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Hidden value in the linen cupboard

Marcus Gover, director of closed loop economy at WRAP, looks at the hurdles to recycling more textiles

Just last month we announced encouraging progress on the textiles front, with companies representing more than a third of UK clothing sales signing up to a new sector commitment to measure and reduce the environmental ‘footprint’ of clothing throughout its life.

This is, of course, excellent news and bodes well for the future of the Sustainable Clothing Action Plan (SCAP) 2020 Commitment.  With clothing contributing around 5% of the carbon footprint; between 6%-8% of the water footprint of all the UK’s goods and services, and more than one million tonnes of wasted materials, any steps that the sector can take towards reducing these impacts has to be welcomed.

Making changes in these areas will be challenging but 22 companies have already pinned their colours to the mast and publicly committed themselves to a path of positive action. These included eight recyclers and reprocessors.

Equally challenging, I think, is the issue of finding better ways of dealing with low-grade textiles which currently end up in the bin. The kinds of items I have in mind are not only worn-out clothing, but also household textiles like bedding and soft furnishings, which may be damaged or soiled. It’s these items that consumers seldom pass on to charity shops as they feel that no one would want their less attractive cast-offs.

Around 50% of household textiles going to landfill fall into the low-grade category. Yet while it’s true that such items are unlikely to find themselves onto the sales racks, the materials themselves still have a value – which could be in the region of £160m a year -  and it’s this value that’s currently not being captured.

If we’re going to successfully address the barriers that prevent these materials from being recycled, a number of things are going to have to change.

We’re going to have to think differently about the way we collect these materials from households and businesses – as well as who collects them. Could we, for example, use ‘survival sacks’ as ‘rag bags’ – a means by which people can save any household textiles, and put them out for collection by their local authority or other organisations?

But in order for this to happen, services would need to adapt to include this type of collection. Waste management contractors and other organisations would need to have systems in place to successfully pick out such bags from their mixed collections, and be able to sort their contents.

Having said that, there is value in these lower-end textiles and that there’s an opportunity here to capture this value more effectively, we have to recognise that there are economic challenges associated with this approach.

For example, many charities currently prefer to receive good quality textiles that can be resold in their retail outlets. We know that it is often harder for the this sector to deal with the lower end materials, not least because they realise a lower per-tonne income, and don’t easily fit into the traditional charity model of take-in / sort / sell on shelf approach.

The opportunity here, then, is how best to unlock that economic value and make the capture of these textiles a more attractive, viable financial proposition. Could working in new partnerships (for example, between waste management companies and charities or local authorities) be the way forward, ensuring we capture all kinds of textiles with re-use / recycle potential?

Sorting of textiles is in itself, a complex area.  We rely heavily on labour-intensive manual sorting systems to separate clothing, for example, into different streams  - a judgement call is required to identify items that are in good, clean condition and ready to sell.  I think that the hand-sorting role is important here, and I’m not suggesting that we dispense with this.

But what about not only separating garments and textiles by colour, type and quality, but also sorting these into valuable fibre types – cottons, polyesters etc?Can technology be adapted to successfully label and read fibre types?  

We have seen the development of ‘smart’ technology which can recognise and sort different types of plastics, even, in recent months, the more problematical black plastics. Could we not extend this to clothing and textiles?  Might it be possible to introduce the tagging of clothing and other household textiles to enable radio-frequency identification (RFID) or other technology to read and sort into material types?

Clothing is already required by law to include labelling indicating material type, so perhaps it is only a short step to embedding that information in a tag which can be read automatically. Even supposing we crack the challenge of successful sorting, we have to ask whether the markets exist for resulting material streams – an opportunity here, perhaps, for investment in UK reprocessing facilities for fibre recycling, and for end-markets for the resulting processed materials?  Is there an ambition for growth?

Or is it a case of making better use of the rag and fibre markets that we know already exist overseas?  Markets for cotton fibre – particularly for industrial use – already exist and interestingly, there are markets in India for recycled wool. It would be good to understand more about existing and emerging technologies for reprocessing this material.

As an example, in Wales, WRAP is funded by the European Regional Development Fund to provide grants for business waste collections and innovative reprocessing solutions for textiles among other target materials. We also encourage the growth in the market for these reprocessed materials through grants for manufacturers.  The geographical scope of the project may be limited, but could act both as an exemplar of textiles collections and reprocessing best practice and as a catalyst for greater private investment in the sector.

We know that textile retailers and brands are increasingly looking at their role in the whole reduce, reuse, recycle journey (as evidenced by the sector’s enthusiasm for SCAP 2020) and there is, perhaps, an opportunity here for more sophisticated take-back schemes?

Could a retailer, for example, encourage its customers to return clothing, no matter its state, and for the no-longer wearable items to be sorted, reprocessed and returned into the manufacturing cycle to make either new clothing, or enter other textile use – either in the UK or in new overseas markets.  From a retailer’s corporate social responsibility perspective this could add an interesting new dimension to their reporting – for example, enabling them to show how they have taken end-of-life responsibility for an increasing fraction of the garments they have sold.

This approach might also enable companies to effectively sell the material content twice – getting more value per tonne of cotton, for example.

It’s worth reminding ourselves, of the impact the production and use of clothing has.  We know, for example, that the global water footprint per household from UK consumption of clothing is equivalent to filling over 1,000 bathtubs to capacity and there’s increasing competition in cotton-growing countries for water. This will continue to grow as the world’s population (and demand for clothing) continues to rise. Any opportunity to reuse and recycle the cotton would help build resilience in the supply chain and at the same time, help reduce climate change.

All these ‘opportunities’ would require action on different levels, and system-wide change. We’d need better technology to read and sort materials.  We’d need improved collection, sorting, processing to capture the stream from consumers. 

And importantly, we’d need consumer communication to help change behaviours and encourage us to view our unwanted clothing and household textiles in a new light. The key message is to keep all textiles out of the bin – and all players (manufacturers, retailers, consumers, charities, local authorities etc) have a role in making this a reality, and helping to explain to people why it matters.

But if we could overcome these challenges, we could undoubtedly recover more materials, with more value, and everyone (councils, waste management companies, reprocessors) could enjoy a slice of the larger economic cake!

I’m sure there are other ideas out there, and perhaps further barriers (or challenges!) that I’ve not outlined here and I’d be keen to hear what others think.  

The organisations that have already signed up to SCAP2020 demonstrate there’s an appetite out there for change.

The question is: is the sector as a whole ready for this kind of quiet revolution?

Marcus Gover, director of closed loop economy at WRAP

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