A new strategy for increased reuse and recycling of textiles in the Nordic Region has just been introduced. It addresses all aspects of the textile sector, from producer responsibility and common quality requirements for collection and sorting, to recycling infrastructure and business models based on collective use and reuse. If fully implemented, the strategy could double the separate collection of textiles and create thousands of jobs in reuse and recycling.
By Páll Tómas Finnsson
A strategy with environmental and economic benefits
Textile consumption has increased in all five Nordic countries in the last decade. The consumption of new textiles amounts to 350,000 tons per year, and is expected to increase to over 450,000 tons by 2020. Each year, 120,000 tons of used textiles are collected for reuse and recycling in the Region. The remaining two thirds of purchased textiles are eventually discarded in ordinary household waste, and the valuable resources they represent are lost to the economy.
The Nordic Textile Strategy identifies pathways to doubling the separate collection of used textiles within ten years, and puts forward recommendations on how to strengthen the Region’s textile reuse market and improve recycling rates. The strategy is based on input from three Nordic textile projects, which were initiated by the Nordic Waste Group (NWG) as part of the Nordic Prime Ministers’ green growth initiative.
“The idea has been to reduce the environmental impact of textile consumption in the Region by increasing reuse and recycling,” says Sanna Due-Sjöström, chair of the Nordic Waste Group. She adds that the improvements would also strengthen the Nordic textile industries’ competitiveness. “Our studies indicate that we could create more than 4,000 jobs in the Region related to the collection, sorting, reuse and recycling of used textiles and via expanding business models like leasing, repair and sharing of textile products.”
According to Yvonne Augustsson of the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, a key aspect of the strategy is to prolong the active lifetime of the textiles.
“This entails producing textiles of better quality, increasing the collection and sorting of used textiles and encouraging more reuse,” Augustsson explains. “And when reuse is no longer possible, the textiles should be recycled, ideally back into new textile products.”
The Nordic Textile Strategy encourages Nordic policy-makers to set clear targets for the increased collection, sorting, reuse and recycling of textiles, to support new business models based on sharing, leasing and reuse, and to lead the way with regards to development of new technology. One suggestion is to investigate the potential for a semi-automated sorting facility for used textiles located in the Nordic region. According to recent estimates, in order for such a facility to be economically viable, its minimum capacity would have to be around 80,000 tons.
“We don’t have any such facilities in the Region, which means that most of the collected items are exported for sorting elsewhere,” Augustsson says. “There’s a need for more efficient sorting and recycling technologies, not only in the Nordic Region, but also in the rest of the world. The key to developing these technologies is increasing the volumes of collected textiles.”
Nordic Textile Commitment – a common quality assurance system
Increasing the collection of used textiles requires a transparent and reliable reuse and recycling market. This is why Nordic experts have developed the Nordic textile reuse and recycling commitment, a quality assurance system and voluntary commitment for organisations involved in the collection, sorting, reuse and recycling of textiles.
The commitment defines criteria for all phases of the reuse and recycling process. The core of the commitment is a Code of Conduct that addresses the environmental and social performance of collection organisations, as well as issues such as transparency and reporting. The ambition is to support the legitimate actors on the market, many of which are charity organisations, and to eliminate the illegal collection, export and trading of post-consumer textiles.
“Transparency is vital to increase confidence in the reuse and recycling market,” says Augustsson. “The Nordic textile commitment provides a guarantee of an economic, social and environmentally sustainable management of the collected textiles. We recommend that only certified actors should be allowed to be involved in collection and sorting in the Region.”
One of the commitment’s long-term goals is to ensure that, within ten years, collection rates of used textiles are doubled, 50 per cent of all collected textiles are reused, either in the Nordic countries or abroad, and 90 per cent are reused or recycled.
A pilot implementation of the Nordic textile commitment and Code of Conduct will be carried out in selected municipalities in the Oresund region and in Norway, starting in September 2015. The pilot will be conducted in close co-operation with a reference group from the industry.
“It’s a one-year trial in which we’ll implement and test the commitment,” says project manager Anna Fråne of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institution. “We’ll perform audits of a number of collectors, sorters and recyclers, and develop protocols for the certification process. This will allow us to test the criteria, and, if necessary, make adjustments to the Code of Conduct.”
More focus on reuse and recycling – from production to final disposal
Other key elements of the strategy are extended producer responsibility (EPR) and innovative new business models based on collective use, reuse and recycling of textiles.
EPR schemes are policy measures that aim to influence producers to take greater responsibility for their products after they are sold to customers and thereby reduce the environmental impact of textile consumption. EPR schemes can include both upstream and downstream measures. Upstream measures encourage producers to make more durable, higher-quality products, design for reuse and recyclability, and reduce the use of harmful substances. Downstream measures make manufacturers and importers accountable for the take-back, recovery and final disposal of their products. The project investigated the implications of both voluntary and mandatory EPR systems for textile products.
“A key issue is how much an EPR system will change the actual design of textile products,” says David Watson, one of the project leaders behind the new strategy. “Collective EPR systems don’t normally motivate upstream effects, but incentives can be included to encourage more sustainable product design. The trick is to ensure that these don’t make the scheme too difficult to administer.”
EPR systems and new business models has delivered recommendations on producer responsibility in a Nordic context and presented ways in which policy-makers can support business models based on a prolonged active lifetime of the textiles. These include leasing, clothing libraries, second-hand sales and repair services.
“A key element is policy that will increase the quality and durability of the textiles,” says Watson. “You can achieve that via voluntary commitments, by demanding extended warranty periods or durability labelling. Such policy instruments would increase product lifetimes and impact positively on the viability of many of the new green business models.”
Moreover, Watson emphasises the need for increased focus on improved recycling when designing Nordic EPR systems. Today, where textiles are recycled, it is as low-grade products such as insulation or industrial wipes, rather than new textile products.
“What’s really missing today is the recycling element,” Watson says. “Charities and other collectors are only interested in reusable clothing, so most of the non-reusable but recyclable textile waste ends up being incinerated. A well-designed EPR scheme would ensure collection of larger volumes of these textiles, which in turn could be the catalyst for new technologies to be developed.”
Proportion of environmental taxes in total tax revenues
User guide – environmentally friendly textile consumption (in Danish)