Tripartite MoU to reduce textile waste in India gives hope, but cautious steps needed

Strategic approach essential to ensure that upcycling leads to circular & sustainable future for Indian textile industry -

March 06, 2024 Heaps of discarded clothing and fabric scraps paint a grim picture of the textile industry’s environmental impact. India, a major player in the global textile scene, is no stranger to this. The country grapples with managing a staggering 7,800 kilotonnes of textile waste annually, accounting for 8.5 per cent of the global total.

About 51 per cent of this waste originates from post-consumer sources, like discarded clothing, while 42 per cent comes from pre-consumer waste generated during production, such as fabric offcuts and yarn scraps and the remaining 7 per cent is imported.

To combat this escalating issue, three government entities have joined forces. Textiles committee, under the Union ministry of textiles, Government e-Marketplace (GeM) under Union ministry of commerce and industry and standing conference of public enterprises, Department of Public Enterprises signed a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) at the recent Bharat Tex 2024, India’s premier global textile event.

This MoU signified a collective recognition of the growing concern surrounding textile waste, both pre- and post-consumer. It also signifies a collective effort towards promoting upcycling as a solution to divert waste from reaching municipal dumps and fostering a circular economy by keeping textiles in use for longer periods and minimising the need for virgin materials.

The GeM will collaborate with stakeholders in the upcycling ecosystem, particularly under-served seller groups, to provide them with direct market access for their products through ‘Vocal For Local’ GeM outlet stores, eliminating intermediaries and streamlining the supply chain.

Through advocacy, awareness campaigns, outreach programmes and capacity building workshops, the initiative aims to support and empower “last-mile upcyclers” who work directly with waste materials. Furthermore, development of clear and consistent technical specifications for listing upcycled products on the GeM platform would ensure quality and consistency, fostering trust among buyers and sellers.

It’s important to distinguish between upcycling and traditional textile-to-textile recycling, as they represent different approaches to managing textile waste. The MoU prioritises promoting upcycling as a readily accessible and cost-effective solution to address the immediate challenge of managing large volumes of textile waste. It doesn’t address advancements in traditional recycling.

Upcycling focuses on reusing discarded textiles by transforming them into new products with a higher value or function. It requires less specialised infrastructure and technology, making it a viable option for smaller businesses, communities and individuals.

Traditional textile-to-textile recycling involves deconstructing used textiles into their basic components (fibres) through mechanical or chemical processes. These recycled fibres are then used to create new yarn and ultimately new textiles.

Implementing a truly circular economy in India requires overcoming existing challenges. The country struggles with mixed waste streams. Dry waste, often contaminated with organic matter, hinders efficient upcycling and recycling initiatives. For instance, plastic bottles undergo a long and inefficient journey before reaching the recycler.

A whopping $83 million has been invested in the circular economy in India by impact investors in 2022. A significant portion of this investment – $45 million, came from circulate capital alone.

Circular economy emphasises regenerating materials to their original form. For example, a used plastic bottle transformed into another bottle represents true circularity, while transforming it into a toy doesn’t, as it creates a mixed product, ultimately destined for dump sites after its lifespan.

The textile industry faces even greater hurdles than its plastic counterpart. The existing upcycling and recycling infrastructure is at a nascent stage – largely unorganised and underdeveloped. The prevalent practice of downcycling waste and reliance on virgin materials to enhance quality indicates a lack of focus on sustainable solutions and circular economy principles.

Moreover, unlike single-fibre materials, it is highly likely that upcycling blended fabrics would result in mixed products. When this upcycled product would reach its end-of-life, the mixed materials would make responsible disposal or recycling difficult.

Compounding this issue is the poor recovery rate at materials recovery facilities in most Indian cities. While a handful of cities boast commendable practices, the majority struggle to efficiently recover textiles from the overall waste stream.

This significantly reduces the pool of material available for upcycling and recycling initiatives. Moreover, the absence of extended producer responsibility for textiles removes any incentive for the authorised waste collector and informal workforce as well as manufacturers and businesses to design for circularity, further exacerbating the waste problem.

Findings from research suggest that in India not even 50 per cent of the total textile waste is collected in the first place, and of the recovered waste, about 10 per cent is upcycled and 25 per cent is recycled. The majority of recovered waste undergoes downcycling into lower quality products or is incinerated.

Waste management companies like Nepra Resource Management Pvt Ltd exemplify this dilemma. While they recover valuable materials from the waste stream, a large portion – consisting of 60-70 per cent of post-consumer textile waste, lacks economic value. This “low-value material” ends up being incinerated, highlighting the limitations.

While the MoU signifies a promising step towards addressing textile waste challenges in the country, a cautious and strategic approach is necessary to ensure upcycling contributes effectively to a truly circular and sustainable future for the Indian textile industry.

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