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The Role of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) in Reducing Textile Waste

Managing textile waste has been something very complicated across different communities and different kinds of strategies have been employed with less success.  This is because textile waste is not only an environmental but a social problem too, and a lot of non-profits are engaged in salvation activities like donating.  There are technological limitations but specially, collection of post-consumer textile waste is very inefficient because of the informal trading/transfer of textile wastes withing the community. Hence, proper policy measures are crucial to streamline this sector. EPR or the extended producer responsibility is believed to be one of such policy instruments. 

The Textile Industry and Textile Waste

Source: Stitching UP Textile

The global apparel industry, valued at an astounding $2.4 trillion and equivalent to the world’s seventh-largest economy, has experienced unprecedented growth over the past decade. Producing over 150 billion garments per year, this industry, while providing economic benefits, has also cultivated a culture of mass consumption and waste. The environmental cost of this expansion is staggering, with the majority of textiles, despite being recyclable, ending up in landfills, thus squandering half a trillion dollars in resource value annually.

The industry’s ecological footprint extends beyond waste. Textile production, whether from natural fibers like cotton and hemp or synthetic ones like polyester, consumes vast amounts of water and energy and contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas emissions. The cultivation of cotton, for instance, can require up to 29,000 liters of water per kilogram, and the synthesis of synthetic fibers utilizes millions of barrels of oil each year.  

The environmental implications of the industry’s practices extend to the depletion of natural ecosystems, such as the desertification of the Gobi Desert due to overgrazing by cashmere-producing goats and the deforestation driven by the demand for cellulosic fibers. Additionally, the washing of synthetic garments has been found to release microfibers into the ocean, contributing to the growing problem of microplastic pollution.

Consumer behavior has also exacerbated the issue. In the United States, the average consumer buys 64 garments annually, yet the utilization rate of these clothes is a mere quarter of the global average. The McKinsey report reveals a distressing trend: nearly three-fifths of all clothing produced ends up in incinerators or landfills within a year of being made. The consumer’s disconnection from the value of recycled textiles is partly to blame, with the low-cost structure of fast fashion driving a perception that cheap clothes are not worth recycling.

The challenge is not merely one of consumer education but also one of industrial practices. The post-consumer textile waste (PCTW) needs to be captured and recycled, which requires multinational strategies and industry-wide collaboration. While some companies, like Patagonia, have begun to integrate recycling into their business models, the industry as a whole lacks comprehensive strategies for textile diversion and recycling, particularly for mixed-material textiles.

The Role of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)

The Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a policy approach that extends a producer’s responsibility for their product to the post-consumer stage. The idea comes from the concept of product stewardship. Product stewardship is the approach to minimizing products’ health, safety, environmental, and social impacts throughout their life cycle. EPR regulates who is to take responsibility for product stewardship. Now, the question is, who, throughout the product lifecycle, has the greatest ability to minimize the adverse impacts? Is it the producer or manufacturer, the distributor, the retailer, the hauler, the recycler, or the consumer? EPR is a legislative tool that makes producers responsible for the entire lifecycle of their products, from sourcing through manufacturing and all the way to recycling or landfilling. Though all the stakeholders have some roles in this regard, the producer or the manufacturer is believed to have the greatest ability to control the product’s impacts (Li et al., 2017). EPR makes it mandatory, by law, for the manufacturers to take responsibility for the operational and financial liability of products’ end-of-life management. By definition, there are two attributes of EPR policy-

  1. Shifting responsibilities from municipalities to the producers and
  2. The provision of incentives for producers to consider environmental impacts when designing products.

EPR policies incentivize brands to design products with waste reduction in mind, thereby engaging them in the process of textile waste diversion and promoting the development of recycling technologies. France’s implementation of EPR, which mandates producers to collect 50% of the volume they introduce to the market, exemplifies the potential impact of such policies on improving recycling rates and reducing landfill reliance.

However, the application of EPR is not without challenges. Recycling rates can vary significantly across countries, often influenced by the market value of the collected waste. The financial feasibility of EPR schemes may thus depend on the country’s infrastructure and public awareness regarding recycling programs.

One of the critical requirements for successful EPR implementation and increased recycling rates is the development of technology that can facilitate the sorting and recycling process. For instance, Oakdene Hollins has suggested a two-dimensional barcode system that could help identify the material composition of garments, thereby streamlining the recycling process.

The pressing need for such interventions is clear when considering the projected growth of the industry. If the current trends continue unabated, the apparel and textile industry could consume over 26% of the carbon budget associated with a 2°C global warming pathway by 2050. The importance of immediate action to stem the tide of PCTW and foster a more sustainable industry cannot be overstated.

Re-educating consumers about the value of recycling textiles and the possibilities of garment disposal, such as resale, donation, and recycling, is crucial. Garment tagging systems that communicate care instructions and end-of-life diversion options could also play a vital role in increasing the lifespan and recyclability of garments. Brands could offer take-back programs or incentives for recycling, encouraging consumers to view their clothing as valuable resources rather than disposable items.

In conclusion, the textile waste issue in the apparel industry is multifaceted, involving environmental, industrial, and behavioral elements. The implementation of EPR can act as a catalyst for change, aligning economic incentives with environmental stewardship. However, it requires a concerted effort from producers, consumers, governments, and international bodies to create a truly sustainable and circular textile economy. The potential benefits of such a transformation are immense, promising not just a reduction in waste and resource consumption but also a model for other industries to follow in the journey toward a more sustainable future.

References:

  1. Reducing textile waste in the

apparel industry: Examining EPR as an option, Kelly Burton, FIT

  • Extended Producer Responsibility as a Driver for Design Change – Utopia or Reality?, Naoko Tojo, a Thesis paper.
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