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Australia is ambitious to become a fully circular economy by 2030

In a world grappling with escalating environmental challenges and mounting waste, Australia is setting its sights on a bold goal: to become a fully circular economy by 2030. With an innovative and comprehensive approach, the Australian government, in collaboration with various brands, manufacturers, and NGOs, is committed to transforming the way resources are used, products are manufactured, and waste is managed.

The Need for Change

The fashion industry alone contributes significantly to Australia’s waste dilemma. Australians purchased an average of 56 new clothing items per person in 2018-19, resulting in a staggering 383,000 tonnes of clothing waste annually (Australian Fashion Council). In response, the Australian Fashion Council (AFC) has spearheaded the development of a National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme.

Figure: Flow of clothing in Australia by weight, Courtesy: Australian Fashion Council

Circular Economy for Clothing & 9R Framework

The circular economy (CE) is an alternative economic model that challenges the traditional linear approach of resource extraction, production, consumption, and disposal. It encompasses various schools of thought and concepts such as industrial ecology, cradle-to-cradle, biomimicry, natural capitalism, blue economy, regenerative design, and life cycle thinking. At its core, the CE aims to improve resource efficiency and create regenerative systems, aligning with the principles of sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

While the environmental benefits of the CE are widely recognized, it is essential to understand that the concept is built upon three pillars: environmental, social, and economic. From an environmental perspective, the CE seeks to reduce resource intensity, waste, and pollution, while promoting the use of renewable energy sources. It strives to minimize the negative impact on ecosystems and natural resources.

The social dimension of the CE focuses on upholding human rights and considering the cultural needs of local and global communities affected by CE practices. It aims to foster decent work and job creation, recognizing the importance of the “social economy” and charity sector in implementing circular practices. A socially inclusive economy plays a crucial role in supporting and amplifying these enterprises and networks, ensuring their preservation and growth.

From an economic standpoint, the CE holds economic value by emphasizing the increased value of materials and the creation of new businesses and business models. By adopting circular practices, businesses can unlock opportunities for innovation, efficiency, and profitability. The CE narrative, with its environmental, social, and economic dimensions, offers an attractive political narrative. It aligns moral ambitions of responsibility-taking with improved socio-economic conditions, including job creation and the sustainability of business networks.

Circularity requires taking a life cycle approach to fostering circular material flows by considering the entire ‘life’ of a product, from raw materials through to its design, production, retail, use, and disposal.

Figure: life cycle of a garment/ clothing value chain, Courtesy: Australian Fashion Council

A CE for clothing and textiles requires a whole-of-system approach to ‘close the loop’ for waste through actions such as reducing, reusing, repairing, refurbishing, remanufacturing, and recycling of materials, also known as the ‘R-Strategies’. These R-strategies are frequently positioned as hierarchical, with reducing consumption and reusing existing products preferable to recycling.

Figure: The 9R Framework for the CE, Courtasy: Kirchherr, Reike and Hekkert (2017)

Implementing the R-strategies requires considering a multidirectional clothing value chain, with forward logistics of production to consumption, and reverse logistics comprising activities such as reuse, repair, redesign, remanufacturing, and eventually, recycling.This requires coordination from all participants in the chain, from garment and textile producers, to consumers, resellers, and recycler.

Figure: Circular Clothing Value Chain, Courtesy: Australian Fashion Council

Transitioning from a linear to a circular economy for the clothing industry is faced with significant technological, social, and business obstacles. Critical bottlenecks arise in scaling up circular business models, changing consumer behavior, and developing effective technologies for sorting, disassembling, and recycling unwearable garments.

Currently, most clothing is designed for the linear economy, lacking longevity and ease of disassembly for end-of-life recycling and material reclamation. Second-hand clothing often holds low value due to multiple fiber blends, styles, and colors. The logistics of collecting and reselling clothing pose challenges, along with technical difficulties in sorting, disassembling, and recycling it. Moreover, the persistent low value of clothing creates economic challenges, as viable end-markets for recycled materials are still emerging.

Clothing materials often consist of blended fibers, including both biological (e.g., cotton) and technical (e.g., polyester) materials, making separation a complex task. Additionally, the affordability of new materials like virgin polyester often makes it economically unviable to reclaim and repurpose waste materials. This issue has historically been encountered in recycling schemes across various jurisdictions for various products.

Figure: Types of Fibre fabric use by australians according to australian fashion council

The National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme

The concept of PS / EPR (Extended Producer Responsibility) emerged as an environmental management strategy in the 1980s, 25 based on the ‘polluter pays principle’ of environmental law. The National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme is a critical initiative aimed at tackling the environmental impact of clothing textiles.

PS(Product Stewardship) that all individuals throughout all stages of the product’s life cycle, have differing but shared responsibilities for minimizing that product’s environmental impact.

It focuses on collecting comprehensive data on the textile lifecycle, reducing clothing sent to landfills, and promoting improved design and production practices prioritizing longevity, reuse, and recycling.

To ensure the success of the scheme, the Australian government has allocated funding and engaged stakeholders across the fashion supply chain. By collaborating with industry experts, designers, manufacturers, and retailers, the scheme aims to create a systemic transformation in the way clothing is produced, used, and disposed of.

The circular economy approach

At the heart of Australia’s ambition is the concept of a circular economy. Unlike the traditional linear “take-make-waste” model, a circular economy aims to close the loop by minimizing resource consumption and maximizing resource reuse. It advocates for the design of products that can be easily repaired, reused, or recycled, thus reducing waste and environmental impact.

Innovations and collaborations

Australia has seen promising developments in the field of textile recycling and innovation. Companies like BlockTexx are pioneering advanced technologies to recover polyester and cellulose from clothing textiles. Through government funding and support, these innovative solutions have the potential to be scaled up nationally, further contributing to the circular economy vision (Australian Government).

The path to 2030

Australia’s journey towards a fully circular economy by 2030 is an ambitious endeavor that requires the commitment and active participation of businesses, consumers, and policymakers. While the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme is currently voluntary, the government remains open to regulatory measures if the industry response needs to be revised.

Australia can create a more resilient and environmentally friendly future by embracing sustainable practices, including better product design, increased recycling and reuse, and conscious consumer choices. Additionally, the shift towards a circular economy will not only address waste and resource challenges but also bring forth economic opportunities and create jobs in the growing field of sustainability.

Australia’s aspiration to become a fully circular economy by 2030 is a testament to its commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainability. Through initiatives like the National Clothing Product Stewardship Scheme and collaborations with industry leaders, the country is well-positioned to transform its approach to waste management, promote responsible consumption, and minimize its ecological footprint. With continued dedication and collective action, Australia can lead toward a more sustainable and prosperous future for generations to come.

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