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The Next Economy
Global EPR Ecosystem Critical to Tackling Fashion Waste

Without EPR policy, tens of millions of tons of textiles will continue to be landfilled, incinerated or leak into the environment every year. But as policy continues to develop, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation reminds businesses to keep innovating.

Effectively reining in global fashion and textile waste will require unprecedented collaboration, dedicated funding and holistic extended producer responsibility (EPR) policies that work across global governments, according to a new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF).

Directed at policymakers, Pushing the boundaries of EPR policy for textiles asserts: "A comprehensive, circular-economy approach is the only solution that can match the scale of this global problem. In this system, businesses contribute to supporting infrastructure in proportion to what they place on the market."

Limitations of current EPR policy

As the report points out, more than 80 percent of the world’s textiles “leak” out of the system when they are discarded — they are incinerated, landfilled, or leaked into the environment — as they are still part of a linear economic system.

EPR policy places responsibility on producers for the collection, sorting and recirculation of their products when they are discarded by users. If designed well, EPR policy significantly improves the cost-revenue dynamics for separate collection, sorting, reuse, repair and recycling of discarded textiles. It also delivers transparency and traceability on global material flows, and helps to attract capital investments in the infrastructure needed to reuse and recycle at scale.

The report puts forth a model for mandatory, fee-based EPR that provides dedicated, ongoing and sufficient funding for separate collection and sorting of all discarded textiles — not just the current focus on the fraction of those with a high market value.

It also highlights the need for a robust collection infrastructure to be scaled up and implemented around the world; and that EPR policies must go beyond traditional, downstream focuses such as waste management and recycling to help companies eliminate waste from the beginning: by embracing circular design practices (the focus of EMF’s new Fashion Remodel initiative); extending the use phase of garments; and “internalizing” some of the worst environmental externalities of textile waste — including GHG emissions, biodiversity loss and pollution — through pricing mechanisms, to provide powerful incentives to thoroughly embrace circular business practices.

"Textile waste is a significant contributor to the climate crisis. But right now, we don’t have sufficient infrastructure to responsibly manage discarded clothing and increasing amounts of textile waste; and our existing systems do not support consistent, convenient or widespread collection needed to incentivize the reuse and recycling of textiles,” says US Congresswoman Chellie Pingree. "That’s why we need comprehensive policy to make the economics work for textile reuse, repair and recycling. Particularly, EPR offers an opportunity to do just that while holding the textile industry responsible for its role in the system."

Textile waste-collection infrastructure is also largely underdeveloped: According to the report, separate collection rates average between 14 and 50 percent. Most reusable clothing (80 percent) that is collected is then exported after sorting, which creates a disproportionate waste-management burden on importing countries.

“A circular economy is the only solution that can match the scale of the global textile-waste problem, and EPR policies are an important part of that — yet, it remains underutilized," says Valérie Boiten, senior policy officer at EMF. “EPR can support a circular economy across borders by contributing funding for the collection and management of discarded textiles in those countries where they ultimately end up."

EPR remains untapped opportunity globally

Current EPR policy stops “producer responsibility” at the point of export — which diminishes the potential to collect and manage discarded textiles in importing countries. But reusable clothing is traded around the world, so EPR must be extended across borders to achieve a circular textile economy at scale.

The report shares four key global objectives for optimizing EPR for textiles:

  • Increase collection volumes: Expanding existing collection systems and creating new ones where they do not yet exist is crucial to divert textiles from mixed waste streams and to avoid leakage into the environment. Measuring the absolute volumes of textiles collected separately and setting targets on the relative increase of such volumes will be key.

  • Increase reuse rates: To keep textiles at their highest value, they must be reused to the maximum extent before being recycled. The report says this objective can be measured as the share of textiles placed on reuse markets relative to the amount of textiles sorted. To extend product life and avoid negative externalities associated with the export of reusable textiles, efforts should be made and targets set to increase domestic reuse.

  • Increase recycling rates: EPR objectives should reflect a clear priority for textile-to-textile recycling over downcycling and cascading into lower-value applications. When reuse is not a viable option — due to condition of textiles or absence of an end market — sorted textiles should be recycled however possible, to keep their material value in the economy.

  • Reduce waste volumes: The report explains that the establishment of an EPR policy and the above outlined objectives should lead to the decreasing share of textiles reaching their true end of useful life over time. But this reduction in waste should also be measured in practice against time-bound reduction or diversion targets.

While businesses wait for EPR policy …

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation does not believe policy alone can solve the problem of textile waste — as the regulatory process for EPR development can take years — and emphasizes the need for a dual approach of adopting more ambitious, long-term policy mechanisms and accelerated, voluntary industry action to push progress further and faster.

But while we wait for policy to develop and proliferate, voluntary business actions — including increased adoption of circular product design practices, the establishment of voluntary EPR schemes, and investments in shared textile-collection and -recycling infrastructure — will be key to accelerating progress and creating market demand for circular solutions ahead of mandatory policies.

The report also urges investors to recognize the opportunities — as widespread adoption will create economies of scale.

"Brands and retailers will have a key role to play to support this emerging landscape by investing in reverse-logistics infrastructure, and by engaging in long-term sourcing agreements with recyclers in order to support the early stages of commercialization for textile-to-textile recycling,” the report asserts.