Too Good an Opportunity to Miss

Too Good an Opportunity to Miss

Marcus Gover
is director of Closed Loop Economy at the Waste & ResourceS Action Programme (WRAP), UK

According to a recent WRAP report, we use 2.7 million tonnes of textiles every year in the UK. However, less than a third of this is currently recovered for reuse or recycling. The rest, around 1.4 million tonnes, is sent to landfill. But this is not necessary.

Clothing accounts for more than half the UK’s textile consumption. WRAP research shows we could prevent a third of the clothes we buy from ending up in landfill by making more use them through reuse and other routes. However, this is not just about clothing, but also about all the other household non-clothing textile items we discard, such as linens, bedding and items we might usefully describe as ‘leisure textiles’.

For many of these items there are opportunities for reuse, and when these options are exhausted, there are other routes for recycling.

So where are all these opportunities? The single greatest chance to increase recovery lies in reducing the amount of textiles (almost a million tonnes) that is currently disposed of as household waste. An established infrastructure exists for both reuse and recycling, yet in 2010 around £238 million worth of reusable or recyclable textiles was thrown out via kerbside residual collections.

Although it’s true that there is a good existing infrastructure for clothes, there is capacity for this to grow and for reprocessors to handle greater volumes of both clothing and other textiles.

Another significant opportunity lies in the bulky textile waste sector, particularly in the reuse and recycling of mattresses and carpets.

In 2010, we bought 169,000 tonnes of mattresses. Only 25,000 tonnes was recovered. Collection and recycling of materials from mattresses is challenging and contamination limits end markets for the materials, but some mattresses contain as much as 50% steel. With the market price of steel steadily rising, it’s an area of increasing interest and value. In 2010, for example, 84,500 tonnes of steel could have been recovered.

In contrast, the area of carpet recycling and recovery is one that that has seen considerable growth and there is further potential here. In 2007, just 0.5% carpets were recycled or reused, with an additional 4% sent for energy recovery. In 2010, this had risen to 3.5% reused or recycled and 6.5% incinerated. At the same time, several innovative end markets opened up. However, 378,000 tonnes of carpet were landfilled.

There is indeed a long way to travel on the route to increased textiles reuse and recycling, but there is also enormous potential to divert material from landfill, reduce disposal costs and create or develop new revenue streams. Surely results worth pursuing.