Mariska Zandvliet, co-chair VHT: ‘Corona has accelerated certain matters. The stakeholder consultation for the Textile Recycling Industry is a good example.'
Interview with Mariska Zandvliet, Co-chair of the Dutch Textile Recovery Association (VHT) & President of EuRIC Textiles.
Since 2019, Mariska Zandvliet is co-chair for Dutch Textile Recovery Association (VHT). In addition, she became president of EuRIC Textiles that same year. She is a woman with a lot of knowledge and experience in the textile recycling industry through her work within Boer Group. She is now using this knowledge and experience to represent her industry to Dutch and European policy makers, as well as to raise awareness throughout the chain, end users and consumers about the actions that need to be taken to improve textile recycling.
Who is Mariska? Tell us about yourself and how did you get into the industry?
I live just across the border in Belgium with my husband and our two children. I did the School of Tourism. After my studies, I organised large-scale events. I really enjoyed that work, but it also became more and more intense. You have to work year in, year out during Christmas and New Year's Eve, for example during events such as Disney on Ice. After five years, I thought it was time to change and I started applying for another job. During that process, my father asked me if I would like to join the family business. I had to think about it. I realised that there was enough to do in this growing company and said yes. And I felt quite honoured that my father asked me, because it says something about his estimation of my capabilities.
I have now worked for the Boer Group as our family business is called, for more than 20 years. I started in various positions and eventually became the HR director for 15 years. We have branches in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France. Our head office is in Dordrecht (in The Netherlands). It started as a textile-sorting company that in the past 15/20 years has developed into a large organisation that collects, sorts and recycles textiles. At the beginning of 2020, I changed functions. I now combine corporate communication for Boer Group with advocacy for the company and the sector. My position is structured in such a way that I have the space for the dual chairmanship of the VHT, but also time to represent the interests of our industry in Europe as president of EuRIC Textiles. I’m in my element in this role. It is refreshing and very nice when you can share the experience you have gained from your own organisation. As a company and as an industry, we obviously have a story to tell.
Together with Hans Bon you hold the position of chairperson at VHT, why the duo function?
Hans Brak, the previous chairman of VHT, announced two years ago that he wanted to step down. Hans Bon was willing to succeed hi, but not on his own. He didn't have the time for to do the job next to his busy company. I proposed to do it together. I take care of the public affairs and Hans is internally oriented towards the members. We spar a lot and are a sounding board for each other. Decisions we make together. I actually think it's a successful solution for the moment.
EuRIC Textiles, what does it mean and how did you become President?
EuRIC is a European umbrella organisation in which several waste streams are represented. An organisation that mainly focuses on lobbying and networking within the 'Brussels bubble', as it is so nicely called. in 2019 I found out that metal, paper and plastic are represented and textiles are not. For our industry, it is important that we have a voice in Europe. It is good that we can influence policymakers here in the Netherlands, but they also follow what the European Commission is doing. I came into contact with Emmanuel Katrakis, Secretary-General of EuRIC. After our meeting it actually went very quickly, because he thought it was quite logical that a textile branch should be set up within EuRIC. After all, textiles are high on the political agenda of the EU Commission and Parliament. We now have 11 member states affiliated to EuRIC Textiles. The countries that play a significant role in the field of textile recycling are represented. So things are going very well. The work is varied, from one-to-one conversations with the EU Commission members, including consultations with Vice-President Frans Timmermans, to the publication of all kinds of position papers on textile recycling.
The production of one pair of jeans requires 8,000 liters of water'.
What are important developments in the textile sector?
Let's start at the beginning. The consumption of textiles, or rather clothing, has doubled in the last two decades. This has resulted in a huge pile of textile waste and is caused by 'fast fashion' and the rise of large fashion chains, but also online shopping has a role in this. There is a huge pile of textile waste, and textile production is one of the most polluting industries in the world. For example: the production of one pair of jeans requires 8,000 liters of water. The CO2 emissions are bizarre. It is more than maritime shipping and aviation together produce. When we see a plane in the air, we automatically link it to CO2 emissions and think: "there goes pollution". We can also compensate our CO2 emissions with a surcharge, but actually that is peanuts compared to the textile industry.
So besides fly shaming, there is fashion shaming too?
Yes, you could say that. It is clear that the fashion industry has to deal with a growing image problem. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has been doing research for years to expose these facts. For example, it is standard for producers to overproduce by 30%. This has to do with having sufficient stocks. You do not know in advance which collections will or will not sell well, so you always want to have enough on the shelf. So these clothes are never worn.
I started looking into how much of the discarded textile is collected. In the Netherlands, this is about 140 million kilos per year. This comes down to 46%, so about half. The Netherlands, together with Belgium and Germany, is doing quite well. But in Spain or Italy, only 10% of all discarded textiles are collected. In these countries, there is still a lot to gain. After 2025, there will be new legislation. This legislation states that in all European member states separate collection systems for textiles must be set up. The volume of collected textiles will go up. Between 2025 and 2029 (broad estimate) this growth will be somewhere between 50 and 90%. So we have to check if our current collection and sorting infrastructure is still up to the task. Can we handle it? The answer is no. For the industry, this means that investments in collection, sorting and recycling have to be made soon.
Approximately 50-60% of the textiles that are collected can be worn again or reused. 30-40% is not suitable for this. It is either dirty, worn out, has holes in it, you name it. Some of it is recycled as cleaning rags, but it is also mechanically recycled into small chips. The textile fibers are pressed and used in car parts, for example, such as hat racks. But this raw material is also processed into insulation material for kitchen appliances. Very nice sustainable solutions, but also expensive ones, because there is not much demand for recycled fibers. The reason is the quality of the recycling process that precedes it and it is simply more expensive than virgin material.
'From a linear process, transform to a circular process'
If we look at the waste hierarchy, reuse comes before recycling, so you really have to wear and reuse it as long as possible. This is a . We want and need to get to a situation where you use textile fibers: polyester, cotton or viscose. These can be used in new textile products and new clothing. There are already very good methods developed for this: chemical recycling. That sounds very scary, but it is not. The garment or textile product is placed in a kind of bath, whereby the fibers are softened instead of shredded. The length of the fiber is retained. In combination with a virgin material, you can thus make strong, high-quality textiles again. In the future, a lot of investments will have to be made to scale this up industrially.
It all depends on demand. There has to be a customer who says: 'I want to buy that fiber from you and I want to pay you well for it'. The textile mills must become circular rather than linear. Some do it well, but most do it for a bit of window dressing, also known as greenwashing. Marketing-wise, it is a nice story. A legal framework is needed such as: "from 2025, all textile products must contain at least 25% recycled content". This is also stated in our policy programme 'Circular Textiles 2025'. It encourages producers to think about the recyclability of a garment at the end of its life and in the design phase: Eco design. We cannot expect to solve everything at once. But it is very important that producers and processors at the end of the chain talk to each other and determine where the interests lie.
So a big role for policymakers and the production industry. What’s the role of the consumer?
A very important one; we must also raise awareness on a consumer level. Nowadays, we often make conscious choices when it comes to purchasing food, but this is not always the case with clothing. The younger generations are more concerned with second-hand, by buying second-hand clothing. There is a growing awareness that the fashion industry is very polluting, but it has remained under the radar for too long.
What was the impact of corona for VHT?
'In March 2020, we had quite a dire situation because of corona. Because of the lockdown, other European countries, stopped collecting textiles. Textile bins were locked. For two reasons, one: because the supply became too great. People started clearing out not only their cupboards, but also their cellars and attics. Everything they thought might belong to textiles ended up in the textile bins. I have even seen an ironing board next to a textile bin. The second reason: due to the global lockdown, many second-hand textile markets, such as in Eastern Europe, were closed at one point. The shops were closed so the wholesalers had huge stocks. Sorting companies in the Netherlands continued to operate, resulting in full warehouses with textiles in the Netherlands. For the government, textile processing is one of the crucial occupational groups. It therefore has an interest in continuing collection textiles. This was the hook for us to talk to the government. (I&W) We had crisis meetings every three weeks, also to see where financial support was needed to keep companies afloat. In August/September 2020, we saw that the markets gradually opened up again and people could sell their textiles and clothes for reuse.
So yes, in the beginning we suffered a lot from the consequences of corona. However, we also used it to increase knowledge about our sector and to inform people about it. The crisis consultation turned into the chain consultation in which we now participate as VHT with various chain partners. The aim is the implementation of the 'circular textile policy programme'. How are we going to ensure that the chain can become circular in cooperation with the producers? Because they are now also at the table and that's good. Corona has accelerated certain matters, and this chain consultation is a good example.
What does Lejeune's service mean for VHT?
I attach great value to the fact that VHT is a customer of Lejeune Association Management. To stay in Jules' words: 'we see Lejeune as the recycling house'. It is very valuable to join Lejeune together with several industry associations, which are active in the waste streams. The synergy is nice and we can exchange experiences about how things work at other associations. Also when it comes to knowledge of producer responsibility, as we already see in the packaging industry. As an organisation, we are now busy with the professionalisation process and it is good to know that we always have a safety net for extra support, if necessary.
'From 1% to 10% high-quality recycling within five years'
What will the world for the textile recycling industry look like in five years' time?
'I am convinced that the whole playing field of our sector will look very different in five years' time. Legal frameworks are currently being developed that call for producer responsibility. From our sector's perspective, we are focusing on three pillars that we can influence:
- One is that decent, sustainable clothing is produced again, away from the fast fashion concept, the €2.00 shirt that goes in the bin after three washes. It promotes wearability and, with a longer life, it takes longer for the garment to end up on the rubbish heap.
- Two is the Eco Design: designers are aware of which fabrics are and are not good for recycling and know how to handle them.
- Three is that in five years' time, the demand for recycled fibers from post-consumer textiles will have increased and new business models may emerge.
At the moment, only 1% of textile is recycled, fiber-to-fiber in a closed-loop system. We would like to see this percentage reach 10% within five years due to growing demand and improved quality.'
Text: Ria Luitjes
Photos: Mariska Zandvliet