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H&M-Backed Plan Plots Circular Future for Bangladesh Textile Waste

Bangladesh wants to turn its linear model of clothing production into a circular one. A new initiative, which took off Monday, aims to jump-start that process.

Led by the Global Fashion Agenda (GFA), the Circular Fashion Partnership will marshal the expertise of a slew of stakeholders—including P4G, Reverse Resources, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) and brands such as Bestseller, H&M Group and OVS—to capture the country’s post-production fashion waste and channel it into the creation of new fashion products.

The project, which will run until the end of 2021, will consist of two parts, beginning with mapping waste streams and ending with finding scalable and tangible solutions for reincorporating cutting scraps and excess stock into the value chain.

“We’ll be working together to really test out and develop a playbook for circularity, to identify the roadblocks that are currently preventing circularity from scaling up and how we can overcome them,” Holly Syrett, senior sustainability manager at GFA, said at a press briefing Monday. “And the roadblocks may be in mapping and knowing where waste streams are, having access to data or traceability. [There may also be] regulatory roadblocks, and maybe the need for investment to scale innovations.”

One crucial effort is establishing segregated waste streams from the get-go in order to “valorize” the materials’ maximum value, said Nin Castle, co-founder and recycling lead at Reverse Resources. Brands, which will ultimately need to take responsibility for the recycled products they create, need a simple way of identifying the provenance, fiber composition and chemical or dye content of any textile waste they adopt. Traceability starts with the factory producing the waste.

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“The waste is sort of mixed together and sold cheaply and quickly [but] mixing the waste together means it loses its value instantly,” she said. “So the key part is setting up these basic segregation processes in the factories themselves. You can have formal waste-handling partners already established in Bangladesh that can then provide the services of logistics, storage, further quality checking, any further cleaning and so on and so forth, accumulating volumes from different locations to then send out to recyclers. And then of course we have the recyclers at the other end.”

As the second-largest exporter of clothing after China, Bangladesh’s garment sector generates roughly 400,000 metric tons of manufacturing waste every year, yet less than 5 percent is recycled through disparate and largely informal systems, said BGMEA president Rubana Huq. Some 65 percent of this waste comprises cotton knits, which are valuable feedstock for both traditional mechanical and emerging chemical recyclers.

“[What we need] is actually a comprehensive circular economy policy in Bangladesh…to regulate the highly unregulated informal businesses that circle around the landscape of waste in Bangladesh,” she said.

The Circular Fashion Partnership’s goal, Castle added, is to prove that by setting up segregation and having one formal waste-handling partner instead of myriad middlemen, the scheme can increase earnings for factories, decrease costs for recyclers and provide “completely traceable waste feedstocks for those recycling technologies, which at the moment is not possible.”

And finally, the idea is to bring the recyclers and the brands together to reintroduce the textile waste back into the supply chain, break down market barriers and make recycled yarns competitive with their virgin counterparts. The timing of the project is particularly apt with the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a massive glut of castoff garment and textile stock from canceled, suspended and unsold orders.

“There isn’t currently a marketplace for Bangladesh for deadstock fabrics and overstock garments piled up from Covid-19,” Castle said. “So we’re looking at how we can co-create and test potential business models here. How can we reuse these valuable waste streams in the same locations where they’re stored? How do we create the systems and information flows for enabling brands or agents, or whoever it is, to reuse those textiles themselves? And how can this be done easily and at scale?”

Success doesn’t have to be limited to Bangladesh, Syrett noted, and the project has the potential to scale to other markets, including Vietnam and Indonesia.