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Second hand in the balance

Textiles seems to be a hot topic at present, with prices at a record high having only gone upwards for the last eight years. The words bubble and burst are on everyone’s lips.

So it is an interesting time for me, as I embark on presidency of the Textile Recycling Association, to consider what changes the industry is likely to encounter.

On the face of it the rise in price has been demand led. As Eastern Europe opened up, a need for western clothing followed and with the clothing went the jobs as it is cheaper to sort in Warsaw than Warwick.

The UK’s interpretation to the Transfrontier Shipment of waste is that textiles are not classed as a waste stream, meaning UK clothing is easier to export than that of other EU nations, further pushing UK prices up (the English wardrobe is also considered far more desirable than our German or Dutch counterparts).

The effect of this was that the industry opened up, no longer did a textile market require the knowledge of grading and finding end markets for specific recycling grades.  In fact all you need is a van and somewhere to park a trailer and this bought in more competition and a price war. With a lack of regulation, gangs moved in deciding it was cheaper to steal textiles from bring banks or the kerbside than buy it from a merchant.  If textiles were to be designated as waste at least the police would have an audit trail to follow to the source of the clothing.

Charity shops have benefited from increased prices at the back door but decreased donations through the store, or for that matter on the kerbside.  As people’s pockets have got shallower they are looking to bag a bargain in a charity shop, whilst the shops themselves are facing decreased donations, leaving them to rotate stock between shops and then onto bargain basement warehouse outlets.

To stay competitive many merchants have latched on to sorting, acting only as collection agencies.  The effect of this has been a large number of job losses within the sector and with it expertise. So long as textiles are not being categorised as waste, then a grey unregulated market will continue and thrive at the expense of UK industry.

As austerity cuts have hit local authorities, waste officers’ attention has turned to new revenue streams. The charity bring bank is now seen as a valuable resource, with many councils taking the step to remove them and replace with their own banks and the money.  

The interplay between the charity sector and private merchants makes textiles a very sticky wicket for government. Any action to increase rates requires an understanding of the public’s perception of second-hand clothing.  Is it a waste stream like newspaper and aluminium cans, or does it hold a sentimental value and ultimately a quantifiable value, which lends itself to being sold or donated?

When people go through their wardrobes, do they leave out their bags of clothes only for charitable causes they support - or is it whoever drops a bag through the door?  Whenever I explain our industry I am always faced with the same assumptions: ‘Oh, I thought it all got sold in the charity shop’; or ‘I thought charities gave it to Africans as aid’;  or ‘No one would want my old t-shirt so I threw it in the bin’.

So how do we increase recycling rates? Let us assume that the low-hanging fruit has been picked. These members of the public who are concerned to see their unwanted clothes go to a new home will either make a trip to their local charity shop or a bring bank site.

With all recycling the easier you make it the higher the participation rate, so let’s make it easy and collect it on the kerbside.  We know it works, otherwise the charities wouldn’t spend thousands of pounds dropping bags through your letter box. If it works for the charities why not leave it to them? 

One reason is that local authorities are viewing it as another revenue stream.  Charities, meanwhile, are regulated very differently to the waste industry through the legislation around door-to-door fundraising from the 1930s which was aimed at regulating a very different enterprise. Licensing officials are making decisions as to who can collect in a specific area based on very little Governmental guidance and often on misleading and contradictory information from various sources. 

Needless to say, it is my view that the current system is antiquated, will not increase recycling rates and could even reduce them as the public begins to mistrust the industry because of stories of bogus charity collectors. This will have the increase the black market around stolen second hand clothing which the National Fraud Intelligence Bureas has proved has links to organised crime.

To increase any level of recycling requires the process to be easy with the benefits of doing so fully explained to the public. WRAP’s Sustainable Clothing Action Plan is specifically looking into limiting the environmental impact of the clothing we buy through its entire life cycle.

The carbon savings of textile reuse make it a very appealing way into educating the public on the waste hierarchy. The need for textiles to be kept clean and dry in collection potentially puts it at the heart of a commingled, source-separated argument.

The challenge for the waste industry - and specifically textile merchants - is striking a balance. On the one hand, there is competition on price for the existing markets while, on the other, there is the development of new means to increase capture rates using new or existing infrastructure within the waste industry.    

Ross Barry is president of the TRA

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