Post-Covid-19, what will become of the UK’s textile recycling industry, asks Suez’s sector manager, Trevor Roberts.
The used textile sector has been struggling for some time. Demand for used clothing has been falling as developing countries’ standard of living improves, and because of a lack of demand for material from flocking markets (shredded for insulation) in countries such as Pakistan. As a result, in the UK, there has been a consolidation of the main players, reduced prices and the end of kerbside collections.
A major question is: can the sector come back to life after shutdown? My sources tell me that the African market no longer wants material from Europe because of concerns over Covid-19 contamination. This, again, highlights that we are far too reliant on overseas exports.
In the UK, closure of the high-street charity sector will probably continue, as many of its volunteers are elderly and likely to be asked to self-isolate for longer. Only around 10 per cent of clothing donated is sold in store, with the vast majority sold on to major textile sorters. Loss of this stream will be a major concern for textile sorters/collectors.
Then there is the cost of disposal for material currently stuck in the supply chain. Collectors use stand trailers to bulk material they have collected from banks; material that has sat around for a period is disposed of because it gets damp and is no longer suitable for exporting. With clothing banks full, fly-tipping around banks has been prevalent. Many collectors are contractually responsible for clearing fly-tip and may be left with the clean-up costs.
Exporting clothing overseas only pushes the end-of-life problem somewhere else. There is a social value to this, however, as it can help create jobs and give societies’ poorest people access to low-cost clothing.
In the longer term, manufacturers, retailers and consumers need to become more circular. Using rPET (material made from shredding plastic bottles) to make a fleece jacket is a nice story, but it’s not truly circular. The fleece may end up at a UK sorting plant, and go into a container en route to Pakistan, to be used in insulation material for the automotive sector. At end of life, the car is shredded to recover metal, and non-metals – including fabric – are likely to end up as energy recovery or in landfill.
Exporting clothing overseas only pushes the end-of-life problem somewhere else. There is a social value to this, however, as it can help create jobs and give societies’ poorest people access to low-cost clothing. Also, if the clothing was donated in the UK via a charity shop or bank, then the UK charity will have made money on the back of that sale.
Debate around organic verses synthetic and semi-synthetic fabrics, measuring their social impact and their effect on the world’s valuable resources, must be considered carefully. Like the future of many materials, there is no clear path, but the first step is one of engagement. All parts of the value chain must be involved – from design, manufacturing and retail, to consumers – and the problem not just left to the waste industry.
During the current Covid-19 crisis, we must accept that more of our clothing will end up in landfill or energy recovery. This change to the recycling landscape must get compliance and ‘producer pays’ back on the government agenda. However, this needs to be carefully considered.
We have all watched with interest the rollout of Extended Producer responsibility (EPR) in France on clothing. As a result of a lack of reuse options in France, and elsewhere overseas, the EPR system is looking to absorb much more of the clothing into other materials, such as insulation products. The problem with these types of solutions is that they do not involve the complete supply chain enough, and do very little to encourage manufacturers to think more carefully about what happens to their goods at end of life.