Analysis
3 months ago

Recycling in Textile Industry

How RMG waste going to waste

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In recent decades, Bangladesh emerged as a rising star in the global textile and garment industry. It has become the third favoured and attractive sourcing destination, after European Union, for fashion brands worldwide. Bangladesh's inherent strength, rooted in its art of textile craftmanship, entrepreneurial spirits and robust and competitive human capitals, have powered a financial and economic resilience that helped outlast the challenges the industry faced over decades. However, Bangladesh and other leading RMG manufacturing economies were facing headwinds in recent years, especially during the Covid-19 period. Then came the Ukraine-Russia war leaving indelible impacts on world economy, especially the European economy, the largest destination for Bangladesh's RMG exports. Bangladesh has gone through a roller-coaster ride over the years, with periods of growth followed by challenges, including declining global demand and profitability that reflect the textile industry's sensitivity to external factors and market dynamics. Since more than 50 per cent of its exports are destined for the European Union, in the event of any structural change in economic, political and environmental policies in EU, Bangladesh needs to position itself with robust commitments to resiliency and drive for continuous improvement and changes to face the challenges.

The European Parliament adopted recommendations for the EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles in June 2023. Although the European Apparel and Textile Confederation (Euratex) argues it could push Europe out of the fashion market, however, how that would impact the emerging economies like Bangladesh, Vietnam and other RMG producing countries, is yet to be determined. Vietnam being the fierce competitor of Bangladesh in RMG export markets, Bangladesh should closely monitor the policy changes happening in the world market and how its competitors are responding to these challenges. Dirk Vantyghem, Director General of Euratex, said that they would encourage members of European Parliament to carefully craft legislation at the global level. Euratex has been very vocal on strategic role of the European textile industry to scale up sustainability not only in Europe but also across the globe and to develop a balanced and shared vision which reconciles sustainability and competitiveness. Vantyghem signals a powerful message from EU's policy establishment to global textile industries and its rippling effects on textile industries on a broader scale.

The EU Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, however, sets a significant milestone for Bangladesh in transforming its textile industry. Bangladesh's textile industry has already made significant steps in becoming environmentally and socially sustainable and investing in recycling its fabric waste to strike a balance between sustainability and competitiveness. Bangladesh's textile and garments industry continues to gain recognition in its commitment to technology and innovation, sustainable practices. In 2019, to promote sustainability in the RMG sector, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) formed the RMG Sustainability Council (RSC) associated with major stakeholders in the industry. "Most of the active factories of BGMEA, BKMEA and BTMA are committed to environmental, social and economically sustainable growth for textile industry of Bangladesh," explains Taslimul Haque, Director (Operation), Square Textiles, a textile conglomerate known for its social responsibilities and environmentally sustainable programmes. "We at Square Group don't treat this just as a matter of compliance," says Mr. Haque, "we rather take it as a moral responsibility ingrained in our corporate cultural fabrics at all levels."

Circular textile value chain has gained enormous momentum across the globe and that spurred a great promise in the textile industry of Bangladesh. Bangladesh is committed to promote circular economy in the RMG sector, which led BGMEA, Global Fashion Agenda (GFA) and Reverse Resources to start a pilot intervention in 2020 with a few selected factories. The circular textile value chain approach aims to minimise waste, reduce unsustainable resource consumption, and promote sustainability through recycling, reuse, and responsible production practices. A recent study by Chatham House, supported by a UNIDO-led SWITCH to Circular Economy Value Chains (SWIRCH2CE) Project, has identified several challenges that need to be addressed. Although Bangladesh generates a significant amount of garment waste (locally known as Jhut), about 600,000 tonnes, only a small percentage of the waste is currently being recycled within the country and the remaining quantity is being exported to neighbouring countries, according to BGMEA. The study also suggested that the enormous volume of Jhut could contribute an additional US$ 3.0 billion to the national GDP through import substitution of raw materials and product diversification. It may be noted that Bangladesh imports approximately 1.8 million tonnes of raw cotton every year depending on the capacity utilisation of the spinning industry, which is under the current market price worth about 3.6 billion US dollars.

Bangladesh, being a developing economy, has a strong and deep-rooted culture of recycling not only fabric waste but also materials like plastic bottles and other post-industrial waste. "Currently 20 per cent of Jhuts are being used to make quilts, mattresses and pillows for local consumptions," according to Mr. Mosharaf Hossain, Chairman and Managing Director, Mosharaf Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the spinning and textile industry in Bangladesh. "The remaining 25 per cent of Jhuts are being reused in the textile sector and 55 per cent are being exported to India, China and Korea," added Mr. Hossain. "Tax-free Jhuts are being exported to neighbouring countries at an undervalued price, often misdeclared, to evade import tariffs in importing countries," said Mr. Hossain. "These Jhuts must be used locally, the government must discourage export by introducing tariff and provide economic incentives for recycling it back to the textile value chain," added Mr. Hossain.

The export of Jhuts at an undervalued price undermines textile economy and a major impediment to developing local recycling infrastructure. The industry spends hard-earned foreign currency to buy cotton, machinery and yarns to produce fabrics that generate an enormous amount of Jhuts. "We are using water, power, energies, dyes and chemicals, human capitals and investment to generate Jhuts, whereas, before adding any values, we export it to neighbouring countries with minimal benefit," said Mr. Hossain, who is also serving as a director at the BTMA Board, "the textile industry is losing an enormous amount of foreign currencies every year."

An informal sector, without a formal training and advanced technology, has been processing and sorting Jhuts for years. Integrating them in the circular textile value chain through empowerment with technology and financing would help Bangladesh transform its textile industry into a circular economy. Standardisation of the work process and classification of Jhut quality based on colour and contamination will be a significant leap forward. "Yes, BTMA, BGMEA and BKMEA can work together and formulate standard guidelines so that the stakeholders can follow a set of standardized procedures for Jhuts, yarns and fabrics to add higher values to circular textile value chain," said Mr. Hossain. "If all the generated Jhuts can be recycled back to textile value chain, the economy would gain enormous benefit, of course, through import substitutions and value addition," added Mr. Hossain. "Moreover, if the Jhut fibre can substitute a small fraction of cotton use, the agricultural land used for growing cotton can be used otherwise to produce foods that would contribute to food security worldwide," Mr. Hossain hoped.

Traditionally the leftover Jhuts are being handled inappropriately and disposed of in dumping grounds raising environmental concerns. In addition, Jhut waste is burnt in boilers and brick fields, which is not environment-friendly. Mr. Hossain said, "Recycled Jhut fibres can be used in non-woven textiles and for other purposes like automotive interiors, agro-textiles, geo-textiles, acoustics, building construction textiles, upholstery, package textiles, and food packing materials." "This diversified use of Jhut should be encouraged and the government should provide financial support to non-woven Jhut textile industry," said Mr. Hossain.

Bangladesh is in a unique position to adopt circularity in its textile and garment industry with opportunities to add economic values in the process. Jhuts, if properly managed, can generate significant values to the circular textile value chain and earn foreign currencies. The government should offer access to finance and credit facilities to the Jhut industry to upgrade their operations and contribute to the textile value chain. Finally, it is important that BTMA, BGMEA, BKMEA and the government form a special Circular Textile Council (CTC), comprising major stakeholders, investors and scientists to formulate guidelines for circularity. The CTC can help develop a plan where the Jhut sector can get financial and structural support and bring them into the circular textile value chain and help add billions of dollars to the national GDP.

Dr. Quamrul Ahsan is a former Faculty at BUET and Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Cotton Bangladesh.

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