The long-term future of the UK textiles industry is looking shaky, according to some UK sorters.
UK textiles sorters are concerned that unfair competition between them and those who export material to sort in Eastern Europe could cause serious damage to the UK industry.
It is feared that with high textiles prices coupled with wages and taxes, the UK sorters will not be able to compete with the less expensive alternative of exporting and sorting in Eastern Europe.
Currently, mixed charity rags cost £360-418 per tonne while the price of material from textile banks is £171-218 per tonne.
Lawrence M Barry, which employs 400 people in the UK and recycles and sorts all textile grades here, spoke of the high prices it is paying for textiles. Director Lawrence Barry said: There are two market prices; one for those who are shipping the material to Eastern Europe; and one for firms like us which are sorting in the UK and paying taxes and higher salaries.
We know of four or five merchants who have gone bust already. If we have to close too then the whole industry is lost and those who rely on our textiles will have to buy virgin material instead.
Ecotex, which collects and sorts high quality textiles at its facility in Batley is also worried about the strain the high prices are causing on the industry. Director Elaine Denton said: Our profit margins are being squeezed because were competing to buy material and those firms or charities sorting textiles in Eastern Europe have much cheaper overheads than us.
Weve also noticed a decline in the quality of material we are getting because charities are collecting from peoples doorsteps in huge quantities, simply to take to Eastern Europe, rather than into their shops for sorting.
The Salvation Army Trading Company exports its textiles to Eastern Europe once material from their collections banks are segregated into non-textile waste and reusable textiles in the UK. Once exported, the textiles are sorted into grades where 99 per cent of it is either reused or recycled, and up to 80 per cent is re-worn.
Salvation Army Trading Company recycling co-ordinator Paul Ozanne said: It is less expensive to sort the textiles in Eastern Europe but the savings we make doing this go towards the Salvation Army charity. It creates a lot of jobs in these countries that have very high levels of unemployment and they rely on the western world to keep their industry going. Eastern European people are the best people to sort it too, as they know whats fashionable in their own country.
The Textile Recycling Association believes that talk of the UK industry folding is a little premature, although admits trading conditions are difficult at the moment. Alan Wheeler of the TRA said: We think it is fair to expect that both businesses and charities should be operating on a level playing field. When organisations like local authorities or supermarkets offer clothing collection contracts, we would like to see them give consideration for the number of jobs that are created or safeguarded, as well as the business and environmental credentials of tenders.
Almost half of all TRA members sort in the UK and our association naturally supports the activities of both collectors and sorters. That said, we believe that many of our members ultimately think that UK sorting is the most desirable option and many that currently do not sort would welcome the opportunity to do so in the future, providing that market conditions are suitable.