Interview with Alan Wheeler

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

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.

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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