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Study Finds Few Incentives for Recyclers to Collect Used Textiles

Demand from overseas markets for used textiles collected in the United Kingdom has fallen, a study by the Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) found.

The British organization recently published its annual report on the state of the market for recovered textiles (which includes clothing and non-clothing such as carpets and mattresses) and discovered that the amount collected for re-use and recycling dropped by as much as 4 percent in 2015, following four years of growth.

Textile consumption, meanwhile, is on the rise: the UK bought about 1.7 million tons of textiles in 2014. More than a million of that was clothing, at a cost of 52.7 billion pounds ($76.4 billion) per household, or 5 percent of total spend.

WRAP also found that prices for recovered textiles have fallen since 2013 which, in addition to reduced demand, means there is little incentive for recyclers and exporters to collect used clothing and fabrics. The report showed that prices for textiles banks’ materials fell from a high of 450 pounds ($652) per ton in April 2013 to around 200 pounds ($290) per ton in mid-January 2016.

WRAP prices

The organization predicted this could lead to more clothing ending up in landfills or incinerators in future.

WRAP noted that while there are no consistent reporting requirements across the different routes of used-textile gathering in the UK, including local authority and in-store collections and donations directly to charity shops, it extrapolated data from the Charity Retail Association (CRA) and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) department and estimated that textile recovery peaked in 2014 at 650,000 tons before falling by about 4 percent last year.

According to data, the UK exports more than half of its recovered textiles, predominantly to sub-Saharan Africa, the European Union (mainly Poland and Hungary), Asia (typically Pakistan) and non-EU Eastern European countries (mostly Ukraine).

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With that being said, exports flattened in 2014 and then dropped last year due to trade declining with a number of countries, including Poland and Ukraine. WRAP suggested that as economy has improved in these places, the demand for used textiles has diminished.

Such challenges have highlighted the need for a wide range of sustainable end markets, WRAP said, including greater re-use in domestic and overseas markets as well as market development for recycling grades, including closed loop fiber-to-fiber recycling. The organization pinpointed the latter as the most viable end market, suggesting that, in the long run, it would increase the attractiveness of currently unattractive grades of used textiles.

“The used clothing industry is going through an extremely difficult period both here in the U.K. and globally…Yet consumption of new clothing is continuing to rise, with clothing prices still generally much lower than they used to be. Continuing downward pressure on prices for used clothing is inevitable for some time to come,” Alan Wheeler, director at Textile Recyclers Association, said. “The UK needs to take a longer, more strategic view on how to develop new markets which need to be less reliant on used clothing exports and consideration of how to finance these developments needs to be given a high priority.”