One man’s trash is another man’s treasure — but not when it comes to the mountains of clothes that have been thrown out during COVID-19 lockdowns.
The collection and trade in second-hand clothing is a big business that helps prevent the global fashion industry’s growing pile of waste going straight to landfill or the incinerator, but under coronavirus-related curbs that system is breaking down.
“Within a week from the start of the lockdown, we ran out of primary materials [i.e. donated clothes and textiles] to keep our plants running,” said Jean-Mayeul Bourgeois, director of Gebetex, a French company located in Normandy that collects second-hand clothes and textiles and sorts it for reuse or recycling.
“Collection had to stop, therefore sorting stopped, and our turnover was reduced to zero very quickly,” Bourgeois said.
As a similar pattern ensued in other countries, donations mounted as people stuck at home cleared out their wardrobes — a blessing in normal times.
Even when some collection and sorting businesses got back up and running in May, they were often dealing with ruined clothing. “At the end of the lockdown, we had a lot of input, but a lot of textiles were placed next to [collection units], exposed to the rain and therefore textiles that became waste,” Bourgeois said.
There was also the problem of where to send the stockpiles. Companies such as Gebetex often sell reusable clothing to traders and customers in poorer countries — but coronavirus-related border restrictions put an abrupt halt to regular trade.
It’s not yet known exactly how much extra clothing is sitting in Europe waiting to be dealt with. But businesses are already warning that unless regulators step in, there’s no obvious outlet for what is now a growing waste problem.
“This temporary waste stockpiling could become the normal situation in Europe … unless we get ready and set a meaningful system to use and give value to such waste,” said Mauro Scalia, director for sustainable businesses at Euratex, the European apparel and textile confederation.
The collection and sorting of clothing is an expensive process, not least because much of what is thrown into recycling bins doesn’t belong there and has to be manually sifted.
“The entire process costs 45 cents per kilogram, while we can sell it to recyclers for 4 cents per kilogram,” said Erica van Doorn, the director of Sympany, a Dutch non-profit that collects textiles. “Recycling costs money,” she added.
Selling clothing that is reusable abroad often helps sorting companies break even. Of the 16 million tons of waste the EU textile industry generates per year, globally only 1 percent is recycled back into new garments — 50 percent is shipped to poorer countries, where it’s sold on local markets.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, exporters have cut their prices in a bid to shift stock. “The risks right now are much higher than the opportunities,” said Martin Böschen, head of the textiles division of the Bureau of International Recycling.
While recent months had brought some improvement in demand, prices are still “15 to 25 percent lower than before COVID-19,” said Böschen.
Gebetex exports around 40 percent of its reusable clothes and textiles outside the EU. “Regardless of the continents, the border closures simply blocked exports,” said Bourgeois, citing particular difficulties for shipments to Pakistan and India.
Bourgeois said the company sought out additional storage to avoid sending some of the material to incineration or landfill. “We managed to organize ourselves to avoid saturation.”
In the Netherlands, collecters called on people to simply stop donating clothes as storages filled up and second-hand shops remained closed.
In the Belgian regions of Brussels and Wallonia, collection units “were sometimes full, saturated, or even overflowing,” said Arabelle Rasse, communications officer for Res-Sources, the Belgian federation representing social and circular companies, adding that companies received support from local authorities to rent additional space as a short-term solution.
“We didn’t want all this to go to the trash or incineration because there was a storage problem,” she said.
No way out
The pileup comes as the EU prepares to make it mandatory for discarded textiles to be collected as a separate waste stream by the end of 2024.
Amid fears that will only add to Europe’s clothing mounds, companies are calling on regulators to set mandatory targets on the use of recycled materials — a move they argue would make recycling clothes more economically viable.
“The government has to force clothing manufacturers to use recycled materials,” Mariska Zandvliet, chairman of the Dutch textile recovery association VHT, told local broadcaster NOS.
Big fashion chains currently shy away from using recycled materials in favor of newly created fabrics because it’s much more expensive.
Meanwhile, second-hand shops are trying to reassure consumers and make up for lost revenue. “Donations are quarantined, sorted, cleaned, to reassure second-hand consumers that they can continue to make their purchases in a sustainable and secure way,” said Rasse from Res-Sources.
However, she warned that “the situation is already problematic in terms of staff management, with full warehouses and shops” — adding that means “a second wave is very frightening” when it comes to the contribution to protecting the planet.
This article is part of POLITICO’s Sustainability Pro service, which dives deep into sustainability issues across all sectors, including: circular economy, waste and the plastics strategy, chemicals and more.