"The circular economy is still in its infancy"

Zerlegte Kühlschränke in Accra, Ghaba

With Global Recycling Day, the world marks the significance of the circular economy for a sustainable future. Where do we currently stand in the transformation? In an interview, Morton Hemkhaus explains where we've made progress and what problems remain to be solved.

20 March 2019 | On March 18, the world celebrated Global Recycling Day. This international anniversary was founded to recognize the significance of recycling in the conservation of natural resources and securing the future of our planet.

On this year's Global Recycling Day, adelphi announced to join the StEP Initiative. The initiative seeks to drive global guidelines for the processing of electronic waste and expand support for sustainable resource recovery. Initiative members include international organizations, national government agencies, research institutes and private sector players.

Morton Hemkhaus explains the importance of the Global Recycling Day and why textile production is currently the largest area in need of improvement on the path to a sustainable economy.

World Environment Day, Earth Day, Days of Action for Sustainability – why do we need Global Recycling Day?

Morton Hemkhaus: We need Global Recycling Day to educate people about our material-intensive Western lifestyles and raise awareness of alternatives. The day aims to send a strong signal for the closure of global material flows.

The transformation of our economy into a closed, circular economy is still in its infancy. That was the finding of the latest Circularity Gap Report. Only nine percent of the global material flows are circular – and the trend is negative. This is problematic because the material footprint of the world economy – the extraction of raw materials, their processing and the resulting waste streams – accounts for over 90 percent of species extinction and water stress. The same activities also cause over half of the world's greenhouse gas emissions.

How can a circular economy counteract this?

Morton Hemkhaus: The term circular economy is too often understood in the context of traditional waste management. Many people focus on so-called "end-of-pipe" solutions, including recycling. When it comes to the circular economy, however, we should be designing products that are long-lasting, contain no toxic substances and can be further processed in cycles after the use phase. We also need to prioritize the promotion of corresponding usage and business models so that companies see themselves increasingly as providers of services for material goods.

Textile cloth factory working process tailoring workers equipment

Let's take an example. What is preventing the reorientation of textile production as a circular economy?

Morton Hemkhaus: From the point of view of the circular economy, the quality and composition of the textiles is of crucial importance to the economical recycling of fibres. Established recycling technologies rely primarily on the mechanical recycling of textile fibres – shredding, for example. This shortens the textile fibres and has a negative effect on the quality of the material. As a result, the mechanical recycling of cotton requires about 50 percent virgin fibres to create a material of equivalent quality. However, the current trend of fast fashion has led to lower fibre quality, which means that more and more old clothes are either processed into filler or burned for energy. Mixed fibres are another problem, because they are expensive to recycle at the moment.

On top of that, you've got the structure of the textile industry, whose value chains are global and difficult to regulate through national legislation. The federal government relies mainly on voluntary commitments like the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles, for example. Unfortunately, the positive effects of these voluntary commitments are limited. The issue of the circular economy gets little traction in the partnership. We discuss the background in our new study, 'Circular Economy in the Textile Sector'.

In which areas have you seen progress?

Morton Hemkhaus: At the technological level, there are a lot of promising technologies that can help recycle textiles through chemical means without the addition of virgin fibres. Many of these technologies have already reached a high degree of technological maturity, but are not economically viable due to energy consumption. This will change as soon as they reach a certain degree of scaling. At the business level, there are a variety of innovative business models, including rental services for jeans or free repair services.

And at the political level?

Morton Hemkhaus: We have seen positive developments, particularly at the European level. With the adoption of the circular economy package, the EU will, for the first time, prescribe the separate collection of textiles by 2025. Some states are already taking measures to ensure the regulated collection of used clothing. The Nordic Council of Ministers, for example, is examining the introduction of extended producer responsibility schemes for textile producers. France has had such a system since 2008. Under the name EcoTLC, the system organises the collection of clothing and shoes, which has contributed significantly to increased recycling rates in France.

We aren’t ready for that in Germany, though we do have a relatively well-functioning system for the collection of used clothing, thanks to the work of charitable organisations. The current federal government's coalition agreement even explicitly names textiles as an important waste stream. The political signals must now be followed by action in order to further expand separate collection and recycling.

Colorful thread spools used in fabric and textile industry. The concept of sewing production

What are the most important tasks for the coming years?

Morton Hemkhaus: In terms of the circular economy, our current focus includes the plastics, electronics and textile industries. adelphi spoke out in favour of a global agreement against plastic pollution two years ago. This demand met with broad public interest and was taken up by many NGOs.

Increasing digitisation and complex material composition make the question of how to collect and dispose of electronic waste in the most environmentally friendly way all the more urgent. In the Global South, this work generates creates a lot of jobs, providing a livelihood for millions of people, but it takes place primarily in conditions that are degrading and damaging to the environment.

Which projects is adephi involved in?

Morton Hemkhaus: We have implemented a large number of projects in this area in recent years. Only last year, we conducted a comprehensive study on circular economy in the textile sector on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Our hope is that this issue will be taken up in the Partnership for Sustainable Textiles and that the BMZ will take further measures to promote circular approaches in textile producing countries of the global south.

In the field of international environmental diplomacy, the European Commission has contracted us to strengthen the EU's position on circular economy and financing issues in the fora of G7 and G20. For about two years, we have also been supporting the European Union's SWITCH Asia SCP Facility, which promotes the implementation of the Agenda 2030 with a focus on sustainable consumption and production. In this context, promoting closed-loop production schemes in industrial processes is becoming increasingly important.

On behalf of the European Commission, we also support the Indian government in formulating strategies for circular economy and resource efficiency. Two years ago, for example, we welcomed a delegation of high-ranking policy-makers and were involved in the organization of the Circular Economy Mission to India last year.

In India, Ghana and Georgia, we are active in projects that focus more closely on Extended Producer Responsibility of electronic waste and promote the upgrading and integration of informal structures into existing waste management systems. Electronic waste is already one of the fastest growing waste streams worldwide. This is why we see Global Recycling Day as an opportunity to join the StEP Initiative and, in doing so, we hope to send a positive signal for the more conscious use of natural resources.

Interviewed by Christopher Stolzenberg (adelphi).

Selected Projects

Selected Publications