As textile recycling continues to gain importance worldwide, and the number of companies dedicated to processing used apparel or scraps increases as well, governments and industry alike are working to establish textile waste legislation.

In Europe, textiles are covered by the European Union's (EU) waste framework directive (WFD), which came into effect in 2008 to encourage recycling and remove some of the administrative and legal obstacles impeding its development.

The textiles sector constitutes one of the waste streams for which end-of-waste-criteria may be adopted by EU member states - these specify when certain waste ceases to be waste, and obtains the status of a product (or a secondary raw material) that can be re-injected onto the market.

This is clearly a vital consideration for those in the textiles recycling sector with the purpose of bringing clarification and stimulus to the recycling market, according to the European Commission.

However, officials say a recent assessment found that "textiles are not a priority for the moment," and the legislation does not appear to have greatly affected shipments between member states of used clothing and other textiles.

However, EU laws have created some complications in the global trade to and from the EU in textile waste, where a slew of national regulations drawn up under the aegis of the EU's transfrontier shipment of waste regulation are applied.

Meanwhile (unlike for plastics, metal and paper), the WFD does not lay down minimum percentages for recycling in textiles and the proportions of material collected and recycled vary considerably from one European country to another.

The main day-to-day consideration is national legislation, which largely reflects individual countries' attitudes towards recycling in general. This is strongest in Germany, where a new 'Act to Promote the Recycling Economy and Secure the Environmentally Sound Management of Wastes', adopted by the government in March 2011, will strongly enforce recycling.

The German federal environment ministry said the law will promote textile recycling by opening the collection of used clothes to commercial firms, providing they met the same strict commitment to recycling as the public agencies, though a spokesman says the system will remain based on voluntary donations.

In the UK the stated government goal is also to move towards a "zero waste economy" - around 40% of waste from UK households is currently recycled, compared to 11% in 2000/01.

While all EU countries are subject to EU environmental laws controlling the disposal of chemical and other wastes by industry, many have special laws applying to aspects of textile recycling that have evolved over many years.

Thus, in the UK, duty of care provisions in section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act (1990) stipulate that if any organisation such as a charity, local authority or business passes second-hand clothing waste to a textile recycling merchant, they must ensure that that merchant has the legal authority to take the waste. In effect, this means they are members of the Textile Recycling Association, and hold compulsory employers' liability insurance.

US regulations
In the US, there are no specific federal regulations to control the recycling of the clothing and textile industries, the US Environment and Protection Agency (EPA) said in a note to just-style.

"[The] EPA does not have specific regulations and laws pertaining to the recycling of clothing, textiles, and clothing/textile production waste," it said. "The [EPA's] waste regulations are not organised by industry sector."

Yet, for the disposal of certain hazardous wastes, the US textile and clothing industry is regulated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which is overseen by the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery (ORCR) - part of the EPA.

The RCRA provides the EPA with the authority to control hazardous waste produced by the textile and apparel industries within the US. The act insists upon specific methods for the generation, storage, transportation, treatment and disposal of hazardous waste produced during the manufacturing of textiles and clothing.

Other laws that may affect the textile manufacturing industry include the Clean Water Act (CWA), the federal Oil Pollution Prevention Regulations, the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.

According to the EPA, 13.1m tonnes of textiles were produced in the US in 2010. Of those textiles produced, 2m tonnes were recycled through exportation to developing countries as second-hand clothing or recycling.

Japan recycling a voluntary effort
Meanwhile in Japan - a nation that often boasts its environment-friendly credentials and comprehensive government controls - it may be a surprise that no regulations exist in terms of mandating the recycling of textile waste.

Because of this, any recycling conducted by Japanese companies is done purely on a voluntary basis, according to Masaki Takao, COO of recycling firm Japan Environment Planning Co Ltd. "Japanese textile producers and retailers are not presently required by law to recycle either used products or textile waste now; although they may be required to do so in the future," he says. "The recycling of textile products is being promoted as a voluntary effort."

Currently, around 85% of textile waste in Japan gets incinerated. According to the government's environment ministry, 11% of that material is recycled into rags for wiping machinery, or felt for car interiors, while the remainder is sold as second-hand clothing - primarily overseas.

This is a significantly low recycling rate in comparison to other Japanese industries: for example, 88.5% of steel cans and 93.4% of aluminium cans are recycled every year.

Clothing makers say a law requiring them to recycle clothing would impose a heavy burden on them, however, as they do not have stores of their own, and collecting unsold clothes or items that users want to recycle would be costly.

"If textile recycling is mandated by new laws, textile businesses will need to find companies where they can outsource their recycling because they are not able to do it themselves due to the costs," said Takao.

The government, at present, says it has no plans to introduce legislation requiring textile firms to set up their own recycling efforts.

Julian Ryall and Leah Germain also contributed to this article.

Click on the links below to view other articles included in this management briefing:

just-style management briefing: Closing the loop on recycled textiles

just-style management briefing: Sustainable solutions to boost textile recycling

just-style management briefing: Textile and clothing recycling worldwide