Recycled clothing goes on and on
Of every ton of textile waste generated annually within the EU, 70 per cent will consist of discarded garments. For what motivates the 3,000 million euros a year European textile reclamation business is not so much recycling as reuse.
In the developed world virtually every nation now acknowledges the ecological importance of recycling. But as far as the textile trade is concerned, true recycling, in the sense of breaking down fabrics into their basic components for re-use in textile production, is fast vanishing from the European scene.
The gradual switch from natural to manmade fibres which characterised the last half of the 20th century has been progressively eroding the traditional "shoddy" trade - the term shoddy being used in its technically correct, recycling sense, rather than as the layman's label describing inferior goods.
Only eight per cent of the four million tons of textile waste generated in the EU each year will find its way back into the textile business as re-usable raw material.
Six per cent of the total intake will immediately be filtered out as residue comprised of mainly metallic waste such as zips, buttons, buckles and other clothing accessories, or as fabric so badly soiled or damaged as to be unsuitable even for future use as industrial wipers.
Such residue currently finds its way to landfill, but despite the rising cost and limited availability of suitable disposal sites it is unlikely that this textile waste will be reduced in the foreseeable future. The percentage varies from nation to nation, and indeed from year to year depending on the fashion for particular garments and trimmings, but can be as high as ten per cent of the total textile waste intake.
Nine per cent will be deemed suitable for shredding, and goes to the furniture and automotive industries where it is used to create sofa and mattress fillings or is returned to textile finishers in the form of decorative "flocking" materials.
Seven per cent will be turned into industrial wipes to be used for cleaning machinery. But demand for wipes is diminishing steadily, particularly in Britain, alongside the demise of traditional heavy industry. And in those manufacturing industries which remain, both employers and employees prefer the convenience of purpose-made paper wipes sold by the roll.
Today, however, the bulk will be sold on directly as second-hand clothing.
For what motivates the 3,000 million euros a year European textile reclamation business is not so much recycling as reuse.
Of every ton of textile waste generated annually within the EU, 70 per cent will consist of garments discarded before, often long before, they become outworn. And as fashion cycles within the developing world move steadily faster, so the volumes of such garments entering the global waste disposal market increases.
Re-usable corporate clothing
One currently flourishing source of re-usable garments is corporate clothing, a sector estimated to be worth, in the UK alone, £450 million a year. As one leading UK textile recycler put it: "No financial institution, travel agency or similar commercial sector business which initially put its staff into uniform to improve its public image will then want to risk diminishing that image by having staff appear before customers in shabby uniforms.
"Meanwhile there is constant pressure from uniform wearers themselves to have workwear which is not just functional but reflects the latest fashion trends. The result is that many large concerns now totally redress their workforce as often as 18 months to two years, creating a huge pool of readily re-usable garments."
"Not every would-be textile recycler has the facilities to handle this trade," points out Lawrence Barry of Lawrence M Barry & Co, one of the UK pioneers of the re-usable corporate clothing trade. "And since 9/11 procedures have to be in place which would prevent potential terrorists gaining access to still recognisably police or even airline staff uniforms," Mr Barry says.
"Because efficient security systems are expensive both to set up and to maintain, corporate clothing recycling will probably remain a niche market within the main re-usable clothing trade, operable by only by a handful of major players."
Lawrence M Barry & Co handles general textile waste, as well as being particularly active in the niche market of corporate clothing disposal, and currently processes between l50 and l60 tons of used clothing a week. The resale of still usable garments now comprises 80 per of the company's business.
It also offers a service which sets up and arranges regular collections from street corner waste textile "banks" and in October 2002 launched a new website specifically to instruct school children in the correct use of such banks.
According to Elliot Cohen, president of the 37 member UK Textile Recycling Association, around half a dozen member companies would qualify as major players within the industry, although probably none are operating on the scale of Germany's FWF GmbH.
"They are generally reckoned to be Europe's largest," says Mr Cohen who is also chairman and managing director of another market leader I&G Cohen Ltd. "However even in green-minded Germany, the long term health of the textile reclamation business is under threat. It faces competition from nations with lower wage structures, putting the jobs of some 150,000 workers throughout EU tin jeopardy.
"The key to maximising profits on textile recycling lies in the efficient sorting and grading of the intake," Mr Cohen explains.
"Non re-usable materials - like odd shoes which, despite all our requests to the depositing public, still regularly find their way into street corner recycling containers - need to be weeded out early on in the process. And for accurate sorting there's still no substitute for hand labour which in present day western Europe is an expensive commodity," says Mr Cohen.
"As a result, many UK companies which were once active across the whole re-use and recycling spectrum now only really act as collection and shipping depots, with the sorting and further processing carried out at the destination point.
"The same socio-economic factors that have largely taken volume fabric and clothing production out of the hands of western European nations are now also beginning to impact in the field of fabric and clothing disposal," he comments.
Much of the reclamation work once carried out in western Europe has now shifted to the former eastern bloc nations. And Africa, especially west Africa, which was traditionally a major export market for ready sorted, re-usable clothing, is increasingly buying in unsorted stock and carrying out grading at the point of distribution.
"The idea of citizens from emergent nations accepting the cast-offs of their more affluent European neighbours is abhorrent to many well meaning westerners, and has often been cited as sounding the death knell of ethnic dress," says Lawrence Barry.
"What one has to remember, however, is that most so called ethnic dress developed to suit a lifestyle very different from that of the modern world - the lifestyle to which the majority of the world's citizens now aspire.
"21st century folk, wherever they make their homes, will probably want to wear business suits to the office and to relax in denim jeans. And if they can't afford to buy such garments at ex-factory prices - prices often artificially inflated by the duties imposed by their own governments - they will be very happy to buy at the 'penny in pound' prices at which second hand clothes are currently available.
"Second hand clothes from the affluent nations are also very often made from better fabrics and better constructed than comparable styles made locally and therefore represent better value for the consumer," he continues.
"As for national dress disappearing as a result of an influx of affordable re-usable garments - my experience is that this simply isn't happening," says Lawrence Barry. "Rather the effect is to give national/ethnic dress an as-never-before status symbol appeal.
Not everyone would agree with this rosy view of the value of second hand clothing to the economies of developing nations, although recent statistics issued by the Indonesian Textile Association do suggest an immense consumer appetite for affluent nation cast-offs.
The ITA claims that up to 50 per cent of all clothing sales in Indonesia are now of second hand goods. It believes a very large percentage arrive via grey market routes, being smuggled in from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan with China a key intermediary in the trade. Items also arrive more legitimately from US or EU sources.
The ITA believes that more than 1,500 container loads, or around 450 million second hand garments, are now entering Indonesia each year, swamping the market and forcing local producers out of business.
"Of our late l990s membership of 2,700 such enterprises nearly half have now been shut down by this unfair competition, and more could follow," says the Indonesian Textiles Association.
By Sonia Roberts.
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