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Circular textile economy: An idea whose time has come

Narayanan Raghavan, CEO, Rent-A-Towel

Textile recycling can turn textile waste into value and build a sustainable and profitable new industry by means of circularity, says Narayanan Raghavan, CEO, Rent-A-Towel.

Why circularity?

As the world goes through tough economic challenges, it is important for us to consider implementing circularity in the textile space. Hotels generate a lot of end-of-life textile waste from linen and uniforms. As there is no formal infrastructure and process available to recycle these, it ends up in a landfill, leading to environmental challenges at the city and country level.

Studies show that on an annual basis, every room generates 10-14 kg of cotton waste from the linen that is used in the room in the form of terry towels and flat bed linen. Additionally, uniforms worn by human resources in the hotel will generate 10-12 kg textile waste per person every year.

There are enough ways and means of addressing this waste problem, including the reduction of overproduction and overconsumption, extension of life cycle, and designing a product with increased circularity. As the price of raw cotton skyrockets and the availability of cotton is in question, it is time to look at other ways to reduce dependencies.

Although mechanical and chemical recycling processes are well established, commercialisation has not yet been fully done. Once matured, 70% of textile waste could be fibre-to-fibre recycled, and the remaining 30% would go through an open loop recycling process. Today, less than 1% of the total waste is getting converted. A scalable solution exists and awareness is needed to increase the conversion rate.

Collection, sorting and preprocessing limit the amount of textile waste that is converted to fibres. As the infrastructure required for conversion is posing challenges, there are a lot of opportunities in this space for investments. Studies reveal that if awareness is created amongst consumers, fibre recycling could process 25% of the gross textile waste by 2030. For this, we will need sizable capital investments and support from government organisations across the globe.

Environment & social impact

India lacks a formal infrastructure for collection, segregation and sustainable reuse or disposal of textiles, which is crucial to moving towards a circular Textile & Apparel (T&A) industry.

Annually, an estimated 9,00,000 tons of textile cutting waste is created during the production process. This is in addition to the 165 million tons of household waste created in India, of which textile is the third largest source. Whereas plastic waste is being controlled at the country level and is already a source of income for waste pickers given the robust policy framework, there is no collecting and segregating mechanism for textiles in India; almost 80% of the waste ends up in a landfill.

A study shows that 50% of T&A waste comes from pre-production (production cutting scraps) waste across the country. Post-production waste from dead stock has grown and clothing purchase has doubled over the last 30 years globally, but the life cycle has gone down by half. Post-consumer waste, which otherwise comes from end-of-life textile and garments, is the third highest source of municipal waste in India.

India being a global textile hub is also considered a hub for recycling. An estimated 5 million tons of textile waste is processed by recyclers annually; the majority is post-consumer waste imported from Europe and the US. In 2013, India was considered the largest importer of used clothes worth $182 million. This is a double burden on the textile waste ecosystem.

Beyond the direct economic benefits, scaling up textile recycling unlocks several environmental and social benefits. For instance, this could open new employment opportunities and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by a substantial amount. By quantifying into monetary terms several other impact dimensions like the secondary effects to GDP from jobs creation, GHG emission reduction, and water and land use reduction, studies show that $10-12 billion in total holistic impact can be achieved across the country.

Improving livelihoods

In the absence of an infrastructure and policy framework, waste workers are singularly managing waste produced domestically in India. An estimated 2 to 4 million waste workers are traditionally managing the work of collecting, repairing and reselling used clothes from households and factories around India, through low-cost cash-based trading, to extend the life of the waste. These groups of workers are low-income underprivileged groups in the ages between 18 to 40, with only 36% having primary school education.

With no access to infrastructure for collection and aggregation, they can sell only small volumes, which are not preferred by textile recyclers, who therefore rely on importing waste. The average income of these workers is between $1-2 per day. Women are overrepresented in the lowest paid, most vulnerable jobs in the unorganised sector, including waste picking.

Circular textile chain

Based on the key challenges described, we strongly believe that there is a compelling need to tackle these challenges that can lead to a more circular and inclusive textile value chain. To validate the envisioned textile waste management, we believe:

  • An integrated and organised mechanism with market linkages between the relevant waste ecosystem (amongst brands, manufacturers, recyclers, waste workers) could bring a better value chain to reclaim value.
  • If we scale and replicate existing technologies and innovations, this could create a closed circular value chain in the apparel industry. We can then achieve the necessary environmental impact needed in the apparel industry.
  • If we build capacities and capabilities at the grassroots level across states in India, we can create grassroots entrepreneurs who can participate in collection, sorting, repair, resell etc. Then we will create circular and green jobs for underserved and at-risk segments, thereby improving their livelihood.
  • If we create access to investments to support communities and entrepreneurs, we create an enabling environment to sustain program outcomes.

The industries that will have to be supported to achieve this will be hotels, hospitals, industrial workers, prisoners, public transport operators and consumers.

Our work in India

  • Increase the recovery of waste and reclaim the value lost from waste by redirecting waste away from landfills/incinerators, ensuring rejuvenation and regeneration of existing resources.
  • Create jobs for sustained and dignified livelihoods (through circular economy)
  • Create a green and clean environment through resource efficiency through reduction in water usage for processing of cotton and CO2 emissions.

If we achieve these outcomes, the impact will be seen at the individual, enterprise and ecosystem level in the T&A industry.

Our approach is anchored in the belief that a transition to the circular economy by testing, validating and scaling an integrated approach towards the textile waste management model balances both plant-positive and social-positive outcomes. For us to develop solutions that increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the sorting and collection process, we must look at the issue from top-down as well as bottom–up. The top-down approach adopts a business model and technology lens for the T&A industry as its primary customer while the bottom-up approach will address the needs of vulnerable waste workers to participate in the socioeconomic model.

Industry involvement

We strongly believe that the involvement and contribution of international and domestic players in the T&A industry will support the country’s circular economy, provide employment opportunities and save the environment. The subset of the main business in the T&A industry will evolve from this initiative.

We as a service provider in the textile rental space in India and the Middle-East have started to support the industry by collecting end-of-life textile waste and garments to extend the life of fibres and reproduce usable linen by the process of strengthening.

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