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The Autosort for Circular Textiles Demonstrator (ACT UK) is a two-year project undertaken by UKFT that will support the transition from uneconomic manual sorting of clothes and textiles that are not suitable for resale to highly-automated sorting and pre-processing.

This sorted clothing can then be used as feedstock for existing and emerging recycling processes and it is hoped that it will eventually divert thousands of tonnes from landfill each year.

UKFT explains the project will bring together and advance key technology components including state-of-the-art optical scanning, robotics, AI, pre-processing (buttons, zips, trim removal) and size reduction equipment – all under one roof. It will create a world-class blueprint that integrates the latest technologies and can be deployed across the UK.

In line with this, ACT UK will build on sorting approaches that are currently coming to market in countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. The UK approach plans to innovate, combine and advance existing and new supporting technologies to overcome current barriers to materials circularity.

UKFT points out that today over one million tonnes of used textiles are generated annually in the UK.

Plus, it says: “Estimates suggest that a third of these are non-re-wearable textiles (NRT) which are currently being lost to landfill/incineration or are being exported, to be sorted in lower-cost labour regions.

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UKFT explains that manual sorting of used textiles has its limitations. It is not possible to sort garments by fibre composition ‘by eye’ and the pre-processing (button, zip and trim removal) and sizing required by textile recyclers haven’t been optimised and customised to meet their individual specifications.

In fact, it says no scaled process currently exists which brings all of this into one industrial process or facility.

Adam Mansell, CEO of UKFT adds: “What happens to our textiles when we no longer need them is a growing problem that we cannot ignore. With this ground-breaking project, we’re aiming to create a model to sort and prepare NRT for recycling in a way that’s never been done before, at scale. A national system of recycling plants could save 100,000s of tonnes of material from entering landfill. In turn, the system could generate huge volumes of material for use across the UK textile manufacturing sector.”

ACT UK brings together a consortium of recycling technologies, textile collectors/sorters, academia, manufacturers, industry associations, technologists and brands/retailers, supported by funding from Innovate UK. It is part of a broader Circular Fashion Programme supported by Innovate UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), all part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

With the close involvement of Circle-8 Textile Ecosystems, the project partners include IBM, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Pangaia, Reskinned, Salvation Army, Oxfam, Textile Recycling International, Shred Station, Worn Again Technologies, English Fine Cottons, Alex Begg, Camira, Manufacturing Technology Centre, University of Leeds, University of Huddersfield, Textile Recycling Association and WRAP.

UKFT says other partners are also expected to join the consortium.

UKFT believes the future of the UK textile manufacturing industry needs data, infrastructure and supporting policies to drive circularity. Data, UKFT says, will build business cases and inform regulations such as an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which will further drive infrastructure and capital investment into the industry, creating commercially viable opportunities.

This project closely links to other projects the UKFT is involved in:

  • The new Circular Fashion Innovation Network (part of the Institute for Positive Fashion), in partnership with the British Fashion Council (BFC) and is also part of the UKRI Circular Fashion Programme, which will support and guide the creation of a circular fashion ecosystem in the UK.
  • The Digital Supply Chain Hub for Textiles will improve the visibility of data flows in waste textiles, which will be critical to understanding flows of textiles through the ATSP.
  • The sandbox development of an industry-led Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles.

In being involved in these projects UKFT says it is informing legislation, supporting commercial and business case planning and the viability of fibre recycling infrastructure in the UK.

Through this work UKFT hopes to aid the transition to sustainable practices and create opportunities to increase value and margins as well as meaningful growth in the onshoring of manufacturing.

Earlier this week, UKFT and the British Fashion Council (BFC) said they are coming together as co-chairs of a new government-funded circular fashion programme, which aims to facilitate and lead the development of a circular fashion ecosystem within the UK.