Material world for textile reuse

In December, the government published its long-awaited Our Waste, Our Resources, a Strategy for England. While the commitment to tackle areas such as single-use plastics was expected, the strategy also included pledges to extend producer responsibility legislation to areas like textiles.

Textiles were listed as one of five priority materials which will undergo consultation with a view to introducing extended producer responsibility (EPR) and product standards by 2025. By 2022, the government hopes to have consulted on two of these five waste streams.

The document also calls for greater levels of reuse, to safeguard natural resources, reduce the impacts of waste and carbon, and to address social issues.

Textiles are given a major role in this new approach. Although 323,000 tonnes of clothing were sent to charity shops in 2016/17, a considerable portion still goes to landfill. According to the strategy, local authorities will face new targets and other changes in legislation designed to encourage reuse. Meanwhile, household waste recycling centres (HWRCs) and greater collaboration – especially with third sector organisations – will boost collections for clothing.

But is EPR for textiles as straight forward as generating greater volumes of material for reuse? And how much of a role are local authorities likely to play?

Valpak has dedicated significant resources to exploring the potential for textiles through reuse and recycling. In 2015, we worked with WRAP to look at non-clothing textiles; more recently, we have been working with a major retailer to assess the sustainability of its supply chains.

The proposal to expand EPR to cover textiles is complex and challenging. Although the UK has a thriving charity shop sector, the volume of material is dwarfed by the export clothing market; collecting larger quantities of clothing will almost certainly result in greater exports. UK-based sorting lines have dwindled to nothing as the migrant workers who manned them return home, and African countries such as Kenya and Rwanda have called for a ban on imported second hand clothing, in an attempt to safeguard their local economies.

In France, the EPR model involves a modulated fee based on size, while producers able to demonstrate durability in their products can claim back credit on their fees. However, the percentage recycled is lower than that taking place in the UK.

The big question is, how will the change affect local authorities? Most UK collections are undertaken by private sector companies. If this continues under EPR, the role of HWRCs – and councils – will be limited. However, if authorities were incentivised to implement textile collection at kerbside, the situation would be very different. In the near future, we can only be sure that EPR for textiles is coming; for the shape and detail of implementation, we will have to wait.

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