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Fashion Industry Has Far to Go in Eliminating Single-Use Plastic

Can fashion give up its toxic relationship with single-use plastic? Signs are mixed.

Two years after a slew of apparel businesses, including Burberry, H&M, Stella McCartney and Zara owner Inditex, pledged to tackle plastic waste “at its source,” progress remains slow and spotty, hamstringing efforts to rehabilitate the industry’s polluting reputation and failing to reassure consumers who increasingly care about the environmental impact of their clothes.

Indeed, a “substantial acceleration of progress” will be key to achieving the voluntary, non-binding agreement’s slate of 2025 targets, which include eliminating all “problematic and unnecessary” plastic, pivoting from single-use to reuse models and ensuring all plastic packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable, according to a new progress report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The organization noted a “significant” difference among the rate of progress of signatories, with some companies taking leaps forward and others flatlining against quantitative goals.

Of the improvement, most stemmed from the removal or replacement of disposable polybags, plastic hangers and swing tickets. Asos, for instance, removed 70,000 plastic hangers and 20 million swing tickets and plastic kimbals from its Design private label, along with all plastic collars across its formalwear range. Inditex nixed all single-use plastic outer bags that protect cardboard boxes for its Zara Home online orders, and it plans to do the same across all its brands by the end of the year. Superdry, for its part, traded its unrecyclable rigid-plastic underwear boxes and sock and flip-flop hangers for recyclable cardboard versions.

Looking ahead, H&M says it plans to completely rid itself of several categories of plastic packaging before 2025, including “polystyrene, multilayer materials, undetectable carbon black, polybags, sachets, single-use carrier bags, single-use hangers, plastic windows and tear-offs.” Already, the Swedish retailer has tested alternatives to polybags, including shipping e-commerce orders in paper rather than plastic sleeves. Inditex also aims to bid farewell to polystyrene by 2023.

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Most modes of reuse, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation said, focused on B2B and return-from-home schemes, with several signatories homing in on reusing hangers or trialing polybag alternatives in their supply chains and e-commerce packaging.

Asos is planning to run a pilot for 2,000 reusable e-commerce bags this year, a move that the British e-tailer estimates will save 2.7 kilograms of single-use packaging and 29 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every 100 orders fulfilled. Inditex has implemented reusable “single hangers” as part of its efforts to use the same hangers to ferry garments from suppliers to warehouses to stores in a closed-loop system.

One area in which fashion is excelling is its incorporation of post-consumer recycled content, the highest of all sectors—an average of 13.3 percent—due to its use of packaging types such as polybags and hangers, which while not necessarily recyclable themselves, can accommodate significant levels of recycled content.

Momentum is building in this area: Superdry, which is angling for a minimum of 70 percent recycled content for all its remaining plastic packaging by 2025, has partnered with a manufacturer that collects used polybags for recycling into new ones. This has allowed the company to switch from 100 percent virgin low-density polyethylene (LDPE) to 30 percent recycled content for this packaging, saving 96 metric tons of virgin plastic annually. Similarly, LPP is employing plastic bags composed of 80 percent recycled LDPE for e-commerce orders. It’s also looking to use 100 percent recycled hangers and recycled plastic packaging for items such as perfume and watches in its stores by 2023.

One problem the industry needs to crack is its dismal rate of recyclability. Only 7 percent of the sector’s packaging is currently recycled after use, the report said. Fashion businesses have, by and large, focused on removing or replacing non-recyclable categories of flexible packaging, primarily LDPE, with recyclable alternatives or creating or improving closed-loop systems to recycle this packaging in B2B applications.

Inditex, for example, is working with its suppliers to improve traceability, ensure that packaging is recyclable and bolster recycling and reuse channels for its headquarters, factories, logistics centers and stores. Superdry has developed a policy of removing polybags at its distribution center so that they can be collected en masse and returned to the manufacturer for recycling.

Still, while progress, particularly in the use of recycled plastic, is encouraging, said Sander Defruyt, New Plastics Economy lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it remains crucial for companies to rethink what packaging is put on the market in the first place. Legislation could help accelerate this push, too.

“We are calling on industry to rapidly increase efforts to reduce single-use packaging and eliminate packaging types that have no credible pathway to making recycling work in practice and at scale,” he said in a statement. “We know industry cannot deliver the change alone, and we are calling on policymakers to put in place the enabling conditions, incentives and international framework to accelerate this transition.“