Background of issues in the textiles industry

Around 1.5 – 2 million tonnes of clothing and textiles waste are discarded every year in the UK  . Of this only 16% (300,000 tonnes) is currently reused or recycled with 63% (1.2 million tonnes) ending up in landfill.  

Tackling clothing and textile waste is a major challenge. Not only are greenhouse gases released as the fabrics decompose, but valuable resources which could have otherwise been reused or recycled are wasted.

So what does this mean for the corporatewear sector? Well, it is estimated that the industry places a staggering 11,000 tonnes of new garments onto the UK market each year. With reuse rates at just 5%, it’s easy to see that that a huge volume of corporatewear is currently going to waste in holes in the ground.

carbon emissions

Reusing rather than landfilling clothing provides a range of sustainability benefits. For example, every tonne of discarded textiles reused saves 20 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere. If we could achieve a 100% reuse rate for corporatewear this would save enough CO2 to fill the new Wembley stadium 100 times! The social and economic benefits include supporting the UK textile recycling industry – which has declined in recent years due to imports of inexpensive clothing and a move to overseas sorting. Reusing or recycling corporatewear creates jobs and boosts local economies.

The issue of clothing and textile waste is now firmly on the UK Government’s agenda and maximising reuse and recycling forms one aspect of the Defra Sustainable Clothing Roadmap.   Combined with a growing interest in sustainability from within the corporatewear sector, the Centre for Remanufacturing and Reuse (CRR) recently launched a project to determine realistic and practical ways to overcome 5 key barriers to corporatewear reuse:

  • Garment construction
  • Fibre composition
  • Garment labelling
  • EOL (end-of-life) management
  • Taxation.

Current evidence indicates that textile waste is currently the fastest growing stream in household waste and it’s forecast to continue increasing while sales of new clothing rise.  

sorting textiles - photo courtesy LMB

Most clothes that are recovered are exported and resold for reuse overseas, with Africa being the main market. The remainder is ‘downcycled’ (in the UK or overseas) into lower value products (such as mattresses, wipes, carpet underlay and automotive components), sold as ‘niche’ clothing, or resold for reuse by charities. Around 250,000 tonnes a year   goes into the charity sector, but only about a quarter of this is directly resold to the public: the rest is passed to textile reprocessors, or sent overseas.

Little of the UK’s clothing waste goes into mainstream ‘upcycling’ (remanufacture of waste clothing into more clothing products in a ‘closed loop’ process), unless by proprietary schemes (e.g. Patagonia polyester recycling using the Teijin recovery process). Research suggests there is unexploited potential in this area.

In the medium term, the volume of waste clothing is expected to increase. Any ideas which will help increase the amount of clothing waste going for reuse or recycling into new products - either by downcycling or upcycling – will have both environmental and market benefits. 01296 337 165