Textile waste takes centre stage in Parliament: Why the discussion is vital

Allocation for textiles ministry increased 27.6% in 2024 interim budget, but there were no specific policies addressing waste crisis

The vibrant tapestry of the Indian textile industry, a cornerstone of the nation’s economic and cultural identity, is facing a growing threat — a burgeoning textile waste crisis. Concerns about textile waste have recently taken centre stage in the Rajya Sabha, sparking urgent discussions about its environmental impact, economic implications and potential solutions.

Deciphering the discussion in the Upper House of the Parliament, comprehensive, centralised and state-wise data on textile waste generation remains elusive. However, the gravity of the problem is undeniable.

The government’s response during the July and December 2023 sessions, too, painted a picture of fragmented action and unclear responsibility. While they highlighted existing regulations like the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 and Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines, primarily aimed at plastic packaging, they emphasised local authorities’ responsibility for “other plastic sources” like synthetic textiles.

Initiatives like the “Textile Advisory Group on Man-made Fiber (MMF)” might foster industry engagement, but their effectiveness remains unclear. This lack of a unified strategy leaves the true impact of synthetic fabrics and their waste largely unaddressed.

It’s crucial to have a nuanced understanding of the different types of textile waste in India to develop effective solutions and policies. It’s also important to distinguish between pre-consumer waste (factory scraps) and post-consumer waste (used clothing).

India’s textile waste comprises natural fibres like cotton, jute, wool, among others. While natural fibres are biodegradable, their decomposition rate can be slow and improper management can still lead to environmental concerns.

Man-made fibres (MMF), known as synthetic fibres, also make up a substantial share of the waste. Challenges in separation, sorting and technology limitations often lead to downcycling or indiscriminate dumping. Many textiles are blends of natural and synthetic fibres, further complicating the composition picture. Separating these fibres for individual recycling is, again, challenging.

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India is the world’s second-largest producer of MMFs. Many popular MMFs, like polyester, nylon, acrylic and spandex, are derived from fossil fuels. This means the building blocks of many MMFs are chemically identical to plastic.

Many MMFs utilise chemical treatments and finishes for desired properties, potentially involving additional plastic-based chemicals. During production, washing and wear, MMFs shed tiny plastic fibres known as microplastics. Some MMFs, like polyester, are also produced using plastic bottles through chemical recycling.

Additionally, MMF waste poses disposal challenges. Unlike natural fibres, they don’t readily biodegrade, leading to landfill accumulation and potential microplastic release.

The age-old tradition of reuse and refurbishing still exists in small towns across the country, keeping textiles in circulation longer. However, this informal system is insufficient to handle the growing volume of waste generated by the industry’s rapid expansion.

The country imports around 20 per cent of its synthetic fibres and produces the remaining 80 per cent domestically. The country produces over 1,441 million kilogrammes of synthetic fibres and over 3,000 million kg of synthetic filaments.

Over 94 per cent of India’s domestic MMF industry is dominated by just two varieties: Polyester and viscose (rayon). Polyester takes the lion’s share with 77.5 per cent, leaving the remaining 16.5 per cent to viscose.

The environmental cost of the ecosystem is staggering. Polyester production alone requires an estimated 342 million barrels of oil and 43 million tonnes of chemicals annually. With a current production capacity of 11.5 million tonnes per year and potential for further growth, polyester is seen as the most significant contributor to both pre- and post- consumer textile waste.

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According to a 2022 report Circular Economy in Municipal Solid and Liquid Waste by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, of the total 47,860.15 tonnes per day of dry waste generated from municipal sources in 2021, textiles accounted for a significant 15 per cent, the third largest dry waste stream after plastics (45 per cent) and paper / cardboard (21 per cent). However, only a mere 30 per cent was recovered, highlighting the massive gap in waste management. The Indian Textile Journal reported that over 1 million tonnes of textiles, predominantly polyester, are discarded annually, mostly from households.

Conversations with an aggregator revealed that of the total domestic post-consumer textile waste recovered, sorting alone costs Rs 45-50 per kg. This is further compounded by the high logistical costs of city-wide collection and transportation.

The burden is exacerbated by the low resale value of textile waste in the second-hand market — Rs 8-12 per kg. Only about 10 per cent finds new life through upcycling, another 10 per cent moves to thrift shops and about 20 per cent is downcycled.

India’s domestic textile waste primarily comprises cotton, polyester, and their blends. Transforming blended and printed waste feedstock into good quality products remains a challenge due to technological limitations and a lack of innovation. The absence of a comprehensive classification system for textile waste further complicates the issue. Biodegradable, non-biodegradable, recyclable and non-recyclable materials remain lumped together, hindering effective sorting and recycling efforts.

A concerning 20-30 per cent of the collected textile waste ends up burnt in energy plants due to contamination and again, due to a lack of technology for processing used and contaminated textiles.

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The human cost is equally concerning, with workers in the textile waste industry facing low wages, poor working conditions and limited opportunities. Stakeholders in the post-consumer waste value chain urge government support to address these issues, from financial aid for workers to improved technology and infrastructure for procurement and sorting.

The 2024 interim budget offered a mixed bag for the textile industry. While the Union Ministry of Textiles received a 27.6 per cent increase in allocation, there were no specific policies addressing the waste crisis. Increased focus on bio-manufacturing, rooftop solar, and offshore wind energy can encourage green practices and improve the industry’s environmental footprint, but concrete measures for waste management are still needed.

The textile waste crisis demands a multi-pronged approach. We need improved data collection, robust sorting and recycling infrastructure, incentives for sustainable production and consumer education. Additionally, promoting extended producer responsibility, encouraging design for disassembly and supporting innovative upcycling and recycling technologies are crucial.


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