downloaded app in the US, has surpassed Amazon – which every day inserts 1,000 new items of clothing in its online showcase, following the trends that have emerged from social networks. If Shein’s estimated shelf life for their garments is one year, consumers actually discard them much sooner. Many even after only one use, considering it more convenient to buy a new garment rather than take care of the old one.

The environmental impacts of fast fashion

These numbers and this approach have made the fashion industry one of the most impactful in the world in terms of emissions, energy consumption, environmental pollution and resource consumption. Textiles ranks third for use of water and soil, fifth for use of raw materials and greenhouse gas emissions. Fast fashion has a powerful ally in polyester, a synthetic fiber characterized by extreme resistance and wearability, today it occupies 62% of the world market in the sector. In recent decades, the use of polyester – and synthetic fibers in general – in clothing has increased by 9 times, surpassing the use of cotton. And since polyester is a fiber obtained from petroleum, if it is not disposed of correctly at the end of its life, it risks creating significant environmental problems. Dispersed in the natural environment, it breaks down into microfibres, plastic microparticles that destroy habitats and poison the oceansare ingested by fish and other organisms.

It is estimated that textiles are responsible each year for the dispersion of a quantity of microplastics between 200,000 and 500,000 tons. This is confirmed by the recent research “Microplastic pollution from textile consumption in Europe” by the European Environment Agency (EEA) which attributes the production of 8% of European microplastics to this sector, from 16 to 35% in the world.

EU: fashion consumption must be slowed down

The compulsive attitude towards fashion consumption does not seem to change for now. On the contrary. By 2030 it is estimated that clothing consumption in Europe will increase by around 60%. Therefore, environmental impacts and the consumption of raw materials and energy will grow. It is clear that in the face of these numbers, a different approach must be adopted. The European Commission is moving in this direction. A more sustainable and quality fashion is the goal of “EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles“To be implemented by 2030.

The key points of the strategy: improve the performance of textiles in terms of durability, reusability, repairability and recyclability from fiber to fiber; increase the mandatory content of recycled fibers; minimize the presence of dangerous substances; contain negative impacts on the climate and the environment. The fabrics must also have a sort of digital passport containing various information, the indication of requirements on circularity and other environmental aspects such as the traceability of dangerous substances. Careful product design is a fundamental aspect to ensure its recyclability: eco-design determines up to 80% of the environmental impact of a product’s life cycle. “Today less than 1% of textile waste becomes a new fabric, all the rest is waste. And while advanced recycling technologies need to be further developed, improving the design is certainly the first step in addressing the technical challenges, ”commented the European Commissioner for the Environment. Virginia Sinkevičius.

How to give polyester a second life

But it is not just politics that has begun to tackle the problem of how to close the loop in fashion. The same are being done by companies and manufacturing companies that have developed innovative technologies capable of changing the production model by moving to a circular approach. One of the most interesting ways concerns the synthetic fibers, polyester in the head (it is the most used in the textile sector). Its valorisation and recycling would allow to save resources and raw materials, significantly reducing the amount of waste to be disposed of. A recent example comes from NextChem, Maire Tecnimont’s company for energy transition technologies, which has just developed a technology to chemically recycle Pet and polyester contained in fabrics. The demonstration plant – the first in Italy, one of the few in Europe – built in Chieti within the Abruzzo Technology Park as part of the Demeto project co-financed by the European Union with Horizon 2020, has a recycling capacity equal to one million kilos a year of fabrics, both synthetic and blended.

The chemical recycling process developed by NextChem has two significant advantages. First: it allows to obtain a quality product with characteristics very similar to those of the original material. Second: the recycling process can be repeated many times. In practice, depolymerization – that is, the decomposition of polymers into molecules – is obtained through alkaline hydrolysis, a reaction of splitting the polyester into its basic components, the monomers that are purified and recycled. It is as if a building were dismantled by recovering all the bricks, so that they can be reused for another construction. Furthermore, in the plant, in addition to polyester-based textile fibers, different types of materials will be tested. In particular, assure NextChem, the new technology could also contribute to the solution of some critical issues still on the carpet, such as the recycling of coupled fibers. Not a small problem. In Italy alone, in 2019 almost half of the textile waste traced was made up of synthetic fibers (coupled or not).

The contribution of the consortia

To achieve a real circularity of the textile sector, the collection of the waste necessary to feed the recovery circuit therefore represents a fundamental step. According to the estimates of Ispra (Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research) in Italy 5.7% of unsorted waste is made up of textile waste. There are about 663,000 tons a year that mostly end up burnt or in landfills. For now, the national average per capita collection is equal to 2.6 kilos per inhabitant. As often happens, there are several differences. In the North we are at 2.88 kilos, in the Center at 2.95 kilos and around 2 kilograms in the South. Trentino Alto Adige, Valle d’Aosta and Basilicata the regions that lead the ranking, Umbria and Sicily close it. And this time our country has been ahead of the European guidelines by voting for a law that makes the separate collection of textile waste mandatory. To make the entire supply chain work, however, a key step is missing: the regulation of the Epr – Extended Producer Responsibility system for this type of waste. A system that attributes to those who make a product – in this case a dress – the responsibility of managing the entire life cycle. Even when it becomes a waste.

In the meantime, some consortia have been created in Italy for the collection, treatment and recovery of end-of-life textile products: Ecoremat, Ecotessili, and, a few weeks ago, Cobat Tessile, which marks the opening of a new line of intervention by a historic consortium, already active in the collection, treatment and recycling of exhausted batteries and accumulators, waste electrical and electronic equipment, photovoltaic modules and out of use tires.

“After the introduction of the obligation of separate collection of the textile fraction in urban waste, expected from 2020 and started in 2022, we believe little or nothing has been done to systematize a truly sustainable management of the end of life of fabrics” , comments Michele Zilla – director of Cobat Tessile. “With reference to the textile sector, in December 2021 we filed an application with the Ministry of Ecological Transition to activate the European standard of the EPR in Italy, interpreting and – in some ways – anticipating the strategic document presented by the European Commission in March. While waiting for our country to adopt this new standard, Cobat Tessile helps member companies to pursue sustainable development that brings benefits not only to the environment, but also to the entire national economic system “.

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