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Greater Manchester plans circular future with textile waste analysis

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The Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) will analyse the composition of the area’s textile waste, as part of its plans to develop circular economy solutions. 

  • The GMCA will combine compositional analysis with material flow mapping to identify opportunities for, and barriers to, the development of a circular textiles economy. 
  • Global textile production consumes around 98 million tons of non-renewable resources each year, with the resulting landfill having nearly five times the carbon impact of food or animal waste. 
  • As policy measures spread from the national to the local level, the textiles industry will face increasing pressure to transition towards circularity. 

The GMCA, a joint authority that combines ten Greater Manchester councils, will conduct a compositional analysis to improve its understanding of the textile materials being disposed of in residual waste bins. Its research comes as part of the authority’s Sustainable Consumption and Production Plan (SCP), under a broader five-year environmental strategy. 

Through its textile waste analysis project, the GMCA aims to gather data that will help it to identify the barriers and opportunities for textile waste reduction or recycling, in line with the principles of a circular economy. 

What will the project involve? 

A report written by Sarah Mellor, the GMCA’s head of sustainable consumption and production, was issued in October 2022 to give further details of the project. It explains that the research will be undertaken by the recently established Textiles and Fashion Industry Challenge Working Group, which includes local stakeholders from the manufacturing, retail, reprocessing and waste management sectors. 

The report says that an unnamed external provider will work with Greater Manchester Districts to conduct the compositional analysis. This stage of the project is expected to paint a clearer picture of the types and quantities of textile materials that are being disposed of in household residual bins. 

A textile material flow mapping exercise will also be conducted to identify and quantify the city region’s textile inflows and outflows. In doing so, the exercise will help the authority to identify where intervention may be needed to overcome barriers or losses within the system. 

Mellor said: “This is an essential step to enable the right priorities and circular solutions for the region’s textile waste problem and to monitor its success. Currently no data is available on flows of textiles in and out of the city region.”  

Ultimately, the insights gathered by the project will be used to further Greater Manchester’s transition to a circular textile economy. Future steps will include feasibility studies on potential recycling solutions, the evaluation of automated waste sorting technologies, public awareness campaigns, and the exploration of sustainable end markets that could enable wasted textiles to bring value to the local community. 

Textile waste has both environmental and economic consequences 

Global textile production consumes around 98 million tons of non-renewable resources each year, with less than 1% currently being recycled. Vast amounts of land, water and chemical inputs are used to produce natural fibres, while the production of synthetic materials uses large amounts of energy and fossil fuel-derived feedstocks. 

The majority of textiles produced are either landfilled or incinerated, resulting in substantial pollution and the loss of valuable resources. According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), 920,000 tonnes of used textiles ended up in the residual waste bins of UK households in 2017.  

Not only does textile waste have almost five times the carbon impact per weight of binning animal or mixed food waste, it is also extremely costly to local authorities. Mellor’s report says that textile waste cost UK councils that sent their waste to energy recovery plants around £51 million in total, while those that landfilled their used textiles spent up to £67 million. 

UK policy steering local initiatives 

The GMCA’s Sustainable Consumption and Production Plan (SCP) demonstrates how wider UK policy decisions are steering local initiatives. It notes that the Government’s introduction of the Environment Act 2021 will likely inform revisions to England’s Resource and Waste Strategy. 

Although the strategy was last updated in 2018, the Government has been working on stricter regulations around extended producer responsibility. Its initial focus has been on packaging waste, but this could potentially extend to other sectors. Such legislation would hold producers accountable for the full net costs of managing their products end-of-life disposal, as a way to encourage more sustainable design. 

Although the UK is no longer strictly required to align with the EU’s Circular Economy Package, many of the same themes, provisions and targets have already been transposed into regional policy frameworks. Greater Manchester’s SCP suggests that the costs of implementing these policies are among the main drivers behind its ambition to establish a circular economy that turns its waste liabilities into a valuable opportunity. 

Policy adds further pressure to the textiles industry 

The tightening of UK policy is part of a far bigger trend, with the EU currently developing its own ecodesign requirements and strategy for sustainable and circular textiles.

Such increasing regulatory pressure across different jurisdictions, combined with increasing consumer demand for sustainable products, has already prompted major fashion brands such as H&M, SHEIN and Zara to introduce circular initiatives as part of their sustainability strategies. 

Just as national policy is trickling down to the local level, so too will the pressure on businesses. Greater Manchester’s authorities plan to develop a B2B platform to engage local industries in more sustainable production and lifecycle management, with its first project being specifically dedicated to textile circularity. 

Although the city region’s waste analysis may, at first glance, appear to be a minor project – it does in fact point to a seismic shift that is taking place within the textiles industry. As Mellor wrote: “The existing linear business model of ‘take, make, consume and dispose’ is no longer sustainable”. 

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