Collecting textile waste is treating symptoms rather than the disease.
Used clothes are burned or landfilled all over the EU. In our home country, Denmark, we burn about 40.000 tons of textiles per year. And from 2025 and onwards, the EU requires all member states to separate textile waste. This creates an issue of accumulating textile waste, since existing models and systems will not be sufficient to handle the waste.
In this article we point to solutions currently available, as well as to those being developed to help us deal with the enormous piles of textile waste that we have to collect in 2025.
We also present tangible actions that consumers can take to decrease their environmental impact. However, probably most importantly, we note the need to reduce the amount of textile waste that is being generated rather than focusing only on cleaning it up. We offer concrete advice on how you cause less textile waste.
Your impact – Support, and buy less
As a consumer you can still have a positive impact, even if you cannot set the political agenda. There are a lot of discussions about how and what textile waste can be used for, but as important as this is, we must address how this problem is created in the first place. The problem of the growing piles of used clothing comes from producing more than we need. To decrease the problem, we should produce less and focus more on the durability of clothing. Here are 4 pieces of advice of what you can do, in the listed order.
- Use what you have.
Allow yourself to explore what you already have and use that until it is not wearable anymore. This way, you dont support the production of new clothes. Do consider if what you are about to buy is something that you sincerely need. In affirmative case, see next point.
- Choose second-hand.
If you have considered option one and you are sure you need a ‘new’ item, buy second-hand. Second-hand clothes have almost no impact, because you are extending the ‘active’ life of textiles. This lowers the impact per use of your items. There are plenty of innovative platforms and smart second-hand systems that we introduce to you in the following. If, however, you cannot find what you need second-hand, continue with advice number 3.
- Choose durable clothes.
Buy clothes that are durable and last for a long time. This is meant both in terms of the material, but also of you wanting to wear it. The longer you actively use a piece of clothing, the lower the impact per use will be. The longer you use your clothing, the longer you will wait until buying something new.
To extend the life of your durable clothes, in case they were to break, you can make use of free repairing services or take-back systems. Leasing or renting-based models allow you to have a pair of jeans for as long as you like, and send them back when you don’t want to use them any longer. Afterwards, they can then be rented buy someone else.
- Choose something less damaging.
If you choose to buy durable clothes, buy something that has been produced in a less harmful way – meaning that is more considerate of the people producing the garments, the environment and the climate. Certificates, that are verified by external, independent institutions, can guide you in your search for newly produced clothes.
New business models: Re-use systems
Now that you have learned how not to contribute to the problem of accumulating textile waste in the first place, we can move on to how we deal with the problem at hand. The primary way to solve this issue is to make sure that the clothes that can be worn, will not go to waste. In the following we introduce you to some innovative companies that have emerged to tackle this issue. They have and still are developing technologies that assist us in recycling or reusing textiles, which means that they can re-enter the loop.
Second Tots. Second Tots has created an online store for second-hand children’s clothing, where you can buy and sell online. After handing in your items, they are uploaded on the webshop. You receive a share of the payment, once the item is sold. It leans on the idea of flea-market shopping, but it is accessible all the time, as it is an online platform.
Relovers. Relovers is a marketplace for eco-friendly second-hand clothing, with a specific feature. The platform provides you with information about fabrics and certifications used in each product. This allows you to shop more consciously, as you can both filter according to your criteria and learn more about your items. They just recently launched their website!
Veras Vintage. Veras Vintage has developed a concept where you can hand in your clothes, and depending on the condition and value, you gain points. With these points, you can buy new second hand clothing, either online or in their stores in Copenhagen or Odense. This concept is genius as it has a flea market-like idea, but which is possible to access all the time and it allows you stay in the loop of buying second-hand clothing.
Industrial impact through recycling systems
The above-mentioned solutions are creative and smart. However, they only work with intact pieces that are suitable to reuse as they are. The amount of clothes in Denmark that cannot be reused is 8 times higher than the clothes being reused directly (p.30). Hence, these clothes will be burned, recycled or shipped to other countries. Here are some technologies that can help to save many tons of textiles that are burned every year in the EU.
Valvan. Recycling technologies can often not handle textiles that are made of different kinds of material. It is therefore problematic when clothes are dumped on landfills or thrown into a container without any prior sorting. A company stationed in Brussels, called Valvan has solved this specific issue with an automated sorting system of textiles called Fibersort. This machine sorts large volumes of garments, based on the composition of material they are made of. It makes the following process of actually recycling the clothes easier.
Re:Newcell. After the sorting process, clothes can be recycled, meaning the fibres are separated, either through a mechanic or a chemical process. Re:newcell, a company with a facility stationed in Sweden, has invented a technology that mechanically shreds textiles and upcycles them into a raw material called re:newcell pulp. It is biodegradable and has the same or higher quality than so called virgin pulp. It is therefore of high value and can be made into viscose yarns that can be used for clothing.
Textile Change. The Danish company called Textile Change is currently developing a technology that combines the mechanic and chemical recycling process. They do this by pretreating the textile waste mechanically and then separating it into basic components through a chemical process. This is progressive, as it can turn textiles into raw materials, regardless of its material composition. At the same time, Textile Change is ambitious about building a machinery that treats textiles in the gentlest way possible. It allows them to both strengthen the durability of the newly generated material and to decrease their environmental footprint. They will start building a pilot facility in 2021 and launch the actual facility in 2024, that runs on low and green energy. The aim is also to reuse about 97% of the chemicals they use in the process to separate polyester and cotton.
A need for more cooperation and economic subsidies
These technologies will surely help to “clean up” the waste. But it will take time. Moving from a laboratory to the testing phase, which often requires a company to build a testing facility, is challenging. Ditte Højland, one of the founders of Textile Change, explains that investors are often reluctant to fund companies that are in a testing phase, since the technology hasn’t proved functional outside the lab yet. This is extremely problematic, as it is a crucial step when scaling a technology and entering the market.
While the technologies are helpful, we need to develop structures that will prevent the same problems from occurring in the future. In addition, we cannot solve the issue of accumulating textile waste on our own. Denmark and other EU member states need to act together, with the help of institutions like the EU.
Setting new requirements, like the separation of textile waste, is a good initiative in itself, we also need initiatives that focus on tackling the original problem of waste being there in the first place.
Extended producer responsibility, tax systems and durability regulations
EU´s waste rule introduces a concept called extended producer responsibility. It means that the companies producing the clothes should take responsibility for the textile waste they cause. Introducing a shift in responsibility from waste managing authorities, like municipalities, to the actual polluters, could have a potential effect on the way we produce: in a way that is more considerate of our environment and climate.
Another way of tackling the issue is by introducing ISO standards that can regulate the quality of the clothes we produce and import. By putting restrictions on the quality of clothing, we would use our items longer and thereby postpone the purchase of more. ISO standards could categorise products, based on the durability, which then could be taxed differently, depending on the respective category.
EU regulations on textiles oblige brands to name the material of which the clothes are made of. The same rule could be applied in the area of durability. Stating clearly how long a product is expected to last might make consumers think more about how long they should expect to use it – and be able to file a lawsuit if it doesn’t last as long as stated. This might have a competitive effect between brands in creating longer lasting products.
We applaud the 2025 initiative of collecting textile waste. This forces us to clean up our mess and generate opportunities for businesses that can sort, separate and reuse the materials. However, to become more sustainable, we need to keep an eye on the overconsumption that is causing the problem to begin with. Systems, structures and regulations are needed in order to tackle this original problem.