How much does the textile industry waste?
An estimate of the volumes of textile processing waste
When looking at the prospects of more sustainable waste management in the fashion supply chain, the media almost always focuses on two recycling types.
The most talked-about is post-consumer waste, which is recovered at a product's "end of life" after we throw it in a trash bin: used clothes, plastic bottles, etc. This waste category includes items abandoned in the environment after use, such as fishing nets or waste plastics in the sea.
The second is the processing waste from other sectors, often from agriculture, such as fibers obtained from the waste from the collection of cotton, pineapple, grapes, etc.
The interest in these two forms of recycling derives, on the one hand, from their innovativeness. Both require the development of new business models and new production chains and on the other from the strength and immediacy of the message against waste that they can transmit.
Further to these two, there is another type of recycling that can remarkably reduce the waste volume that today is incinerated or disposed of in landfills. It is the so-called post-industrial waste, or waste generated in production processes, within the manufacturing chain. The recycling of this waste is more akin to the search for efficiency that companies apply to production processes.
The management of post-industrial recycling is anything but trivial. In some cases, it can be relatively simple and performed inside the company itself. An example is the recycling of spinning waste. Still, in most cases, it is required to process the waste in specialized recycling chains - i.e., external to the company – with many administrative and bureaucratic obstacles.
Post-industrial waste's regulatory status is often uncertain and can require cumbersome authorization procedures. A material goes under the "waste" definition when it has no specific destination for recycling. It bears the label of Secondary Raw Materials instead, if it has a specific recycling and final use destination. These rules will change in the next future, hopefully very soon, following the End of Waste principles set by the EU Circular Economy package adoption.
Several studies have tried to measure the amount of textile waste generated by manufacturing processes, and the numbers are very consistent. Two studies, one carried out by the University of Cambridge, EPSRC, IFM, and the other by Reverse Resources, both published in 2017, have calculated that the volume lost in the fashion supply chain processes ranges from a minimum of 20% of the input fibers up to a maximum of over45 %.
Adding the unsold and defective garments to these already enormous figures makes the size of wasted resources really huge. From one-third to over half of the textile supply chain's fibers ends up as waste, even before reaching the consumer.
A reservoir of resources whose more efficient use deserves to be taken into consideration.