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Closing the clothing loop: pushing for a circular economy in fashion

Lynn Wilson, from the University of Glasgow, explores the best options to choose when a garment has reached the end of its useful life.

In our guide to the climate impact of clothing, we saw how important it was to reduce the need for new raw materials. Capturing and reusing what is already in circulation is vital.

Recycling and local collections 

Local clothing recycling options usually include:

  • Local charity shops
  • Recycling bins situated in car parks
  • Community recycling hubs
  • Boxes in retail outlets
  • Cash-for-clothes businesses

Some local authorities provide household kerbside textile collection services which are then passed onto textile recycling companies. Recent data collected by WRAP, in 2018, found that 30% of local authorities in the UK provide kerbside collections.

Northern Ireland provides the best service at 64% followed by Wales at 32% and England 30%. Scotland was the poorest performing at only 19% of local authorities. Information about collections are found on local authority recycling websites.

Is there anything that can't go in a recycling bin?

It is always good to check what the recycling bin says it accepts before you deposit anything. Recycling bins require you to put clothing in plastic bags to protect them. Small mammals and insects can find their way into the recycling bins, therefore it’s important to ensure clothing donations are protected to some degree.

If the deposit entrance of the recycling bin is kept open or textiles forced into it, rain can also leak into the bins. If our clothing donations become damp in the recycling bin, they need to be destroyed.

A good tip is to keep a bag hanging up in a dry cupboard for small, worn-out garments such as cotton socks and pants. Not all charity shops or bins accept these rag bags, but it is always worth asking. They can sell them to textile recycling companies to be recycled into industrial cleaning rags for heavy industry.

infographic: almost all textiles and clothes sent to landfill could be recycled

Avoiding other contamination

Before taking clothes to the recycling, it also makes sense to ensure they have the best chance of being resold in the UK or, at the very least, that they do not contaminate the rest of the recycling collection. It is important therefore to check that:

  • Garments are clean. Odours and dampness attach themselves to clean clothes and devalue the whole clothing consignment.
  • Natural fibres such as silk and woollens do not have small holes or tiny featherlike string attached which are signs of moth larvae. Hidden larvae will spread very quickly onto other garments. Consumers have experienced buying woollens from charity shops, finding several months later a moth infestation has eaten through expensive household carpets and upholstery.
  • If garments are new or in good condition, that there are no easy-to-fix defects such as missing a button or dropped hem that could be simply mended before donating.

What happens after recycling? 

According to the Charity Retail Association (2018) “Only 5% of clothing donated to charity shops is discarded as waste. Textiles that cannot be sold (in shops) are sold to textile recyclers: these goods will either be recycled as fabric or exported as garments for sale overseas.”

Approximately 80% of all donations go to overseas clients. The circulation of clothing is then lost in the UK.

Moreover, research is needed that explores the impact of clothing donations sold outside the UK to fully understand the economic impact on local clothing economies.

Fabric recycling processes

A closed-loop operates on the principle that all materials can be reused again and again for their intended purpose. This works better with some materials than with others.

Infographic: it would take 3 years to drink the water used to make one cotton tshirt

Natural fibre clothing

Cotton is a fibrous crop. Each time it is recycled the fibres reduce in strength and so mechanical processing can only be repeated two to three times, replacing a percentage of new cotton with recycled and reducing the impact of farming natural fibres.

Synthetic fibre clothing It is difficult to imagine life without waterproof jackets or high performance running leggings. 

The fact that we can be comfortable wearing garments that mould to our silhouette and enable flexibility in our movement relies on elastane and other synthetic chemicals built into the material. Over 63% of clothing worn is made from polyester, nylon and acrylic.

Advances in closed-loop technology mean that there is the potential to recycle all petrochemical-based clothing reducing the need for new fossil fuel materials.

Eco-Circle technology by Teijin was, for example, invented in 2002. It can create fibres from PET bottles and other polyester products. Patagonia launched the first recycled polyester fleece jacket in 2005.

There are grave concerns however, that oil-based clothing has contributed to micro-fibres in our oceans. Technologists have developed various solutions including the Cora Ball, a ball that you can pop into your washing machine that acts as a filter collecting at least some of the microfibres before they enter the wastewater.

Does someone else want my cast-off clothing?

The Charity Retail Association say, on their website, that the main thing to ask yourself before making a donation directly to a charity shop or in the recycling bin is “would someone else want this?”.

Hardly worn garments that feel too good for the recycling bin can obviously be collected as part of a clothes swap party or passed onto someone you know who will use it.

Many community organisations in the UK that support the reuse and repair of clothing promote their events on the Love Your Clothes (LYC) website. LYC was launched in 2014 and is managed by WRAP.

It acts as a resource portal to help consumers reuse, reduce and recycle and has valuable reports and learning resources that can be downloaded and shared.

In addition, non-profit organisations are emerging that collect new clothing with tags still on or nearly new to distribute to specific groups of people. Smartworks, for example, is a UK charity that provides new and nearly new work-orientated clothing for people trying to re-enter the job market who need support in sourcing smart interview clothing.

Alicas support women in Scotland who have fled from abusive relationships without any possessions by giving them a freshly wrapped box of essential new clothing that is bespoke to their size and requirements.

The clothing is sourced from public donations and ex-retail stock. They only accept new clothing to ensure that recipients retain a sense of dignity at a time of crisis and vulnerability.

Lynn Wilson originally trained as a textile designer and is a circular economy specialist. She is currently a PhD research student working on a project in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, the ESRC and Ethical Consumer.

Lynn will be running a workshop at the Ethical Consumer annual conference this October alongside the likes of Chris Warburton Brown (Research Director of the Permaculture Association). Get your ticket for the event here.

Credit for the featured image: The Ellen Macarthur Foundation.

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