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EU tripled exports of used textiles, says environmental report

By Don-Alvin Adegeest



Image: Textile waste via Unsplash

Between 2000 and 2019, the amount of used textiles exported from the EU tripled, from a little over 550,000 tonnes to almost 1.7 million tonnes, according to a report published by the European Environment Agency (EEA). The latter is equal to 3.8 kg per person, which is about 25 percent of the 14.8 kg of clothing, footwear and household textiles consumed per person in 2020.

The report states five out of 27 EU Member States and the UK account for around 75 percent of all EU used textile exports. Some EU countries, such as Germany, Poland and the Netherlands, have exported more than others.

Textiles are on average the fourth-highest source of pressure on the environment and climate change from a European consumption perspective, as shown in previous EEA briefings. Europe faces major challenges managing used textiles, including textiles waste. As reuse and recycling capacities in Europe are limited, a large share of used textiles collected in the EU is traded and exported to Africa and Asia, and their fate is highly uncertain. The common public perception of used clothing donations as generous gifts to people in need does not fully match reality.

Donating used clothing has environmental implications

The report confirms 46 percent of used textiles ended up in Africa in 2019. Imported, used textiles on this continent primarily go towards local reuse as there is a demand for cheap, used clothes from Europe. What is not fit for reuse mostly ends up in open landfills and informal waste streams.

A further 41 percent of used textiles ended up in Asia in the same year. Most used textiles on this continent are imported to dedicated economic zones where they are sorted and processed. The used textiles are mostly downcycled into industrial rags or filling, or re-exported for recycling in other Asian countries or for reuse in Africa. Textiles that cannot be recycled or re-exported are likely to end up in landfills.

The fate of EU-exported used textiles in receiving countries is highly uncertain as limited and mostly anecdotal evidence is available.

There is a lot of uncertainty around what share of textiles can be reused and what cannot as the combined nomenclature (CN) codes for export do not make this distinction clear. There is little research or information on the actual reuse rate in the receiving countries, the share of used textiles that ends up as waste, and the specific waste management systems and their abilities to handle the used textiles that cannot be reused in a sustainable way.

Both the EU and the destination countries need to address the challenges around the growing amounts of exported used textiles and the overall uncertainty about their fate.

Article source: European Environment Agency report "EU exports of used textiles in Europe’s circular economy"

European Environment Agency
Sustainable Fashion
Textile Waste