The production of clothes has doubled worldwide in the past 15 years, according to the Ellen McArthur Foundation – we also buy more, and the fast fashion clothing we buy tends to be of lower quality, worn for a shorter time and offered at cheaper prices. On average, Europeans today consume 6.4 million tonnes of clothing per year, that is up to around 7 kg per person, according to the European Clothing Action Plan.
Today’s clothing industry has huge environmental impacts, from the water and agrochemicals used in producing natural fibres, to the pollution from dyeing, manufacturing and shipping clothes, to the microplastic fibres released when synthetic fabrics are washed. And once they are used, clothes quickly pile up as waste.
Reuse and recycling are two ways to extend the lifespan of old clothes and the fibres they contain. Their market potential has not yet been fully realized. The scale of this untapped potential in the Baltic region, the destination for much of Scandinavia’s used clothes, is ripe for research. Doing so will be just one of the contributions of a new project Towards a Nordic-Baltic Circular Textile System.
“The Baltic region has no capacity to recycle used textiles yet,” says SEI’s Kerli Kant Hvass, one of the project’s initiators. “This means large quantities of garments end up in landfill, wasting the potential economic opportunities.
“Our new project involves collaboration with Nordic countries that are home to best practices, technological innovations and other solutions in the areas of mapping, textile collection, sorting, reuse and recycling. This will provide highly valuable opportunities for the Baltic region to learn from and adapt.”
Another driver behind the project is amendments last year to the 2008 EU Waste Framework Directive, which call for all countries to institute separate collection of textiles by 2025 in order to facilitate reuse and recycling and so enhance the circular economy. While setting up separate collection will be challenging, it has spurred the Baltic countries into thinking how best to use these textiles. As Pirjo Heikkilä of VTT Finland noted during a conference in December to kick off the new project, “When combining the Nordic experiences, innovative technologies and the strong textile industry still present in the Baltics, there is a basis and potential for developing a regional hub of circularity.”
The ultimate goal of the project is to develop policy and sector development recommendations for the development of circular textile practices in the Baltic and Nordic regions.
One of the first project activities this year will be mapping current used garment flows and practices in the Baltic states. The mapping will include analysing the legal and policy frameworks that guide these flows. This will provide a basis for further development of sustainable textile management, collection and treatment systems and enhance Nordic-Baltic collaboration in the field.
The project Towards a Nordic-Baltic Circular Textile System is a collaboration between SEI as lead partner, Green Liberty in Latvia, Resources for Sustainable Development Lithuania and PlanMiljø in Denmark.
The project was kicked off with the conference Used Textiles – Waste or Value? in Tallinn on 12 December 2018. It gathered over 100 participants from the Nordic-Baltic region, including fashion and textile businesses, reuse and recycling companies, used textile collectors, industry associations, municipalities, public officials and academics, and examined practical examples of businesses that are already using innovative solutions for the reuse and recycling of used garments.