Jun 15, 2023

Comment: How the UK is paving the way for a more circular fashion industry

Clothes are displayed on hangers in a Marks & Spencer shop in northwest London. M&S is a partner in the ACT UK project, which aims to automate textile waste sorting systems. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett Acquire Licensing Rights

August 17 - In Western countries we’re buying more clothes than ever and keeping them for less time. It has become a major problem and the numbers are scary. In the UK alone, we generate enough waste textiles every year to fill Wembley Stadium 17 times over. The waste can’t be reused – it's either worn out, damaged or of poor quality. An estimated 200,000 tonnes go to landfill or incineration. Even worse, less than 1% of that is turned from old textiles into new products.

In my view, the idea of relying on consumers to reduce massively their consumption of fashion is unrealistic. It’s part of the puzzle, but everyone needs clothes, and most of the population need clothes at an affordable price.

Instead, what we need to do is find ways to transform this waste into a new textile feedstock which can be used here in the UK, solving the waste issue and presenting a significant opportunity for the future of domestic manufacturing.

The technology already exists to turn waste back into fibre. What is needed is the right collection and sorting infrastructure to allow this waste to be captured and processed.

UKFT has been working closely with the British Fashion Council and other stakeholders to attract wide-ranging government support for a new 10-year Fashion Industry Sustainable Change Programme, focused on creating a world-leading circular fashion and textiles ecosystem in the UK.

As the first step, the government recently announced a 5 million pound Circular Fashion Programme, and – for the first time ever – this fund was created by a number of government agencies coming together to collaboratively support our sector: Innovate UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council.

Bags of clothing are manually sorted through at a recycling facility inStourbridge, Britain. REUTERS/Phil Noble Acquire Licensing Rights

The first to receive support is a 6 million pound project to develop and pilot a pioneering fully integrated, automated sorting and pre-processing plant for waste textiles, known as an ATSP.

The Autosort for Circular Textiles Demonstrator (ACT UK) is a two-year project 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, which can then be used as feedstock for existing and emerging recycling processes.

UKFT is proud to be leading the ACT UK project. We are one of a consortium of over 20 companies from recycling technology partners, textile collectors and sorters, academia, data specialists, manufacturers, industry associations and brands/retailers.

The current list of project partners includes Circle-8 Textile Ecosystems, IBM, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Pangaia, Reskinned, Salvation Army, Oxfam, Textile Recycling International, Shred Station, Worn Again Technologies, English Fine Cottons, Alex Begg, Camira, the Manufacturing Technology Centre, the University of Leeds, the University of Huddersfield, the Textile Recycling Association and WRAP. Since announcing the news, we have been inundated with requests to join the project.

The idea of that many partners working together sounds unlikely, but in truth, putting together the consortium was one of the simplest things I’ve ever done. On the face of it, many of the partners are competitors, but the size of the task in hand and the potential benefits are far greater than any one organisation can tackle alone. The industry is increasingly aware of the value of collaboration in a pre-competitive environment.

Manual sorting of used textiles has a number of limitations. It’s not possible to sort garments by fibre composition “by eye”, and the pre-processing (that’s the removal of buttons, zips and trims) and sizing steps required by textile recyclers haven’t been optimised and customised to meet individual specifications. No scaled process currently exists which brings all of this into one industrial process or facility.

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

Shredded textiles at Shred Station, one of the ACT UK project partners. Shred Station/Handout via REUTERS Acquire Licensing Rights

The project will bring together and advance key technology components including state-of-the-art optical scanning, robotics, AI, pre-processing 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 and globally.

We believe that by creating an ATSP, we will develop a solution that is efficient, cost-effective and paves the way for the UK to become an attractive home for other mechanical, chemical and biological recycling processes. If we provide a standardised feedstock that recycling companies can rely on, this will stimulate significant investment and growth.

The ATSP will provide feedstock into chemical, mechanical and biological recycling in a way that makes the economics of recycling work. To give you an idea of the economics of recycling currently: it costs textile sorters about 100 pounds a tonne to deal with non-recyclable textiles. By developing the ATSP, we estimate that the value of one tonne of NRTs will move from a cost of 100 pounds to a value of up to 1,000 pounds.

This project will be a demonstrator plant, but our ambition is to scale it rapidly to a point where it can process 50,000 tonnes of pre-sorted pre-processed textile waste a year. There are several consortia looking at building scaled recycling plants across the UK.

We estimate that in the UK alone there is already enough potential feedstock for seven ATSPs and a minimum of seven recycling plants.

Simply put, the ambition of the consortium is to change the concept of waste and specifically to turn non-recyclable textiles into a valuable resource.

Using the knowledge and innovation within our consortium, we’ll drive the transition from a linear textile sector to one that is fully circular. Creating the ATSP will cement the UK's position as a global leader in innovation and textiles circularity, creating new markets, new businesses, new jobs and new IP.

Not bad for a pile of old clothes, hey?

Adam Mansell is CEO of the UK Fashion & Textiles Association, which represents UK businessesfrom spinning, weaving and knitting right through to the catwalk. Adam has links to every partof the industry and chairs a number of UK and international organisations, heading up a variety oflarge-scale innovation projects.

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