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Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021

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Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1 Plastic in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021 Authors: ETC experts: Saskia Manshoven (VITO), Anse Smeets (VITO), Mona Arnold (VTT) EEA experts: Lars Fogh Mortensen ETC/WMGE consortium partners: Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO), CENIA, Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), Research Institute on

Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021

   Added on 2022-01-20

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Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1
28/01/2021

Plastic in textiles: potentials for circularity and
reduced environmental and climate impacts

Authors:

ETC experts: Saskia Manshoven (VITO), Anse Smeets (VITO), Mona Arnold (VTT)

EEA experts: Lars Fogh Mortensen

ETC/WMGE consortium partners: Flemish Institute for Technological Research (VITO),
CENIA, Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP), Research
Institute on Sustainable Economic Growth of National Research Council (IRCrES), The Public
Waste Agency of Flanders (OVAM), Sustainability, Environmental Economics and Dynamic
Studies (SEEDS), VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, Banson Editorial and
Communications (BEC), The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, Energy (WI),
Slovak Environment Agency (SEA)
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_1
Cover design: ETC/WMGE
Cover photo © iStockphoto, credits: Tarzhanova, reference: 1148765172

Layout: ETC/WMGE

Legal notice

The contents of this publication do not necessarily reflect the official opinions of the European Commission or other institutions
of the European Union. Neither the European Environment Agency, the European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials in a Green
Economy nor any person or company acting on behalf of the Agency or the Topic Centre is responsible for the use that may be
made of the information contained in this report.

Copyright notice

© European Topic Centre Waste and Materials in a Green Economy (2021)

Reproduction is authorized provided the source is acknowledged.

More information on the European Union is available on the Internet (http://europa.eu).

European Topic Centre on Waste and Materials in a Green Economy

Boeretang 200

BE-2400 Mol

Tel.: +14 33 59 83

Web: wmge.eionet.europa.eu

Email:
etcwmge@vito.be
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_2
Contents
Acknowledgements
....................................................................................................................................... 1
1 Introduction
........................................................................................................................................... 2
2 Consumption and production of synthetic textiles in Europe
.............................................................. 5
2.1. Consumption of synthetic textiles and fibres in the EU
................................................................ 5
2.2. Production of synthetic textiles
..................................................................................................... 7
2.3. Synthetic textile waste ................................................................................................................ 16

3 Environmental and climate impacts of synthetic fibres and textiles .................................................. 19

3.1. Impacts across the value chain.................................................................................................... 19

3.2. Resource use ............................................................................................................................... 22

3.3. Greenhouse gas emissions .......................................................................................................... 24

3.4. Chemicals and health .................................................................................................................. 25

3.5. Microplastics ............................................................................................................................... 25

4 Towards a circular economy for synthetic fibres and textiles, and the potential to reduce
environmental and climate impacts............................................................................................................ 28

4.1. Sustainable fibre choices............................................................................................................. 31

4.2. Microplastic emission control ..................................................................................................... 35

4.3. Improved collection, reuse and recycling.................................................................................... 37

5 Lessons for the European plastics and textiles strategies................................................................... 41

6 References........................................................................................................................................... 43
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_3
Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1 1
Acknowledgements

The report has been produced within the task on ‘Plastics in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced
environmental and climate impacts’ of the 2020 ETC/WMGE work program. Lars Mortensen (EEA) has
been the project leader and Saskia Manshoven (ETC/WMGE) has been the task leader.

The authors are grateful to the following experts and organisations for their comments that substantially
improved the quality of the report: Marco Manfroni (DG GROW), Laura Balmond (The Ellen MacArthur
Foundation), David Watson (PlanMiljø), Mauro Scalia (Euratex), Stijn Devaere (Centexbel) and Tom Duhoux
(VITO). Bart Ullstein (BEC) provided a very careful editing of the report. Nora Brüggemann (CSCP) and her
team provided graphic design support.
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_4
Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1 2
1 Introduction

It is hard to imagine a world without plastics, yet the large-scale production and use of plastics only started
in the 1950’s. But despite the fact that they are fairly new raw materials, their versatile and unique
properties and multitude of applications, including in textiles, have led to the production of more than 8
billion tonnes of plastics worldwide over the past 70 years (Geyer et al., 2017).

Over the last 20 years, there has been a great increase in the use of synthetic, plastic-based fibres in textile
production, and expectations are that both shares and absolute volumes will increase further (Textile
Exchange, 2019). Today these synthetic textiles are part of everyday life; they literally surround us. in the
clothes we wear and the bed sheets we sleep in; we use them to decorate our homes as furniture and
cushion covers, as curtains and carpets. And often they are present without us knowing, less visible as
reinforcements in car tyres and sports gear. The 2019 EEA Briefing and European Topic Centre (ETC) report
Textiles and the environment in a circular economy found that globally about 60 % of textiles are made of
fibers based on synthetic polymers (EEA, 2019; ETC/WMGE, 2019b). While the majority of these is
produced and processed in Asia, Europe stands out as the world’s largest importer of synthetic fibre by
trade value (Birkbeck, 2020).

Textiles play an important role in European manufacturing industry, employing 1.7 million people and
generating a turnover of EUR 178 billion in 2018 (Euratex, 2019). After China, Europe is the second largest
exporter of textiles and clothing in the world (Euratex, 2019). Alongside the design and production of high‐
quality clothing, Europe is a leading producer of synthetic fibers, technical and industrial textiles and non-
woven textiles, such as industrial filters, medical products and textiles for the automotive sector
(ETC/WMGE, 2019b).

Textiles are a policy priority for the European Commission (EC). The shift to a circular economy is regarded
as an opportunity to establish new job-intensive activities and bring more manufacturing back to the
European Union (EU) in some sectors, while minimising environmental and climate impacts. As part of the
European Green Deal, the new Circular Economy Action Plan mentions textiles and plastics as two of the
key product value chains that will be addressed as a matter of priority (European Commission, 2020a).
Indeed, the textiles system is characterised by significant greenhouse gas emissions and a high use of
resources: water, land and a variety of chemicals (EEA, 2019; ETC/WMGE, 2019b). Moreover, it is
estimated that in 2015, 42 million tonnes of plastic textile waste was generated globally, making the
textiles sector the third largest contributor to plastic waste generation (Geyer et al., 2017). Unfortunately,
since only about one third of post-consumer textile waste is collected separately for reuse or recycling
(Watson et al., 2018), the majority of the textile waste ends up in the residual waste and is incinerated,
landfilled, or enters the environment as litter. A specific concern is that synthetic textiles do not naturally
degrade, but stay in the biosphere as waste unless they are incinerated.

While recycling rates for non-fibre plastics have steadily increased since the 1980s PlasticsEurope
estimated that about one third of European waste plastics was recycled in 2018 (PlasticsEurope, 2019)
no significant recycling is taking place for fibrous plastics, such as synthetic textiles. To date, end-of-life
textiles, both natural and synthetic, almost entirely end up in landfill or are incinerated, either in Europe
or, after export, in other regions of the world.

Responding to these challenges, the EC will propose a comprehensive EU Strategy for Textiles with
concrete policy measures to strengthen industrial competitiveness and encourage innovation in Europe,
boosting the EU market for sustainable and circular products, services and business models. Member
States have to ensure that, by 1st January 2025, textile waste is collected to facilitate the sorting, re-use
and recycling of textiles.

For plastics, the focus is mainly on tackling plastic pollution, particularly from single use plastics, increasing
recycled content and reducing waste. Microplastics are a particular concern. As synthetic plastics are a
source of unintentional emissions, efforts will target the increased capture of microplastics, for example
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_5
Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1 3
by filters; improved and harmonised measuring methods; and building the knowledge base related to the
risk and occurrence of microplastics in the environment, drinking water and food (European Commission,
2020a).

The scope of this report is textiles made of synthetic fibres (Figure 1). These textiles are widely used for
clothing, household textiles and in industrial applications. Their popularity is due to such properties as
strength, elasticity, resistance to shrinking or quick drying. Polyester and nylon are the most common
fibres, although many others are used as well. Synthetic fibres are produced using organic (carbon-based)
polymers, which are made from fossil fuels. These fibres are spun into pure or blended yarns and woven
into fabrics that receive final finishing to yield textiles with specific aesthetics and properties.

Apart from synthetic fibres, a broad variety of other types of fibre is used in textiles. Other man-made ones
are made from natural polymers such as viscose from wood cellulose and polylactic acid (PLA) from corn
sugar, or from inorganic (non-carbon) materials such as glass and metal. Natural fibres include plant-based
ones such as cotton and hemp; protein fibres of animal origin including wool and silk, and mineral fibres
such as asbestos (Figure 1). These fibres are not part of the scope of this report, although they are briefly
mentioned if relevant.

Figure 1 Scope of this report

Source: EEA and ETC/WMGE, illustration by CSCP

In this report Chapter 2 presents an overview of current knowledge and data on the production and
consumption of synthetic polymers in Europe. This includes estimates of the volumes of synthetic fibres
produced in, imported to and exported from Europe. The different types of fibre used in the production
of textiles are explored, including their properties and applications. Finally, the generation and fate of
textile waste generated in Europe is described.
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_6
Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1 4
Chapter 3 provides insights into the environmental and climate impacts of synthetic textiles, focusing on
resource and water use, greenhouse gas emissions, the use of chemicals and the release of microplastics.

Chapter 4 investigates how synthetic textiles could be made and managed more sustainably, focusing on
design choices, circular economy strategies and the mitigation of microplastic pollution.

Finally, Chapter 5 reflects on the report’s findings and their potential implementation in EU action plans
and strategies on plastics and textiles in a circular economy.
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_7
Eionet Report - ETC/WMGE 2021/1 5
2 Consumption and production of synthetic textiles in Europe

2.1.Consumption of synthetic textiles and fibres in the EU

Synthetic fibres are everywhere in everyday life and are important to our lifestyles. They are in the clothes
we wear and the towels we use; they are the stuffing and covers of our sofas, cushions and beds and in
the curtains and carpets of our homes. They are in the safety belts of our cars and in protective workwear.
They are used as reinforcement materials in plastic sports equipment, such as skis and surfboards, and in
vehicle tyres. Many of the products we use every day for comfort, leisure and protection are made from
or contain synthetic fibres. Per person textile consumption estimates come with a lot of uncertainty, as
various studies provide different estimates ranging from 9 to 27 kilograms per person, depending on the
country, data source and product scope (ETC/WMGE, 2019b; Šajn, 2019; Watson et al., 2018; JRC, 2014).
In 2017, the total consumption of textile products by EU households was estimated at 13 million tonnes
(Stadler et al., 2018).

Around 71 % of synthetic textile fibres are processed into clothing and household textiles, and the
remainder used for technical textiles such as safety wear and in industrial applications including in vehicles
and machinery (Ryberg et al., 2017). Synthetic fibres are inexpensive and versatile, allowing the production
of cheap fast fashion as well as high-performance textiles for durable clothing. Today, it is estimated that
about 60 % of fibres used in clothing are synthetic, of which polyester is predominant (FAO/ICAC, 2013).
In household textiles, synthetics make up around 70 % of household textiles mainly polyester, 28 %, and
nylon, 23 % (Beton et al., 2014). Acrylic, nylon and polypropylene are important fibres in carpet
manufactur
e.
In Europe, technical textiles account for an increasing share of the production of synthetic fibres (Adinolfi,
2019) and currently make up 2528 % of EU textiles and clothing turnover. Technical textiles are also, to a
large extent, made of synthetic fibres. Technical textiles are used in a variety of products mainly used in
industry, such as conveyor belts in machinery, filters in air conditioning and medical applications,
construction materials, tyre cord reinforcements for vehicles and industrial safety fabrics used in
protective workwear including fire-, heat- or chemical-resistant clothing. Synthetic fibres and fabrics are
also used as reinforcements in light-weight composite materials. Such composites are used to replace
metals, allowing weight savings in, for example, aircraft and cars (Scheffer, 2012), or as reinforcements in
sporting goods such as snowboards or hockey sticks. Technical textiles are engineered to meet the specific
requirements of each end use, such as durability, chemical resistance or strength.

Polyester
(PET) is the most commonly used synthetic fibre across the world. It has a multitude of uses
because of its low price and fabrics made of it are strong, durable, resistant to shrinking, stretching and
creasing. Clothing accounts for a large share of the usage of polyester fibres, but it is also used in home
furnishings and a variety of industrial applications. Fleece clothing and blankets are a well-known
example of the use of recycled PET (rPET) from bottles. It is often used in blends with other fibres,
such as cotton, yielding a lightweight polycotton which is often used in blouses and shirts. Due to its
versatility and low price, the use of PET has fuelled the fast fashion trend, which relies on cheap
manufacturing, fast-changing trends and shorter lifetimes of textile products (Niinimäki et al., 2020;
Greenpeace, 2017).

After PET, polyamide (nylon) is the most common synthetic fibre. Nylon is mainly used for knitted apparel,
such as hosiery and underwear, and for technical woven fabrics including airbags, ropes and carpets. It has
excellent mechanical properties including high tensile strength, high flexibility, good resilience and high
impact strength (toughness). Carpet manufacturing accounts for about 17 % of global nylon usage
(Carmichael, 2015).

A broad variety of other synthetic fibres are used in lower quantities, for specific uses. Polyolefin fibres
(polypropylene and polyethylene) are used in upholstery, carpets and geotextiles, because they are ticker
Plasticity in textiles: potentials for circularity and reduced environmental and climate impacts 28/01/2021_8

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