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The Rupp Report: The Fight For Textile Waste

Jürg Rupp, Executive Editor

For decades, textile waste was just discarded in the trash. Only a few smart people recognized that textile waste or used clothing were more than just garbage. The legend says that the Warner Brothers, immigrants from Poland, and other Hollywood tycoons made their first fortunes in the rag business.

Some 25 years back, the textile industry realized that textile waste is a source of secondary raw material. In the 1990s, the author visited near Valencia, Spain, a Spanish recycler, Alcocertex, which used machinery from France-based Laroche S.A. to process more than 200 metric tons of textile waste per day! Even in those days, textile waste was already a sought-after material, and the recycler was buying textile waste from all over Europe, and even from overseas.

International Organization
After World War II, the international recycling industry realized the need for an organization that would support the needs of the growing recycling industry. For this reason, the Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) was founded in 1948 to be the first federation to promote the interests of the global recycling industry. The non-profit organization is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.

Reasons Why
In its mission statement, the BIR states that it "promotes materials recycling and facilitates free and fair trade of recyclables in a sustainable and competitive world economy." The organization "offers its members timely information about the international recycling markets, their legislative context and the latest technologies." Commodity divisions include ferrous metals, nonferrous metals, paper and textiles.

A Big Business
In the last 20 years or so, collecting textile waste has become big business, and one can read stories here and there about some illegal actions. BIR experts estimate that of all textiles collected, about half are reused and half are recycled. Sustainability is one of the key words today, and recycling is a truly sustainable business. As an example, the BIR calculates that if every one of the United Kingdom's 60 million citizens would buy one reclaimed woolen garment per year, 1,686 million liters of water and 480 metric tons of chemical dyestuffs on average would be saved. These are impressive numbers.

The other side of the recycling coin is the fact that some 50 percent of all discarded textiles are donated to charities. And, surprisingly or not, more than 60 percent of apparel recovered for second-hand use is exported. In many African countries, more than 80 percent of the people wear second-hand garments.

Illegal Actions
Because more than half of the used apparel is donated, illegal actions are occurring more and more. That's why the proliferation of questionable collection containers — mainly in Western Europe and the United States — has hurt the business of established recycling companies. Olaf Rintsch of Germany, president of the BIR Textiles Division, said in a recent roundtable meeting in Germany that "we need to do something about this," and that, furthermore, the market for originals is currently "very competitive."

The chase for raw material is provoking more illegal actions, with one result being that sorters have not been able to build a winter inventory. Various regions in the United States have seen 10- to 25-percent increases in prices of original second-hand material.

Furthermore, Alan Wheeler of the U.K.-based Textile Recycling Association noted, "Yields from collections are decreasing as both legal and illegal competition for collections increases and thefts continue."

The situation is so serious that the U.K.'s National Fraud Intelligence Bureau initiated a campaign nationwide to make law enforcement agencies aware of the seriousness of charity bag fraud. Also in France, industry representatives note that thefts from containers in that country are rising.

Environmentally Friendly
Recycling is not only an economical business, but also ecological: The BIR estimates that "with the re-use of recovered materials in manufacturing processes or in consumption cycles, there is a strong decrease of CO 2 [carbon dioxide] emissions compared to the production of virgin materials." The organization cites a 2008 University of Copenhagen study noting the environmental advantages resulting from the collection of used clothing. According to the study, for every kilogram (kg) of used apparel that is collected, the following reductions are realized: 3.6 kg of CO 2 emissions; 6,000 liters of water consumption; 0.3 kg of fertilizer use; and 0.2 kg of pesticide use.

The conclusion is easy: Don't waste your waste. It's worth real money, and reusing or recycling it is good for the environment.

November 1, 2011