Finally sorting out the wardrobe, throwing the leftovers in the old clothes container: what many people find liberating is developing into a garbage problem. The number of used fabrics and old clothes exported from the EU has tripled in two decades.
In dealing with these textiles, Europe faces major challenges, the EU authority EEA warned in a report published on Monday. Because the capacities for reuse and recycling in Europe are limited, a large part of the discarded and donated clothing is exported to Africa and Asia.
"The public perception that donations of used clothing are always useful in these regions does not reflect reality," the environmental experts write. "Once exported, the fate of used textiles is often uncertain."
In the year 2000 around 550,000 tons of textiles were exported. In 2019 it was almost 1.7 million tons. That corresponds to an average of 3.8 kilograms per person.
46 percent of the used textiles ended up in Africa. "The textiles are mainly reused locally because there is a demand for cheap, used clothing from Europe," the environment agency reported. Anything that cannot be reused ends up in open landfills, for example. The ever-increasing proportion of plastic and synthetic fibers such as polyester in textiles is also responsible for this.
The organization Changing Markets Foundation recently published a survey in which the effects of exports were illustrated using the example of Kenya. According to this, the countries of the European Union had sent around 112 million pieces of clothing to the country in 2021, 37 million pieces were interspersed with synthetic fibers. In total, the East African country received 900 million items of clothing from senders worldwide, but 56 million of them were unusable for further processing.
The resulting large garbage dumps are a health risk for humans and animals, it is said.
But not only Africa is affected. According to the information, around 41 percent of the used textiles initially came to Asia in 2019, where they were sorted and processed at central locations.
Most are either used as fabric or padding for industry, or sent to other Asian countries for recycling or to Africa for reuse. "Textiles that cannot be recycled or exported are likely to end up in landfills."