SPECIAL REPORT: Textile reuse and recycling

In early May 2024, the ISWA working group on recycling and waste minimisation met in Helsinki to examine a range of issues that prevent greater re-use and recycling of used textiles. The event was hosted by the consultancy company, Afry at their offices close to the airport at Vantaa. ISWA is the International Solid Waste Association of which the UK’s CIWM was a founding member.

The conference and following day’s study tour focussed on a wide range of issues and this report deals only with some of the main subjects covered, including:

  • The increasing global consumption of clothing items
  • A unique Finnish system for resale of usable fashion items
  • Exports of used clothing
  • The future potential for recycling textile fibres

The global impact of textile consumption

Opening the conference Andreas Bartl from the Technical University of Vienna presented on ‘Tying ourselves in knots – challenges of the EU’s plans for sustainable textiles’.  Globally in 2022 116m tonnes of textiles were produced, of which cotton accounted for 25% of the total.  In 2000 the tonnage of cotton used was similar but it then accounted for 50% of production.  The population globally has grown by over 2 billion in the intervening period and consumers are also purchasing greater numbers of clothing articles, partly as a result of the (ultra) fast fashion business model. One of the issues for the development of extended producer responsibility by the EU is that companies, such as the Chinese company Shein, sell directly to customers in the EU and UK.  How can they be brought within any EPR regulations, even for the packaging?

Evelien Dils a project manager from the Belgian consultancy VITO, who specialises on the circular economy showed how differences in definition of textiles throughout the EU as well as variations in household expenditures meant that there were variations of 16-25kg per capita in textile consumption. Garments, on average, were worn only seven times before discard and in the EU on average only 12% were separately collected with 50% reuse, 40% recycled and 10% waste from that small fraction. Also, from her research she noted that while on-line reuse was becoming more popular, the replacement rate was low with on average for every 2.6 pieces of clothing reused only 1 item of new clothing had been replaced.

Dilemmas over export of used clothing

There are an increasing number of problems associated with used clothing, especially with export to Third World countries, and getting to the truth of what has been put out by the media is becoming extremely difficult. David Roman of the British Heart Foundation in his presentation on clothing cascades said that each year the UK diverts 650,000 tonnes of used textiles according to WRAP. The BHF handles 12,000 tonnes of used textiles through its shops, of which 3% is immediately discarded as waste at the shops.  A third of the textiles are re-sold through its shops with the remainder sold to graders, of which they discard 5% as waste and 55% is graded with the remainder sold on ungraded.

He explained that following some problems within the UK and overseas, the main charities involved in re-used textiles formed TRUST, the Trader Recycling Universal Standard, administered by the Charity Retail Association, in 2018 to audit the sorters, graders and traders they were selling on their textiles to, with the first audits taking place in 2020. Around 2014 used textiles were being traded on by the BHF and other charities for around £600 per tonne but over the past two years prices have plummeted as international trade competition has become more intense and more countries have banned or restricted trade in used textiles.

In addition, charities have found that the providers of corporate donations of used clothing have become more exacting in their requirements. Some have required charities not to pass on their donated clothing and other textiles to certain countries, while others have requested that clothing should be passed to specific countries, often for CSR reasons.

The conference was fortunate to have a speaker, Alodia Kakujumiza, who could describe the position of used clothing, or mitumba in Swahili, from her experience of Tanzania.  She stated that very little of the used clothing imported into Dar es Salaam in containers loaded with 100kg bales of used clothing was ever discarded as waste.  Local traders tended to deal in specific types of clothing and any items found in bales that were not of the right specification were traded on to other dealers or passed on to villages in the rural hinterland where people were prepared to purchase even items of second-hand underwear cheaply.

A textile recycling-reuse display inside the Sokos store

In Kenya the mitumba trade provides employment opportunities which benefits 2 million traders and 6.4 million people, when one includes their households, in a country where 50% of the population lives below the poverty line, an income of less than $2.00 per day.  Mitumba retail trading offers a low financial entry employment opportunity and is often an employment opportunity for women.

So, what of the media images which have been shown, of heaps of waste textiles from several African countries? These items are not from used textile imports but from the discarded clothing of residents or the offcuts from workshops dedicated to refashioning used clothing or producing wiping cloths from suitable unusable textile items.

Pietro Luppi, a textile trader operating in Italy, looked at his experience from Mozambique and Mali.  He considered that there were some poor practices with bad quality material being placed in the centre of bales, some mis-sorting, such as shirts going into bales of women’s clothing, and poor notation of bales. He thought the worst problems came with material from the Netherlands where because EPR for textiles has already recently been introduced and there is a considerable amount of poorly sorted bales being generated as the system suffers from inadequate capacity, while Dubai is the best.  Overall, he considered that waste textiles imported amounted to around 20-40%.

Recycling issues

Re-use is obviously the ideal option for extending the life of used textiles but what happens when there is no further possibility of re-use? The recycling of textiles is clearly an option but the barriers to this opportunity seem to be getting ever greater even as the science and technological solutions for its recycling become more sophisticated.  This is partly in the context of the increasing amounts of non-natural fibres that are being added to textiles that are manufactured predominantly from natural fibres. While this is done to improve the wearability, and sometimes durability, of items, reprocessing these additional fibres is often difficult.

Lars Perrson, A business development manager with SYSAV, a municipality owned waste management company based in Malmo, Sweden showed that while they had near infra red  equipment which was capable of sorting grades of material to a high standard this was often not sufficiently high for the processors of those materials to recycle them.

Success, when it comes is often on an experimental or pilot basis. Emanuel Beschmeier, a PhD researcher at the TUV showed that it was possible to separate out elastane, commonly used to improve the stretchability of garments, and his work showed it could be removed by chemical processing by dissolving it in a non-hazardous solvent.

On the outskirts of Helsinki is Infinited Fiber, a pioneering company that is taking cotton-rich textiles for which there is no other re-use alternative and turning it into a new product, cellulose carbamate, trademarked as Infinna. The cotton feedstock is cut into 6mm pieces and chemically processed to generate a liquid cellulose which can then be wet spun into the new cellulose fibre. Polyester and elastane fibres are removed in the processing and colour is also removed.  At present, the company operates on two small shared sites and the production so far has been limited but, nevertheless, several brands have included the fibre in their products, albeit on short run premium garment ranges. Infinited Fiber has secured funding of €400m and a site for a 30,000 tonnes per annum facility in the by the Bay of Bothnia, in the north of Finland at Kemi, at a former Stora Enso paper mill with plenty of space and a skilled potential workforce available.

However, a similar company based in Sweden has recently gone under, so the support of brands which are willing to sponsor and promote the practical development of these recycled fibre companies will be essential over the coming 5 to 10 year time horizon in order to ensure a transition for successful utilisation of garments beyond the reuse cascade. Also, it has to recognised that the reprocessing of fibre in this way, and through a variety of other technological solutions, will only provide a very small proportion of the fibre feedstock required by the global garment manufacturing industry for the foreseeable future.

Emmy’s Empire

The following day’s study tour started with a visit to an on-line seller of used clothing, Emmy, which has its premises 60km west of Helsinki in two adjacent light industrial units.  Here from 1,500-2,000 batches of used clothing are received each week from consumers wishing to raise some money from their redundant high quality clothing items as well as shoes, bags, belts and designer eyewear. The business started a decade ago, well before most on-line buyer-seller systems specifically for used clothing had been set up.

Clients need to go on-line to register with Emmy and provide their bank account details for payment. They then bag their items and put their registration details both inside the bag and outside and deposit the bag at one of numerous drop off points in shopping centres throughout Helsinki and in other main towns. These include both main department stores in Helsinki: Stockmann and Sokos. These bags are the batches sent by road transport, mainly in roll cages to Emmy, generating 5-8,000 items each week.

A Sokos department store collection bin with roll cage inside

At the factory site the bags are opened, each item logged against the client’s details and assessed for product type, size and quality graded into 4 condition categories and a selling price designated by a team of 12 women, who act as the “eyes” of the customer. The items are then put on a manikin and photographed and put on-line for sale. If there are items which the team regard as unsalable these are set aside for charity and the seller is informed, and will have given prior consent to through the registration process. The products are then boxed sent across the tarmac to the storage warehouse, which has capacity for up to 100,000 items, and the dispatch department.  Items are on-line for up to 6 months with the price dropping each month before the item is then donated to Kierratys-keskus, a charity that has shop outlets in Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa.

In 2023 of 260,000 items received by Emmy 210,000 were sold on with clients getting a return of €6 for an item sold by Emmy for €20 and €80 for an item sold for €100. All sales used to be on-line with items despatched to customers from the unit.  However, more recently, some of the best quality items have been put up for sale though the two department stores:  Stockmann and Sokos, both of which have considerable floorspace set aside for these second-hand garments and accessories   Womenswear accounts for 90% of sales but children’s clothing and menswear offers and sales are creeping up slowly.

Kierratys-keskus operates more like the UK mainstream charities, with shop outlets collecting and selling a range of items, including the items donated by Emmy’s. Kierratys-kesus also offers customers the opportunity to purchase items on-line and to collect in store or be delivered. Recently it has started to find that shopping centres in Finland have begun to embrace the second-hand ethic and have offered new units to these organisations, albeit the rent charged is 90% of the commercial rate. Some shopping centres will have several of these shops co-located in an area and designated as a Second Hand Centre.

Author: Jeff Cooper

Jeff Cooper has been the President of ISWA, International Solid Waste Association and of the CIWM. He is a founder member of the ISWA Working Group on Recycling and Waste Minimisation


Share this article with others

Subscribe for free

Subscribe to receive our newsletters and to leave comments.

Back to top

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest waste and recycling news straight to your inbox.