EU Policy. MEPs agree to get tough on fast fashion over environmental impact

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By Marta Pacheco
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Polluters pay principle at the centre of Waste Framework Directive’s revision that also seeks to tackle food waste.


MEPs have backed stringent new rules designed to reduce the mountains of discarded clothing and other textiles generated in the EU every year and want to force producers to tackle the growing problem at their own expense, in reforms to the EU’s central legislation on waste.

The European Parliament’s environment committee adopted its position on Tuesday (14 February) on a revision of the EU’s Waste Framework Directive (WFD) targeted specifically at tackling the growing problems of textile and food waste, with 72 in favour and just 3 against strengthening the European Commission’s original proposal.

“This vote sends a clear message that we must prioritise responsible consumption and production practices to mitigate the devastating impacts of fast fashion on our planet,” said Malte Gallée (Greens/Germany), who as a shadow rapporteur was the Greens’ lead negotiator on the proposal. The German lawmaker pointed in particular to the “alarming environmental toll of fast fashion”.

“By addressing the destructive practices within this industry, such as overproduction, excessive waste, and exploitation of resources, we’re taking decisive steps towards a more sustainable future,” Gallée told Euronews.

The EU generates 12.6 million tonnes of textile waste every year, with most of it being either burned, exported, or ending up in landfill, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). Clothing and footwear alone account for 5.2m tonnes, equivalent to 12 kg of waste per person every year. Only 22% of this waste is collected separately for reuse or recycling.

While the commission’s proposal doesn’t set out clear targets for textile waste prevention, MEPs have included a legal provision requiring the EU executive to “lay down further rules” by December 2024 to apply the polluter pays principle and extended producer responsibility (EPR). Essentially, the commission will be tasked with assessing waste performance targets — prevention, collection and reuse — to be able to design milestones for waste prevention.

One specific addition called for by MEPs is to require EU countries to set up by January 2025 systems for the separate collection of textiles in municipal waste, in the same way that plastics and metals are commonly bagged for recycling. Textiles such as clothing and accessories, blankets, bed linen, curtains, hats, footwear, mattresses and carpets would be considered for sorting.

Anna Zalewska (ECR/Poland), who as rapporteur is tasked with steering the proposal through the parliament and authored the adopted draft report, noted that better infrastructure to increase separate collection needs to be aligned with sorting mixed municipal waste "more efficiently" – to guarantee that all products fit for recyclability can be retrieved before ending up in the incinerator or landfill.

This aspect of the reform has unsettled the incineration business. Patrick Clerens, secretary general of the European Suppliers of Waste-to-Energy Technology (ESWET), expressed “concern” and “disappointment” over the potential impact of deploying additional waste sorting infrastructure in line with the position adopted by the committee. He pointed to the fact that no impact assessment was carried out before MEPs agreed to encourage additional prior sorting of municipal mixed waste.

“As well as being costly, this would lead to increased energy and resource consumption, and it is reckless to propose such a scheme without having estimated its financial and environmental costs,” Clerens said, citing an estimate that 60 million tonnes of infrastructure capacity would be needed based on the amendments MEPs demand in their report.

Theresa Mörsen, a policy officer at campaign group Zero Waste Europe, backed the proposal for textile producers to pay for the management of their waste but noted that it was not enough to bring about change in the prevailing consumption model.

“This revision can really just be the start of EU action on fast fashion. We need stronger regulatory signals, including targets for textile waste reduction and an EPR scheme that incentivises placing lower volumes on the market as well as supporting repair and reuse locally,” Mörsen said.

Mauro Scalia, director of sustainable businesses at the European Apparel and Textile Confederation (EURATEX), cheered the parliament’s intention to "harmonize textiles EPR schemes" as an essential way to achieve circular textiles and to ease business compliance. He also applauded the parliament’s “stronger commitment on eco-modulation criteria” that would penalise less environmentally friendly textile materials and reward the use of those which can be easily recycled.

The environment committee also agreed that proposed legally binding targets to cut food waste by 2030 should be increased: doubled in 20% in the processing sector, and up ten points to 40% in the retail and restaurants sectors and households.

The European Parliament as a whole is scheduled to finalise its position on the bill during a March 2024 plenary session. Negotiations with EU member states will likely follow only after EU elections in June, with the EU Council yet to broker an intergovernmental deal on the proposed reform.

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