Serbia could become a regional leader in the recycling of textile waste - Most of the 90,000 tons now goes to landfills or is burned

Source: eKapija Monday, 15.04.2024. 21:36

(Photo: Unsplash/Volha Flaxeco)
From next year, Italians, Germans, Swedes and other residents of the EU will have to dispose of textiles in separate containers. It is the first step towards an organized solution to the problem of textile waste, which Europeans generate in huge quantities - 12.6 million tons every year.

In Serbia, on the other hand, the primary selection of waste has only taken root in some municipalities, but even there there is no talk of separate collection of textiles. According to what the Serbian Chamber of Commerce estimates, about 90,000 tons of textile waste is potentially accumulated in Serbia every year. Most of it now goes to landfills or is incinerated.

Although recycling is carried out only sporadically, Serbia could become a regional leader in textile waste recycling, claims the Serbian Chamber of Commerce. However, experts explain to eKapija that the process of textile recycling is very complex, and investors still do not see an opportunity for profit in it.

Even in the EU, clothing recycling mainly produces industrial rags, thermal insulation wool and furniture felt, while only 1% is turned into new clothing items. Where some see problems, others are looking for an opportunity - McKinsey consulting company calculated that "fiber to fiber" recycling would require an investment of EUR 6-7 billion, and the annual profit would be EUR 1.5-2.2 billion.

Canvas bags from old textiles

We also have an enthusiast here. In 2010, the Women`s Center of Užice designed the innovative Retex textile collection and recycling center. The project solves two problems - it provides an opportunity for earnings to women who are uncompetitive on the labor market and at the same time deals with textile waste.

As program manager Marina Tucović, who once lost her job working in a large textile industry, revealed in an interview with the eKapija portal, Retex disposes of a ton to a ton and a half of textiles per month, which comes primarily from Užice, but also from other parts of the country.

- The original concept has not changed in 14 years. After collecting the textiles, sorting begins. About 45% of the textiles are still of good quality and we send them for humanitarian purposes - we continuously help 280 families with second-hand clothing. The other part, which cannot be donated, but is a healthy fabric, just old-fashioned or has some stains, goes to our creative workshop where we make a new product from old textiles, in a process that is now popularly called upcycling. About 20% of the total collected textiles "waste" on that - says Tucović.

The basic product of the workshop is a canvas bag, but we also offer aprons, toiletry bags, and decorative assortment. Customers are most often civil sector organizations, agencies and institutions that use them for corporate gifts.

- And now comes the most difficult part of the story. We wanted textiles that could neither be donated nor upcycled to be turned into recycled fiber, and we have been trying to develop that part for 14 years. We are looking for donors and investors, because you can`t deal with a recycled fiber project and make it a small story, it has to be on a larger scale - Tucović notes.

As our interlocutor, who is also a textile technology engineer, says, knowledge for textile recycling exists, as do technologies.

- Additional research needs to be done because when these fibers are ground, they are much shorter and are not suitable for the finished product, but they are an ideal raw material for technical textiles - our interlocutor emphasizes.

Recycling is more talked about than done

Prof. Dr. Maja Radetić, from the Department of Textile Engineering at the Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy, points out that textile recycling is not a simple process and depends on a number of technological, economic, political and sociological factors.

- One gets the impression that there is more talk about this topic in the world than it is put into practice. It is the same here in Serbia. There are a number of problems that must be solved in order to realize efficient and economically profitable recycling, and above all, there is a need for a systematic strategy for collecting textile waste. On the other hand, the diversity of textile fibers and their different nature, and especially the large presence of mixtures of natural and synthetic fibers in clothing, greatly hinders the development of recycling technologies. By recycling textile waste, only about 1% of clothing is produced again - Prof. Dr. Maja Radetic.

By recycling textile waste, only about 1% of clothing is produced again (Photo: nd3000/ recycling textile waste, only about 1% of clothing is produced again

According to her, mechanical textile recycling is the most widespread form of recycling in the world, when fibers are obtained whose length and mechanical properties limit further processing, so they are mainly exploited in the production of non-woven textile materials.

- The obtained materials are conditionally of lower quality than the initial ones, but their use value is great and should not be underestimated. In Serbia, there are small companies that produce non-woven textiles, where post-industrial textile waste is also used as a raw material, which is much cleaner and, in principle, its composition is known. There is also a company that uses post-consumer cotton material collected in containers located in several nearby places to make rags for craft shops and cleaning facilities, which creates conditions for such goods not to be imported, as is the usual practice - says the professor.

However, in order for these or some new plants to function effectively, it is necessary to have a constant flow of textile waste, and this must be resolved at the state or local level, the professor warns. As he says, over 40,000 containers for textile waste are available in France. Experiences in the European Union are different in this matter, but they can be of great benefit to us in terms of choosing the optimal solutions.

- From 2025, members of the European Union will be obliged to carry out an organized collection of textiles from the household in the way that plastic, metal, paper and glass have been collected for a long time. There are still no such initiatives in our country - notes our interlocutor.

Where does that textile go - incineration is (not) the solution

The EU generates 12.6 million tons of textile waste every year, with clothing and footwear alone accounting for 5.2 million tons, equivalent to 12 kg per person per year. Currently, only 22% of textile waste is collected separately for reuse or recycling, while the rest is incinerated or goes to landfills, according to European Commission data.

We did not find out from the Ministry of Environmental Protection how much of this waste is actually generated in Serbia. There are no official data, but in the research conducted by prof. Dr. Radetic realized within the project "Circular Economy Platform for Sustainable Development in Serbia" funded by UNDP, indirectly, the assessment of post-industrial and post-consumer textile waste in Serbia was reached.

- It is estimated that between 6,000-9,500 tons of post-industrial textile waste was generated in Serbia in 2018. It is a rough estimate that each resident of Serbia throws away about 15 kg of household textile waste on average per year, which unfortunately ends up in landfills with communal waste. The traditional practice of passing down clothes among relatives and friends, as well as donating to charities, are in fact ways to strive, because in this way the amount of textile waste is reduced and the life of textile products is extended. Unfortunately, it is increasingly difficult to implement because the principles of fast fashion are based on placing clothes on the market that can withstand only 7-8 washes - Prof. Dr. Radetic emphasizes.

In the Association for the Textile, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industry of the Chamber of Commerce of Serbia, they note for the eKapija portal that approximately 90,000 tons of textile waste is potentially accumulated in Serbia every year, including more than 5,000 tons that appear as a residue during the production of the finished product and after that it has no use value.

- Several companies are registered in Serbia for textile waste disposal. According to the Law on Environmental Protection, all textile manufacturers are obliged to have a signed contract with companies that dispose of textile waste, while companies that deal with this type of work are obliged to treat the waste according to the regulations of the law and to issue a certificate guaranteeing that the waste is taken care of and destroyed in a legal way - says the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.

As they explain, so far in Serbia there is only the possibility of treating textile waste with certain chemical means so that it can then be burned in cement factories and thus used as a kind of energy source

This is exactly what is happening now with the waste that Retex collects.

- We have cooperation with the regional landfill "Duboko" to which we forward for further treatment part of the textile waste that we do not dispose of otherwise. They are doing what they can by law, which is burning under controlled conditions. I have to say that I am against the burning of any category of waste, especially textiles, especially since textile recycling has great potential - Marina Tucović points out.

Prof. Dr. Radetic indicates that incineration as a possible solution is justified if the thermal energy generated is used.

- In order for there to be no consequences for the environment, namely the emission of various gases, it is necessary to have appropriate filters. Without them, incineration is not acceptable and not only can the gases released contribute to the greenhouse effect and global warming, but they can be extremely harmful to human health. As a possible solution, it is justified if the thermal energy that is generated would be used - emphasizes prof. Dr. Radetic.

High investment in processing, but justified

In the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, they note that incineration is considered the first stage in the processing of textile waste, but that in developed EU countries there is also a procedure for separating and shredding textile waste, from which it is possible to obtain filling that is used most often in the furniture industry, as well as a procedure for redistributing the fiber and using of the same for the production of new fabric.

- Investments in the processing of textile waste are very high, but if we take into account that over 5,000 tons of textile waste are accumulated annually in Serbia, it can be said that the investment is very justified - say the Association for the Textile, Clothing, Leather and Footwear Industry of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.

In addition to textile waste, approximately 80,000 tons of clothing are sold annually in Serbia, and the vast majority of them end up in landfills after a certain number of wears, notes the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.

- Some foreign trade chains in the country have already introduced the practice that there is a possibility of storing old clothes in their retail stores, and after that the old textile products are sent for recycling. In addition to the above, the problem could be solved to some extent if, to begin with, there were containers for storing clothing items in larger cities, following the example of some EU countries that have already implemented this method of disposal - the Association says.

When everything is added up, around 90,000 tons of textile waste is potentially accumulated in Serbia every year, the SCC notes. According to them, due to the content of artificial colors and synthetic fibers in the majority of products, pollution of both soil and water flows occurs most often. In order to overcome this situation as soon as possible, it is necessary to invest in recycling facilities in the form of the second two phases, which is the restoration of the use value of the generated waste, they said.

- In order to avoid the growing impact of the textile industry on climate change, water and soil pollution, investments in processing capacities for recycling are necessary. Investments in processing capacities that would put textile waste back into use are extremely large, but if you take into account that the disposal and removal of waste is charged to the companies where this type of waste is generated, the investments would pay off in a very short time. If that were to happen, Serbia could become a regional leader in textile waste recycling and provide recycling services to all countries in the region - they say in the Serbian Chamber of Commerce.

Economists look only at profits

However, there is still no understanding of this. Apart from talking to investors, we also need a social consensus, says Marina Tucović from Retex.

- If you gave this story to an economist, he would say that the most profitable thing is to burn waste. In a conversation with investors, it always gets stuck when we come to the topic of profit, through which they look at everything, and we must not allow that. This is a matter of the community, we have to have a consensus of everyone in society on what is important to us, not to look only at profit - Marina Tucović says.

Despite the obstacles and unfavorable statistics, she continues to believe in recycling. Even the one in which textiles of the same quality are obtained from textiles, although data show that only 1% of new clothes are currently obtained from textile waste. The fact that the Swedish company Renewcell, which claimed that by recycling textiles it obtains fiber of the same quality as the original, was not encouraging either.

In the last 15 years the fashion industry has grown about 65 times (Photo: Pixabay/F.Muhammad)In the last 15 years the fashion industry has grown about 65 times

On the other hand, the consulting company McKinsey points out that from the total textile waste in 2030, the so-called "fiber to fiber" recycling could reach 18-26%. This company calculated that an investment of EUR 6-7 billion would be required for this. But, that`s why once it reaches development, this industry could bring an annual profit of 1.5 billion EUR to 2.2 billion EUR.

- I believe that it will be possible to recycle textiles into textiles, given that I am a textile technology engineer. I wouldn`t have done this for 14 years if I didn`t believe it. By combining short and new fibers, you can get a product that is used as a fabric of a certain quality, this requires us to seriously deal with technological processes, but the story of technical textiles is not bad either. Let our ultimate goal be the production of technical textiles and it will be great - Marina Tucović notes.

Cause of problem - Fast fashion

However, our interlocutors agree that it is necessary to solve the cause of the problem first, and that is fast fashion.

The SCC reminds that according to data from 2021, 92 million tons of textile waste are generated, and it is expected that this amount will be 148 million tons by 2030.

- The main cause of the mentioned problem is fast fashion, which at some point has to be stopped. Due to following trends and a large number of collections, the fashion industry is growing every year. According to some data, in the last 15 years, the fashion industry has grown by about 65 times. This creates a problem in the form of fashion and clothing items that remain unsold after the end of the season and are destroyed after they do not find their way to the customer - they note in the SCC.

Not infrequently, these goods end up in poor African countries that do not have the capacity to deal with waste. A report published in February 2023 by the fashion foundation Changing Markets suggests that as much as half of the waste materials sent to the Global South are of such poor quality that they end up being thrown into rivers or sold to be burned and thus used as (highly toxic) fuel.

Marina Tucović notes that awareness is growing in the fashion industry, but that tectonic changes are necessary to be able to talk about sustainable fashion.

- The trend in the fashion industry is to make savings in tailoring, to make fewer mistakes, therefore less waste, to reduce water consumption, to use ecological dyes. But the most important role of the fashion industry is to promote longer use, however, this is in conflict with profit, so we are buried with cheap, low-quality textiles that, according to assumptions, are thrown into rivers and landfills - says Marina Tucović.

Some countries are trying to change this infamous statistic. In March, the lower house of the French Parliament supported several legal measures, which will make cheap fashion, especially from Chinese mass producers, less attractive to customers, including a ban on advertising the cheapest textile products and an environmental levy on such clothing items.

- According to data from the European Parliament from previous years, more than 16 million tons of textile waste are produced in the European Union every year. Parliament says that consumers should have more information in order to make sustainable choices, it also calls for a ban on the destruction of unsold and returned textile goods in the upcoming revision of the ecodesign regulation - the Serbian Chamber of Commerce concludes.

Marija Dedić

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