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Circular economy

The impact of textile production and waste on the environment

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Clothes, footwear and household textiles are responsible for water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and landfill. Find out more in the infographic. Fast fashion - the constant provision of new styles at very low prices - has led to a big increase in the quantity of clothes produced and thrown away.

To tackle the impact on the environment, the EU wants to speed up the move towards a circular economy.

In March 2020, the European Commission adopted a new circular economy action plan, which includes an EU strategy for textiles, which aims to stimulate innovation and boost reuse within the sector. Parliament is set to vote on an own-initiative report on the circular economy action plan in early 2021.

Circularity principles need to be implemented throughout all stages of a value chain to make the circular economy a success. From design to production, all the way to the consumer.

Jan Huitema (Renew Europe, the Netherlands), lead MEP on the circular economy action plan.
infographic with facts and figures about the environmental impact of textiles Facts and figures about the environmental impact of textiles  

Water use

It takes a lot of water to produce textile, plus land to grow cotton and other fibres. It is estimated that the global textile and clothing industry used 79 billion cubic metres of water in 2015, while the needs of the EU's whole economy amounted to 266 billion cubic metres in 2017. To make a single cotton t-shirt, 2,700 litres of fresh water are required according to estimates, enough to meet one person’s drinking needs for 2.5 years.

Infographic with facts and figures about the environmental impact of textilesFacts and figures about the environmental impact of textiles  

Water pollution

Textile production is estimated to be responsible for about 20% of global clean water pollution from dyeing and finishing products.

Washing synthetics releases an estimated 0.5 million tonnes of microfibres into the ocean a year.

Laundering synthetic clothes accounts for 35% of primary microplastics released into the environment. A single laundry load of polyester clothes can discharge 700,000 microplastic fibres that can end up in the food chain.

Infographic with facts and figures about the environmental impact of textiles     

Greenhouse gas emissions

It is estimated that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of global carbon emissions – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

According to the European Environment Agency, textile purchases in the EU in 2017 generated about 654 kg of CO2 emissions per person.

Textile waste in landfills

The way people get rid of unwanted clothes has also changed, with items being thrown away rather than donated.

Since 1996, the amount of clothes bought in the EU per person has increased by 40% following a sharp fall in prices, which has reduced the life span of clothing. Europeans use nearly 26 kilos of textiles and discard about 11 kilos of them every year. Used clothes can be exported outside the EU, but are mostly (87%) incinerated or landfilled.

Globally less than 1% of clothes are recycled as clothing, partly due to inadequate technology.

Tackling textile waste in the EU

The new strategy aims to address fast fashion and provide guidelines to achieve high levels of separate collection of textile waste.

Under the waste directive approved by the Parliament in 2018, EU countries will be obliged to collect textiles separately by 2025. The new Commission strategy also includes measures to support circular material and production processes, tackle the presence of hazardous chemicals and help consumers to choose sustainable textiles.

The EU has an EU Ecolabel that producers respecting ecological criteria can apply to items, ensuring a limited use of harmful substances and reduced water and air pollution.

The EU has also introduced some measures to mitigate the impact of textile waste on the environment. Horizon 2020 funds RESYNTEX, a project using chemical recycling, which could provide a circular economy business model for the textile industry.

A more sustainable model of textile production also has the potential to boost the economy. "Europe finds itself in an unprecedented health and economic crisis, revealing the fragility of our global supply chains," said lead MEP Huitema. "Stimulating new innovative business models will in turn create new economic growth and the job opportunities Europe will need to recover."

More about waste in the EU

Circular economy

E-waste in the EU: Facts and figures  

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E-waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the EU and less than 40% is recycled. Electronic devices and electrical equipment define modern life. From washing machines and vacuum cleaners to smartphones and computers, it is hard to imagine life without them. But the waste they generate has become an obstacle to EU efforts to reduce its ecological footprint. Read more to find out how the EU is tackling e-waste in its move towards a more circular economy.

What is e-waste?

Electronic and electrical waste, or e-waste, covers a variety of different products that are thrown away after use.

Large household appliances, such as washing machines and electric stoves, are the most collected, making up more than half of all collected e-waste.

This is followed by IT and telecommunications equipment (laptops, printers), consumer equipment and photovoltaic panels (video cameras, fluorescent lamps) and small household appliances (vacuum cleaners, toasters).

All other categories, such as electrical tools and medical devices, together make up just 7.2% of the collected e-waste.

Infographic on electronic and electrical waste in the EU Infographic showing the percentage of e-waste per appliance type in the EU  

E-waste recycling rate in the EU

Less than 40% of all e-waste in the EU is recycled, the rest is unsorted. Recycling practices vary among EU countries. In 2017, Croatia recycled 81% of all electronic and electrical waste, while in Malta, the figure was 21%.

Infographic on the recycling rate of e-waste in the EU Infographic showing e-waste recycling rates per EU country  

Why do we need to recycle electronic and electrical waste?

Discarded electronic and electrical equipment contains potentially harmful materials that pollute the environment and increase the risks for people involved in recycling e-waste. To counter this problem, the EU has passed legislation to prevent the use of certain chemicals, like lead.

Many rare minerals that are needed in modern technology come from countries that do not respect human rights. To avoid inadvertently supporting armed conflict and human rights abuses, MEPs have adopted rules requiring European importers of rare earth minerals to carry out background checks on their suppliers.

What is the EU doing do reduce e-waste?

In March 2020, the European Commission presented a new circular economy action plan that has as one of its priorities the reduction of electronic and electrical waste. The proposal specifically outlines immediate goals like creating the “right to repair” and improving reusability in general, the introduction of a common charger and establishing a rewards system to encourage recycling electronics.

Parliament’s position

The Parliament is set to vote on an own-initiative report on the circular economy action plan in February 2021.

Dutch Renew Europe member Jan Huitema, the lead MEP on this issue, said it was important to approach the Commission’s action plan “holistically”: “Circularity principles need to be implemented throughout all stages of a value chain to make the circular economy a success.”

He said particular focus should be given to the e-waste sector, as recycling is lagging behind production. “In 2017, the world generated 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste and only 20% was recycled properly.”

Huitema also says the action plan could help with the economic recovery. “Stimulating new innovative business models will in turn create the new economic growth and job opportunities Europe will need to recover.

Read more about the circular economy and waste

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Circular economy

Circular economy: Definition, importance and benefits

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The circular economy: find out what it means, how it benefits you, the environment and our economy with the infographic below. The European Union produces more than 2.5 billion tonnes of waste every year. It is currently updating its legislation on waste management to promote a shift to a more sustainable model known as the circular economy. In March 2020 the European Commission presented, under the European Green Deal and as part of the proposed new industrial strategy, a new circular economy action plan that includes proposals on more sustainable product design, reducing waste and empowering consumers (such as a right to repair). Specific focus is brought to resource intensive sectors, such as electronics and ICT, plastics, textiles and construction.

But what exactly does the circular economy mean? And what would be the benefits?

What is the circular economy? 

The circular economy is a model of production and consumption, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products as long as possible. In this way, the life cycle of products is extended.

In practice, it implies reducing waste to a minimum. When a product reaches the end of its life, its materials are kept within the economy wherever possible. These can be productively used again and again, thereby creating further value.

This is a departure from the traditional, linear economic model, which is based on a take-make-consume-throw away pattern. This model relies on large quantities of cheap, easily accessible materials and energy.

Also part of this model is planned obsolescence, when a product has been designed to have a limited lifespan to encourage consumers to buy it again. The European Parliament has called for measures to tackle this practice.

Why do we need to switch to a circular economy?

The world's population is growing and with it the demand for raw materials. However, the supply of crucial raw materials is limited.

Finite supplies also means some EU countries are dependent on other countries for their raw materials.

In addition extracting and using raw materials has a major impact on the environment. It also increases energy consumption and CO2 emissions. However, a smarter use of raw materials can lower CO2 emissions.

What are the benefits?

Measures such as waste prevention, ecodesign and re-use could save EU companies money while also reducing total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, the production of materials we use every day account for 45% of the CO2 emissions.

Moving towards a more circular economy could deliver benefits such as reducing pressure on the environment, improving the security of the supply of raw materials, increasing competitiveness, stimulating innovation, boosting economic growth (an additional 0.5% of gross domestic product), creating jobs (700,000 jobs in the EU alone by 2030).

Consumers will also be provided with more durable and innovative products that will increase the quality of life and save them money in the long term.

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Circular economy

Push for reusable packaging in Europe faces COVID-era economic reality for restaurants

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Even after the European Medicines Agency (EMA) sped up approval of the made-in-Europe BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine, with a conditional green light delivered on December 21st, it’s clear Europe’s experience with Covid-19 has already altered daily life in ways likely to endure for years to come. Among other shifts, teleworking has become a fact of life in industries and countries where it was practically non-existent prior to the pandemic, notably Italy and Spain. The travel market that saw low-cost carriers shuttle Europeans around the Schengen zone has cratered, forcing Norwegian Air to file for bankruptcy protection just last month. Major foodservice companies catering to office workers, such as Pret a Manger, have closed dozens of stores and cut thousands of jobs.

In fact, one of the most revolutionary changes wrought by Covid-19 may well be in how Europeans eat. In countries such as France, where the government was struggling to encourage the ‘doggy bag’ to reduce food waste just last year, demand for takeaway and food delivery has exploded. After restaurant closures in the spring initially left the sector grasping for a lifeline, confined customers ultimately came to embrace ordering from services such as Deliveroo.

With the new model of food delivery now firmly in place, the market for companies such as Uber Eats has kept growing, even after restaurants reopened. On the one hand, this is a rare silver lining for a continent whose economies have been buffeted by the health crisis. On the other hand, this marked shift in foodservice is a shot across the bow for the European Green Deal, spearheaded by the European Commission’s Executive Vice-President Frans Timmermans.

European restaurants sound the alarm

Just last year, the European Union adopted Directive (EU) 2019/904, otherwise known as the Single Use Plastics Directive, to structure EU efforts to reduce “the impact of certain plastic products on the environment.” As details of the Commission’s draft guidance to member states regarding this Directive have leaked, the foodservice sector has reacted with alarm.

Based on the sector’s reaction, the draft guidelines seem to point towards a ban on a large swathe of single-use products, with a view towards forcing the uptake of reusable alternatives. In taking such a broad view of what constitutes unacceptable ‘single use plastic’, the Commission seems intent on preventing these industries from switching to more sustainable single-use choices, including fiber-based paper products. In doing so, it is directly challenging the model that has kept the restaurant industry afloat, instead pushing it towards additional costs at a time of extreme economic duress.

As the foodservice sector points out, there is a fundamental issue of hygiene and safety in phasing out single-use products, especially as global pandemics become a more regular occurrence. Reusable products, often held up by environmental campaigners as a panacea for issues like marine pollution, have the disadvantage of being reused by dozens, if not hundreds of different customers. As food researchers such as David McDowell of Ulster University have pointed out, restricting disposable products in the foodservice industry could expose customers to higher risks of cross-contamination from foodborne illnesses, including bacteria such as E. coli and listeria, as well as viruses.

Now, of course, customers using food delivery services prefer to avoid interacting with their delivery person at all, let alone sharing plates or cups used by other patrons. The warnings raised by experts such as McDowell have been echoed by the European Environment Agency, which admitted disposable products “have played an important role in preventing the spread of Covid-19,” even as it expressed concern over whether the surge in demand could undermine EU efforts to develop a “more sustainable and circular plastics system.”

Reducing plastic pollution while supporting the circular economy

European consumers share that concern. Per a DS Smith survey published in January, over 90% of customers in four European countries indicated they wanted packaging containing less plastic; over 60% said they would be willing to pay a premium for it. Fortunately, in sharp contrast to the Commission’s narrative, more sustainable single-use products could actually help solve the marine pollution crisis the Single Use Plastics Directive is meant to address.

Those alternatives chiefly include disposable fiber-based products, such as paper cups, plates, and boxes. While some of these products contain a minimal amount of plastic polymers, fiber-based packaging is by and large more widely recycled and ecologically sound than the plastic chiefly responsible for marine litter. As the UK’s Royal Statistical Society famously reported in 2018, over 90% of plastic waste ever generated has never been recycled. By contrast, nearly three-quarters of paper products get recycled on average in the EU.

Fiber can even claim advantages over reusable foodservice products, especially in carbon footprints and water usage. Any advantages reusable products might enjoy over single-use paper items in terms of carbon emissions depend on the number of times they can be reused. In the case of a ceramic cup, for example, the item would potentially need to be used as many as 350 times. In terms of “ecosystem quality indicators” such as acidification, those advantages can be quickly cancelled out by the hot water and detergents needed to wash reusable cups. Meanwhile, effective recycling of paper, increasingly the norm across Europe, reduces its footprint by over 50%.

The solution suggested by some advocates of reusables – namely, limiting washing – is out of the question for a foodservice industry responsible for protecting consumers from foodborne pathogens. Millions of Europeans now accustomed to takeaway and delivery expect the companies serving them – including countless small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the restaurant sector – to adhere to high standards of food safety and hygiene.

Sustainable, fiber-based alternatives to plastic for food packaging could meet that need without disrupting growth in the sector. Instead of adding to the restaurant industry’s already-considerable losses with a poorly executed approach to plastics, European regulators will likely soon realize the need to accept and encourage more sustainable single-use products that help the oceans without harming the economy.

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