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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.

Is any form of textile waste exported, or is it consumed locally?

As I said earlier, of all used clothing originating from the UK, about 32 per cent is sold in there itself.

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 (https://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. 

What percentage of retailers design collections using used garments?

I can't give a percentage, but in addition to Levi's committing to sourcing 100 per cent recycled cotton, H&M and Marks & Spencer have introduced ranges of clothing products using recycled fibres sourced from their in-store take-back schemes. As part of H&M's conscious range, they sell some denim products that are made of 20 per cent recycled cotton.

What is the most challenging part of textile recycling?

There are many challenges to overcome. 

First, reducing fibre lengths from the pulling process of mechanical recycling. This reduces the strength and quality of a fibre each time it is recycled. Currently, cotton can only be recycled back into an inferior cotton yarn through mechanical pulling. Chemical recycling of cotton and other cellulosic fibres is viable although organisations like Renewcell in Sweden and Worn Again in the UK are trying to address this.

Second, lack of homogeneity in the supply chain. Clothing is often made of up a variety of different products including blended textiles, threads, zips, buttons, different colour dyes, etc. This makes it very difficult to recycle garments back into a similar product. It is much easier to produce a polyester garment from recycled PET bottles than it is from recycled polyester garments. This is because it doesn't matter whether the PET bottle is a Coke, Pepsi, Fanta, Lilt or lemonade bottle. Once you take the label off it is a clear homogenous plastic PET bottle. The same cannot be said for polyester clothing.

Third, product specifications. Design specifications for many products require manufacturers to be able to provide detailed information about the contents of the products used in the manufacturing process. While these are certainly not insurmountable, it provides an excuse for manufacturers who are often already reluctant to source recycled products.

Fourth, compared to used clothing, recycling grades are of low value and low quantity. It is easier to turn in a profit by targeting used clothing grades and there is, therefore, a reluctance to target collection of recycling grades. 

What initiatives and events have been planned by the association to encourage recycling?

The following events have been planned: 
  • Copenhagen Fashion Summit -May 12, 2017
  • Sustainable Clothing Action Plan conference: London, June 2017; details to be confirmed (may need to contact WRAP to see if they are in a position to publicise this yet).
  • Sustainable Apparel Coalition: I believe they have a convention later this year in India.
  • Textile Recycling Conference: Lets Recycle.com in partnership with TRA; two such conferences have taken place in 2015 and 2016, and we will be looking to host another event later this year.
  • Plastic and Textiles Recycling Conference: Chalmers University, Gothenburg, Sweden. This two day conference (1 day dedicated to textiles) has taken place both in 2015 and 2016, and we hope this will continue.

There are so many different stakeholders working on various aspects of the fibre recycling throughout the world. In most cases, the conferences have a wider focus on sustainability in fashion and design, but I think that there is space to host a truly international conference which could just look at what is going on in the world of fibre and textile recycling.

Which apparel or home textile brands globally have made a change and used textile waste to make new merchandise?

Levi's, H&M, Zara, Patagonia, Marks & Spencer, and more.

Can recycled textile products be sold at affordable prices to compete with fast fashion brands?

Denim products containing at least 20 per cent recycled cotton are already in the market at comparable prices. It is inevitable that with all the R&D work that is going on that some of these new technologies and techniques will come to market and when they do, it will be a game changer and recycled content in garments and other textile products will be common place. It is just a matter of time.
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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