Systems for recycling

DEFRA (the British Departement of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) has through its work with roadmaps for among others textiles publised a report on recycling and reuse. Here are some of their findings that can be useful for further work in this area.

Selling or swapping clothing appears to be of low significance in the studies they have looked at. However recent innovations, including internet mediated sale or exchange, are a growing area: selling clothes on eBay is mentioned in a number of studies, and in the clothing questionnaire survey referenced in Figure 6.3 above, the proportion of respondents under thirty years old selling on eBay rose to 5% compared to 2% for the sample as a whole. The main mechanisms are:
• Auction sites: eBay dominates this area, with around 2.14 m listings of clothing in April 2009. This compares to the next largest UK sites (51,000 clothing listings) and (7,000 clothing listings). eBay contains individuals selling their own clothes, traders in second hand clothes with electronic stores (e.g. for vintage clothes), and traders selling end of line or otherwise obtained new clothing.
• Swap and sale internet sites: This is a strongly growing segment: claims to be growing at 20% per month, with 32,000 listings in April 2009, mainly of women’s clothes and bags.
Approximately 75% of clothing is swapped and 25% is sold on this site. Most of the clothing is genuinely second hand (as opposed to other sites such as eBay which have end of line new clothing as well). Some items are listed on both its site and on eBay39. Other sites include (which claims 22,000 regular users and 33% growth in swaps within two months) and
• Swap events such as visaswap ( which is organised in collaboration with the charity TRAID, a major clothes collector and seller, and swishing parties organised by or inspired by the work of
sustainability public relations company Futerra ( Volumes swapped physically are very low in tonnage terms, for example the last visaswap event involved 2,151 items of clothing, or around 0.8
tonnes. However such events raise the public awareness and possibly the image of clothes swapping.
• Classified advertisements, which may be via the internet (e.g.,,, or via hard copy such as local newspapers, or free classified publications such as FridayAd (which is also online). Much of the clothes content of these sites appears to be end-of-line rather than used clothing i.e. they are similar to on-line market trading stalls.
• There are also car boot and garage sales, although anecdotally the clothes content of these tends to be low. Hybrid approaches are also evident: for example some charities will sell items on their eBay sites on behalf of individuals, retaining a percentage of the sale price. In addition, charities will list the better items (including vintage) on their own web sites or on eBay. Generally the lowering of advertising and transaction costs, made possible by the internet and innovations in low cost electronic payment, has made the sale, donation or exchange of even low-cost clothing possible via web sites. The increasing familiarity and trust of internet‐based facilitation means that this approach is likely to increase in popularity.

Charity shops and clothes-collecting
Charity shops are a major collection and sale point for clothing. The total number of charity shops in the UK is around 7,500. Almost all of these act as collectors of used clothing, although with, an increasing number of specialist shops, not all sell clothing. Charity shop operators also use textile banks and doorstep collection methods, which are discussed later. Thrift shops collecting and selling used school uniforms are also included in this category. Certain charity shops have introduced intermittent or permanent incentives
for the return of clothing. This includes “swap shops” where the public receives credits for items returned to a charity shop which can then be spent in the shop. A recent high profile scheme has been the issue of Marks and Spencer (M&S) vouchers by Oxfam for M&S clothing returned to their stores. This has approximately doubled the volume of M&S clothing handled by Oxfam, with no decrease in quality40. Cannibalisation of donations to other charity shops is likely, so that the figures cannot be simply extrapolated to estimate the scheme’s impact on recycling and reuse.

Collection of clothing in-store has been piloted by a number of retailers who wish to make a direct impact on improving the environmental effect of textiles, but not to any significant extent in the UK. Volumes are low (totals of a few tens of tonnes), and the collections are sometimes made on a campaign basis. Some of the schemes are associated with the chemical recycling of polyester garments back to polyester yarn by key polyester or nylon manufacturers. Examples include:
• Patagonia’s Common Threads Programme: garments manufactured using Teijin polyester are collected in-store or by mail for chemical recycling via Teijin’s ECOCIRCLE™ Programme at a factory in Japan. This scheme is also being expanded to some nylon products.
• Uniqlo: this Japanese retailer has operated two campaigns per year for the collection of Uniqlo clothes at its Japanese stores since 2006. An earlier trial achieved 92% reuse of clothing in developing countries.
• Takashimaya: a Japanese department store chain that has run once yearly return campaigns, resulting in an average return of 6.5 items per person, and a total of around 93,000 items, or 28 tonnes.
• Mountain Equipment Co‐op in Canada accepted clothing with greater than 90% polyester content from its own brand, Polartec, ECOCIRCLE™ or Patagonia garments.
• Boomerang in Canada sells a mixture of reused and new items. Items are returned to the shops for sorting and resale for which the seller receives a percentage of the final price. There are a number of independent shops with this business model in the UK, often orientated around children’s clothing.
Interestingly, the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) system was discontinued after a trial period. The reasons given for this were that: • even after a double sort (at the store and then at the distribution depot to which the clothes were returned), only 25% of the remaining clothes were accepted by the recycler, the rest being rejected due to impurities (e.g. elastane)
• many of the problems were due to identification labels that were missing or had become unreadable over time. For example in underlayer garments many people cut out the label for comfort reasons. Also, heat sublimated labels do not last sufficiently long. Hence MEC’s current strategy is to focus on reducing post‐industrial textile waste in its supply chain, whilst encouraging the use of more durable labels in order to revisit in‐store collection at a later date.

Rags containing high proportions of wool are desirable, due to applications such as mattress flocking where the natural flame-retardancy of wool removes the need for synthetic flame retardants. Combined with the reduction in the weight and availability of woollen clothing, these recycling grades have performed better than most.

On Scandinavia and France
At ultimate end-of-life, when the garment can no longer be utilised, the majority of the textiles are burned at power plants and harnessed as energy, with a small percentage going for reuse as material in lower value functions. This is widely adopted strategy in Scandinavian countries, although less preferable from a carbon impact perspective compared to recycling.

The French scheme for extended producer responsibility for textiles is worthy of note and examination. Articles L.541-10-3 and D.543-214 of the Environment Code allow for the establishment of an organisation, now named EcoTLC, whose responsibility is to encourage the further reuse, recycling and creation of value from used clothing, acting to support the collectors and sorters of textiles. Such support can be used for technological innovation, for market development or for cost reduction, but is aimed at meeting the reuse/recycling commitments of the contributors. It also supports the employment in sorting of difficult‐to‐employ people. The organisation will work with textile recyclers and local authorities to communicate the value of recycling textiles to the general public. The financial contributors to the scheme are any organisations that place onto the French market new clothing textile products, pairs of shoes or household linen aimed at private households. Taking a whole life cycle approach, reductions of contribution are possible for textile products that have ecolabels.

Asahi Kasei Fibers has launched a product called ECOSENSOR™. The material is made from polyester fibres chemically recovered from recycled polyester textiles and PET films and bottles. The process breaks down the polymers of the used polyester products to their two constituent monomers, and then separates, purifies and polymerizes the monomers to produce pure polyester polymer. Applications suggested include innerwear, outerwear, work uniforms, components, linings and sportswear.

It is clear that there is a need in the UK to continue investment in new technologies for increasing the value of recycled textiles. This not only includes advances in mechanical and chemical processing but also includes managing the recycling of fibre and textiles containing larger quantities of biodegradable and compostable materials entering the waste stream. Manufacturers of textiles and textile products using biodegradable and compostable fibre should be encouraged to gain certification and apply the appropriate mark to avoid confusion with the general public about what is meant by biodegradability and compostability. This would assist downstream or secondary recycling.