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Trampled underfoot

There is a well-travelled path for the reuse and recycling of clothing. But other textiles such as bedding and carpets are still largely disposed of in landfill, with their resources being wasted.

Although as consumers and an industry we are getting better at recycling or reusing some of the goods and materials we no longer want, it is clear that, when it comes to textiles, we have still got a long way to go.

Exactly how far is highlighted in WRAP’s new report, Textiles Flow and Market Development Opportunities in the UK. It shows that in the UK we ‘consume’ 2.7 million tonnes of textiles every year. But less than a third of these items - everything from clothes, footwear, accessories such as belts and handbags, bedding and curtains to mattresses and carpets - are currently recovered for reuse or recycling. The rest, around 1.4 million tonnes, is sent to landfill.

None of these materials needs to be disposed of in this way: there are other routes for all textiles, and there is corresponding potential to make better use of all these routes.

Research released by WRAP in the summer showed that UK consumers have around £30bn-worth of clothes which they have not worn for a year hanging in their wardrobes. We could prevent a good third of the clothes we buy from ending up in landfill through reuse and other routes such as design changes, alteration, repair and recycling. There is a real opportunity for businesses and consumers to realise both financial and environmental gains.  

But this sector is not just about the clothes we buy - it also covers footwear; household non-clothing items such as tea towels, cleaning cloths and dusters; bedding and mattresses; and carpets. It is about what happens to corporate or branded workwear when its owners no longer have a use for it. It is about what happens to a range of other materials including tents, sleeping bags, rucksacks and other items of ‘leisure textiles’.

So where are the opportunities? The single greatest chance to increase recovery lies in reducing the amount of textiles (almost a million tonnes) that is currently disposed of as household waste.

Clothing accounts for more than half the UK’s textile consumption. An established infrastructure exists for both reuse and recycling - yet, in 2010, around £238m- worth of reusable or recyclable textiles was thrown out via kerbside residual collections.

If we were to recover, say, 10% of that household textile waste, we could potentially unlock revenues of around £24m. If we were to increase our ambition and seek to match what has already been achieved with the reuse and recycling of other household waste materials, then the unlocked value could be even higher.

Although there is existing infrastructure for unwanted clothing, there is capacity for this to grow and for reprocessors to handle greater volumes of both clothing and other textiles. They say the key to marrying the source stock and capacity is public awareness.

WRAP’s latest guidance, aimed at local authorities and textiles collectors, should go some way to helping address this. It offers practical advice covering kerbside collection services, bring banks, in-store collection systems and community reuse initiatives, as well as how to communicate such details to the public.

Another significant opportunity lies in bulky textile waste. By volume, the strongest potential lies in the reuse and recycling of mattresses and carpets. Take mattresses: in 2010 we bought 169,000 tonnes but only 25,000 tonnes was recovered.

Operationally, the collection, storage and recycling of materials from end-of-life mattresses is challenging. If material streams are to be separately recycled, then mattresses have to be deconstructed, often manually, which is time-consuming and difficult. Contamination limits the end markets for the materials.

But some mattresses contain as much as 50% steel in the springs and, with the market price of steel steadily rising, it is an area of increasing interest and value. In 2010, for example, 84,500 tonnes of steel could have been recovered from this source.

While the two key components are steel and polyurethane foam, collections only become viable if factors such as transportation distance for steel are overcome.

Alongside this, there is a demand from charities and social enterprises for mattresses in good condition that can be reused. Total volumes recovered in this way are estimated to be relatively small, again suggesting there is room for growth.

carpet bundles

In contrast, the area of carpet recycling and recovery is one that has seen considerable growth in the past few years. But there is still a sizeable opportunity to increase the volumes to be recycled or recovered rather than sent to landfill. There are also a growing number of end markets for recycled carpet.

In 2007, just 0.5% of carpets were recycled or reused, with an additional 4% being sent to energy-from-waste plants for incineration. By 2010, this had risen to 3.5% reused or recycled (14,700 tonnes) and 6.5% incinerated (27,300 tonnes), a growth of 120% in diversion from landfill, with several innovative end markets opening up.

But some 378,000 tonnes of carpet were still sent to landfill, with a landfill tax price tag of more than £18m. Routes to landfill are likely to include residential deposit at household waste and recycling centres, trade deposit to landfill and council bulky waste collection. Fly-tipping will also account for a small proportion, as will small pieces of carpet disposed of in residual waste.

Carpets are not usually collected along the same routes as other textiles, and recycling is often carried out by organised collection. This may include direct collection at the time of installation of new carpet or dedicated collection from site by a recycler. This is typically for business consumers rather than private individuals.

Just 1% of collected carpet and carpet tile is reused, meaning that recycling is the priority area for growth. There are only a few commercially independent recycling schemes within the UK, although this sector is beginning to grow: from 16 specialist carpet reuse, recycling and energy recovery outlets in 2009 to 27 in 2010.

Previous large-scale attempts at recycling carpet have had limited success, and the economics behind commercial viability are reliant on a high-value end application. But there is now a range of potential applications for carpet recycling, not least due to the work of Carpet Recycling UK and its members, who have conducted more than 150 trials to find outlets for wool, polypropylene and nylon fibres from carpets and tiles.

There is now an increasing number of applications for carpet recycling, and a corresponding awareness within the carpet industry of the importance of recycling. So the focus needs to be on improving technologies and facilities to maximise the value of the end product, as well as continuing to increase the volumes of carpet available for recycling.

There is indeed a long way for us to travel on the route to increased textiles reuse and recycling. But there is also enormous potential to divert material from landfill, reduce disposal costs and develop new revenue streams - surely results worth pursuing.

Marcus Gover, WRAP director of closed loop economy

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