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Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste - WR0201

Textile recycling economics are already fragile due to difficulties in end markets, both for clothing and for recycling grades (rags). These problems are forecast to intensify with the increased import penetration of very low cost Chinese-produced clothing at the cessation of the Multi-Fibre Agreement, which imposes quotas on developing country textile imports to the developed world. It will also impact on the overseas markets for second hand clothing, driving down quality and hence prices.

This proposal integrates an economic study of the used clothing recycling industry with market and technological development aimed at improving the markets for recycling grades of clothing, which are currently heavily loss-making. The economic study will look at both the existing policy framework and also at measures such as producer responsibility and how that could be implemented in the clothing sector.

The market development study will base itself on technical work already partly established at Leeds University. It will seek new applications for non-wovens manufactured by a novel route from recycling grades of clothing. Ultimately this should raise the average value of recycling grades of clothing, which are currently sold at around 10% of cost price.

Textiles make up around 2%-4% of the domestic waste stream collected as MSW, depending on availability of clothing collection schemes. These recycle about 170,000 tonnes of the one million tonnes of textile and clothing waste in the UK. However the economics of textile recycling are deteriorating because:

· The re-use proportion (60%) is declining due to competition from low cost Far Eastern imports in Africa, the traditional market for much collected clothing

· Although the recycling proportion (30%) is increasing, selling for flocking or shoddy generates only about 10% of collection costs i.e. there is a lack of value added markets for recycling grades of textiles

· Disposal costs of residues not suitable for recycling are increasing.In addition, the cessation of the Multi-Fibre Agreement, policed by the World Trade Organisation (WTO), is likely to increase net volumes of clothing purchased (and hence discarded) through reduction in the price of clothing. It will also increase the proportion of recycling rather than resale grades, which will further weaken collection economics (1), also depress the sales and margins of second hand clothes (2). All of these problems, which affect the charity shop and commercial textile recyclers, have been widely reported in the national and trade press e.g. (3), (4).

Collection economics have been driven by the value in textiles reused as clothing. This has subsidised the increasing losses on recycling and disposal. These trends are highly likely to result in an increase in the amount of textile waste in MSW and a reduction in the extent of textile recycling. This will occur a time when certain alternative technologies for BMW treatment are under demonstration e.g. autoclaving, anaerobic digestion, which have little impact on textiles. These are retained in the residues and adversely affect the economics of these technologies. Under current policy conditions, local authorities are incentivised to remove denser items from the waste stream (eg cardboard, glass) and the lighter textile stream is likely to remain untouched. The textiles area falls outside WRAP’s priority areas and they have no interest in supporting it (5).

Hence it is important to find the barriers to increasing textile recycling and to investigate the scope for policies, technology and market development to address them.

Very little academic literature exists on textile recycling. For example it is significant that the CIWEM library does not possess a single volume and a literature survey using other sources contributed very little. Most of the recent UK literature on clothing recycling has been generated in collaboration with the Salvation Army Trading Company (SATCo): for example, a mass balance study on textiles (6), a life cycle analysis on textile recycling (7) and a survey of the UK textile recycling industry and markets (8). An educational and document resource has also been developed at with funding from Biffaward and support from SATCo. Current work in progress includes an updated mass balance study in collaboration with Cambridge University Centre for Manufacturing where SATCo are acting as consultants. Our work does not aim to examine the environmental or life cycle aspects of textile recycling, which have been dealt with elsewhere (e.g. 7, 9).

Our starting point for the economic and policy analysis work will be based on updating and re-assessing the 2003 market study (8). This was essentially descriptive work and the work of Oakdene Hollins (OHL) and SATCo will be to update the study, to forecast forward the likely impacts of changes in clothing purchasing. They will address issues such as market failures, implications of the existing policy frameworks, and implications of the changing waste management responsibilities - for example the landfill allowance trading scheme (LATS) - on the economic incentives for keeping textiles out of the residuals waste stream. In this case, although the marginal cost of textile collection for the collecting authority is small, the cost to the disposal authority could be substantial. Hence one possible route is for the disposal authority to pay recycling credits to the collection authority if a suitable system can be established for textiles. Complicating factors include the proportion of the textiles that will be deemed to be biodegradable (BMW) and will undermine the LATS targets for the disposal authority. Also the grade of textile recovered and its suitability for resale or recycling will be determined by the collection method adopted. Additionally, any definitional changes on textiles or clothing as waste will impact on recycling tonnages and recycling credits. We will also consider and compare more radical policy options such as the introduction of producer responsibility measures, both market- and industry-based.

The main thrust of our technical and market development work will be to examine an alternative mechanical waste recycling approach of wide application that may enable the creation of new markets for recycling grades of textiles. The aim is to improve the economics of this growing segment of the market, where losses of around £200 per tonne are currently being made by collectors and sorters. This will be based around a patented approach developed partly under the DTI/EPSRC Waste Minimisation through Recycling, Re-use and Recovery (WMR3) programme by Leeds University Nonwovens Research Group (10). The drylaid recycling system, derived from a cellulose pulp web forming unit, consists of a box into which the mixed waste fibres are dispersed. These materials can be synthetic or natural in origin and are drawn through a screen onto a moving mesh to form a web. Key variables include the mechanical preparation of the waste feed, the design of the agitators, the design and geometry of the screen and the drawing of fibre from the screen to the mesh. Thereafter the non-woven web can be laminated, thermally bonded or mechanically bonded by fluid jets. The novelty lies in the ability to use up to 100% unsorted waste particles (including dust) of different polymer compositions and very short variable length fibres (below 5mm) that would usually be discarded as waste in traditional recycling systems. Thus the process is much more forgiving of fibre type, is extremely flexible and can potentially be used to make a wide variety of new products from waste materials not currently manufactured by the non-woven route. The technique improves upon the techniques currently used to manufacture nonwovens from recycled textiles. A variety of end markets already use fibre from recycled clothing (11). These include felt manufacture; shoddy for clothing and rugs, including carpet underlay; paper manufacture including wet strength sacks and banknote style papers; healthcare and surgical non-wovens such as incontinence products; household textiles such as mattress wadding, duvet and pillow fillings (for polyesters), dusters; agricultural markets such as felt seed blankets; geotextiles; automotive sound insulation; industrial wipers. It is the intention of the project to increase the potential of this area, to identify new uses, to produce samples and carry out market development work. This is intended to demonstrate that creation of new markets is possible using new technology even within a mature market such as clothing.
Economic Analysis and Policy Issues:

1. To identify how the existing policy framework will be applied to textile wastes diverted from recycling and reuse to MSW.
2. To identify market failures, if any.

3. To forecast the likely changes in textile waste arisings due to WTO changes.
4. To identify how much additional textile waste is likely to be redirected to MSW and whether this will continue after market adjustments.
5. To identify the cost implications for non-thermal MSW treatment technologies from an increase in textile wastes in residual MSW.
6. To identify the marginal increase in collection costs if textiles were to be included in various kerbside and bring collection systems.
7. To identify the impact on substitute collection systems (charity shops and bring systems) should local authorities start a new service of collecting textiles as part of a kerbside system.
8. To investigate economic instruments based on producer responsibility as alternative policy measures and to compare costs and outcomes to policy measures proposed based on the existing policy framework.T

echnical and Market Development

1. To produce non-woven materials from recycled clothing fibres using the technique developed at Leeds.
2. To identify six new markets for non-woven materials made from recycled clothing fibres with high added value.
3. To identify promising potential partners or customers within those markets.
4. To make samples (not optimised) for potential customers within these markets.
5. For potential customers to provide feedback on performance.
6. To prioritise markets and customers for detailed development work.
7. To identify methods of taking forward promising development work, including locating internal or external funding sources.
Project Documents
• Final Report : Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste   (247k)
• Final Report : Recycling of Low Grade Clothing Waste- Expanded Report   (2525k)
Time-Scale and Cost
From: 2005

To: 2007

Cost: £154,500
Contractor / Funded Organisations
Oakdene Hollins Ltd
incl. processing and reprocessing              
Economic Research              
Environmental Protection              
Market Development and Intervention              
Market Transformation              
Policy Analysis/Evaluation              
Sorting systems              
Sustainable Consumption and Production              
Systems for Resource Recovery              
Uncover market opportunities outside WRAP's remit              
Understanding resource flows              
Understanding socio-economic benefits of recycling              
Waste collection and handling systems              
Waste Management              
Fields of Study
Waste Management