Interview with Alan Wheeler

Alan Wheeler
Alan Wheeler
Textile Recycling Association UK
Textile Recycling Association UK

Recycled content in garments will be commonplace
The Textile Recycling Association (TRA) is the UK's national trade association for collectors, graders, and exporters of used clothing and household textiles, and is recognised by the UK government as the leading industry body in its field. Alan Wheeler, director of TRA UK, discusses the ins and outs of textile recycling with Fibre2Fashion.

Which regions globally are working actively on recycling textiles?

Informal recycling goes on globally. For example, individuals repair textile items, pull worn wool items, and use the yarn to make "brand new" items. There are many ways in which individuals or even small groups of individuals can informally recycle textiles.

In case of formal recycling, most worn clothing and textile items that are recycled go into the following types of products: mattress/duvet fillings; heat or sound insulation; shoddy-a wool substitute typically used to make cheap blankets; acoustic insulation for the interior of motor vehicles; wiping cloths; roofing felt; and padding. Most of these industrial processes take place in parts of the world where used clothing or textiles are collected by the formal sector in significant quantities, particularly in western and central Europe, North America, and to a lesser extent parts of the Far East (e.g. Japan, South Korea) and Australia. The Indian sub-continent is an area where shoddy is processed into new blankets.

Fibre-to-fibre recycling (which could include items of clothing recycled back into new items of clothing) is still rare. There are a number of different areas of R&D work that are looking to develop new fibre-to-fibre applications and these are taking place in a number of different places throughout the world, including:

  • France: Over 20 R&D projects have been funded which are looking to establish new markets for textiles that have to be recycled. The grants have been issued by Eco Tlc, and are funded through revenue generated through the Extended Producer Responsibility levy that has been placed on all new clothing placed on the market in France. 
  • UK: Worn Again is developing chemical textile-to-textile recycling technologies that will enable used clothing to be recycled back into yarn (and back into new textile products). It is also worth reading about Worn Again's partnership with H&M and Kerring. 
  • Europe: Resyntex Project, a EU-funded project, aims to develop circular economy processes for the textile industry.
  • European Clothing Action Plan: The EU life-funded project aims to reduce the large amount of clothing across the clothing supply chain and embed a circular economy approach.
  • Circle Economy Fibre Sort Programme: Another EU-funded project that aims to improve the economics of sorting fibres for recycling by developing an optical detection technology that can sort out different waste fibres (including blends) in a fast and efficient manner.
  • H&M: 1 million euro grants to fund pioneering projects to close the loop on textiles.
  • Zara/Inditex: Commitment to circular economy model in all phases of its production. Zara has also started rolling out in-store take-back schemes internationally to emulate the scheme of H&M.
  • C&A: About to launch their Fashion for Good initiative. 
  • Patagonia: One of the pioneers of trying to develop fibre-to-fibre recycling.

There are a number of other examples of R&D work going on to develop fibre-to-fibre recycling technologies, including research at universities in Sweden, Finland and Australia. Also of note is Levi's commitment to source 100 per cent recycled cotton within eight years. While not strictly speaking an R&D project, the Marks & Spencer/Oxfam Shwopping scheme was the first well known example of an in-store take back scheme for used clothing in the UK.

What is the amount of textiles being recycled globally? Can you give us idea about post-consumer and pre-consumer waste?

About 4.2 million tonnes of clothing were traded throughout the world in 2014. Much of this was re-useable clothing. We don't have the detailed global figures that you are looking for, but you may find the UK Textile Market Situation Report 2016 of interest (http://bit.ly/2my4ezQ). It does not give details of how much actually ends up being recycled as opposed to re-used. However, as an approximation for the UK, we collect about 700,000 tonnes of used clothing each year. Of this, about 32 per cent is re-sold (through charity shops, boot fairs, on-line sales, jumble sales, etc). This is about 224,000 tonnes.

Of the remaining 476,000 tonnes, about 60-65 per cent is re-used (exported) and about 35 per cent goes for recycling with 1-2 per cent having to go for disposal. The quality of clothing in the UK differs a lot compared to other European countries and North America; so, trying to make a connection between how much is recycled in the UK with other countries has its drawbacks, and I would urge caution. 

We also do not have figures on how much recycling of pre-consumer waste is recycled and how this compares to recycling of post consumer waste. Although Levi's will no doubt have to rely substantially on pre-consumer waste if they are going to stand a chance of reaching their commitment to source 100 per cent recycled cotton fibres. 
Published on: 15/03/2017

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.

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