Trash Talking: Textile Recycling

Each day, millions of people around the world collect and recycle paper, aluminium, glass and plastic products without a second thought.

Credit: MeWa

Discarded textiles and clothing are in strong demand from markets across the world for reuse and recycling. Widely viewed as a resource, these materials offer great potential for recycling and a real revenue generation opportunity for local authorities and waste management companies. WMW asked some of the industry's key players for their views on the subject.

 

Time to Change the Conversation Regarding Clothing Recycling

 

Jackie King
is executive director of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), an international trade association

Each day, millions of people around the world collect and recycle paper, aluminium, glass and plastic products without a second thought. This has been true for many years as a result of the educational efforts which began with the first 'Earth Day' on April 22, 1970. Unfortunately, the first Earth Day environmentalists did not include clothing and textiles as household materials to be recycled.

In fact, clothing and textiles were being recycled long before those early efforts to inform the public of the impact their actions had on the environment. In 1970, there was a thriving clothing recycling industry, dating back well before the turn of the 20th century. In addition to the for-profit clothing recycling industry, charitable organisations were delivering their message of "donate your gently used clothing items".

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, the average person discards 70 pounds (32 kg) of clothing per year. The Agency estimates 85% of these materials wind-up in landfills or incinerators, with only a scant 15% entering the recycling stream.

To begin the effort to change the attitude of the public from 'donate' to 'recycle', when applied to clothing and textiles, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) - the international trade association of for-profit clothing and textile recycling companies - is undertaking a nationwide educational effort. Working in conjunction with educators, the association has developed lesson plans aimed at students aged five to 12.

The classroom materials developed by SMART are grade-appropriate lesson plans that include the message of clothing as a recyclable product. The lessons are available to teachers free of charge, and meet all education standards and teach core skills such as math, science, and vocabulary.

The materials are available through various outlets to more than 750,000 educators and 15 million students in the U.S. In the first four weeks the lessons were available, they were accessed online by more than 3000 teachers with additional requests for information being received by mail. The effort is catching-on with hundreds of thousands to be impacted.

By introducing the concept of recycling clothing at the earliest ages, SMART aims to increase the awareness of clothing as a renewable resource. As a result of these efforts, over time, the association hopes to divert the flow of clothing and textiles out of the municipal waste stream and into the hands of all who recycle these valuable products.

Collection Key to Unlocking PotentialPhil Geller
is director of UK based textile recycler
I & G Cohen and chair of trading group Recyclatex

An estimated 350,000 tonnes of used clothing goes to landfill in the UK every year. Diverting these materials, which have recognised commercial value, from landfill remains a challenge for the recycling and waste management sectors.

In the UK alone, recent research from WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) showed that recovering just 10% of the 1.4 million tonnes of textiles that are sent to landfill each year could unlock up to £24 million and deliver huge environmental benefits.

One solution lies in how they are collected. More than four out of five textile items donated via established routes such as door to door, kerbside, textile bank and charity shop collections can be successfully reused or recycled. Working with Axion Consulting, I & G Cohen has conducted eight studies into textile recycling on behalf of WRAP which showed reuse and recycling rates of 80% to 89% using these popular public routes.

This project, 'Impact of Textile Feedstock Source on Value', assessed the impact that differing sources of recovered textiles has on the quality and subsequent value of those textiles within the UK reuse and recycling markets. Unsurprisingly, comingled collections were least successful due to heavy contamination and damage from the sorting process causing high levels of wastage.

By forging stronger partnerships with textile recyclers, local authorities and waste management companies can realise more value from their discarded textiles, prevent them being landfilled and help to support thousands of jobs. In November, our 'What a Waste' event explored innovative ways of diverting used clothing and textiles from landfill.

What people don't always realise is that nearly everything they discard has some kind of value as long as it's clean, dry and free from contamination. Each tonne of clothing, handbags and shoes gets sorted and graded for customers across the world. Lightweight clothing is sent to East and West Africa, some heavier weight clothing and lower grades end up in Pakistan and India, while smaller amounts of high value items will go to Eastern Europe. Vintage clothing - albeit around 1% of the total collected - also provides employment in repairing and selling sought-after garments.

Other low-grade items can be recycled into insulation products in vehicles or wiping cloths for cleaning purposes. We should all make more of our old textiles - for the sake of the environment and the world's population.

A New Perspective on an Ancient IndustryIra Baseman
is president of Community Recycling, a Pennsylvania based textile recycler

Often neglected and misunderstood in the world of traditional recycling, textile recycling is poised to become a more central component in our retail buying and social experience. The signs of change abound and the opportunity for personal engagement in textile recycling is clear.

Historically, the act of textile recycling was driven by a donation model that was supported by large non-profit organisations that acquired used clothing and related materials to fuel their charitable programs. This model has been in place for decades and has been widely expanded to keep many thousands of tonnes of textiles from landfill.

While largely a successful model to a specific and limited end, the act of recycling was subordinated to a cause and there was little if any engagement with the recycler about the use or destiny of their clothing. In the recent years, we have witnessed a shift in recycling activity generally, an expansion of social and environmental engagement, and the continued reinforcement of social networking.

Social awareness has been heightened, as witnessed by our strong interest in understanding the impact we are having on the environment. We see these changes everywhere, from the local farm to table food movement, to legislation covering extended producer responsibility for large manufacturers of electronic and a range of other consumer goods. The landscape has shifted and we now understand that recycling is a positive step for its own right.

Nowhere else is this more palpable than in textile recycling. We now can engage people to recycle for reuse and to tell the complete story of where this clothing is destined and why. The pyramid has been inverted and reuse is the best outcome for all parties involved, from the retailer to the consumer and finally to the recipient somewhere else in the world.

Recycling textiles connects people across the globe in a positive and enriching way. With the advent of technology, social networking and modern transportation, we can make the world a smaller, friendlier and greener place.

Technology to the RescueDr. Roshan Paul
is principal investigator for the Textile Technologies Division of LEITAT Technological Center, Terrassa (Barcelona), Spain.

In Europe, around 25kg of textile fibre is consumed per person per year and about half of it is coming from dress materials, bed linen, towels and home furnishings. The dumping of post consumer textile waste is a huge urban waste problem and there is a common practice of collecting the discarded textiles by commercial and charity organisations. A small portion is thus recovered in this way but the rest is normally discarded as solid urban waste.

There is a huge untapped potential for discarded post consumer textile waste and the recycling possibilities are unlimited. In order to recycle at an industrial scale, collected clothes should first be sorted. Many sorting systems and software are either available, or under development for sorting textile waste according by colour and chemical composition. The sorted textile waste can be collected separately to develop different high added value products.

Wool fibres are normally recycled by blending with new wool to produce new textile products. The final product may be little harder, but surely longer lasting. Pure white 100% cotton fibres may be converted to superabsorbent polymers by chemical modification and can be used for the production of medical textiles, such as superabsorbent polymers to be applied in diapers and incontinence products.

With low quality material, there is another possibility for developing superabsorbent agrotextiles for water storage and/or controlled water release for plantations in arid or desert lands. White, as well as coloured cotton has a potential to be converted into art and drawing paper, by proper dissolution and further deposition of the pulp. They can also be used as a raw material for developing new regenerated cellulosic fibres. It may be possible to produce cellulose in the powder form, which can be used as fillers, or for blending with other polymers for developing composite materials.

Polyester/cotton fibre blends, as well as difficult to bleach deep coloured cotton fibres, can be triturated and used for the production of non-woven felts to be used as thermal and acoustic insulation materials in automobile and construction sectors. Blended textiles with high polyester content can be used to develop different types of agrotextile materials.

Polypropylene which is widely used in the production of sportswear can be reprocessed by producing pellets/masterbatches and further moulding into different plastic components. It can also be blended with other polymers to develop composites. If blended with biopolymers like polylactic acid (PLA), the environmental footprint of the developed composites can be reduced considerably.

Too Good an Opportunity to Miss

Marcus Gover
is director of Closed Loop Economy at the Waste & ResourceS Action Programme (WRAP), UK

According to a recent WRAP report, we use 2.7 million tonnes of textiles every year in the UK. However, less than a third of this is currently recovered for reuse or recycling. The rest, around 1.4 million tonnes, is sent to landfill. But this is not necessary.

Clothing accounts for more than half the UK's textile consumption. WRAP research shows we could prevent a third of the clothes we buy from ending up in landfill by making more use them through reuse and other routes. However, this is not just about clothing, but also about all the other household non-clothing textile items we discard, such as linens, bedding and items we might usefully describe as 'leisure textiles'.

For many of these items there are opportunities for reuse, and when these options are exhausted, there are other routes for recycling.

So where are all these 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. An established infrastructure exists for both reuse and recycling, yet in 2010 around £238 million worth of reusable or recyclable textiles was thrown out via kerbside residual collections.

Although it's true that there is a good existing infrastructure for clothes, there is capacity for this to grow and for reprocessors to handle greater volumes of both clothing and other textiles.

Another significant opportunity lies in the bulky textile waste sector, particularly in the reuse and recycling of mattresses and carpets.

In 2010, we bought 169,000 tonnes of mattresses. Only 25,000 tonnes was recovered. Collection and recycling of materials from mattresses is challenging and contamination limits end markets for the materials, but some mattresses contain as much as 50% steel. With the market price of steel steadily rising, it's an area of increasing interest and value. In 2010, for example, 84,500 tonnes of steel could have been recovered.

In contrast, the area of carpet recycling and recovery is one that that has seen considerable growth and there is further potential here. In 2007, just 0.5% carpets were recycled or reused, with an additional 4% sent for energy recovery. In 2010, this had risen to 3.5% reused or recycled and 6.5% incinerated. At the same time, several innovative end markets opened up. However, 378,000 tonnes of carpet were landfilled.

There is indeed a long way 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 create or develop new revenue streams. Surely results worth pursuing.