Written evidence submitted by Cyndi Rhoades, CEO, Worn Again Technologies
Worn Again Technologies is a UK based innovation company which has developed a pioneering polymer recycling technology for clothing and textiles with a vision to eradicate textiles waste and to enable circularity for the global textiles industry.
I submit this enquiry with the intent to inform the UK government of an opportunity to take a real and tangible leadership position in driving forward a circular economy for the clothing and apparel industry.
1) The problem(s).
In 2015, over 55m tonnes of polyester and cotton went into making new textiles globally. Together, these two fibres represent over 80% of all fibres used in textiles production. Polyester, made from oil, takes up huge amounts of energy to produce. Cotton uses up vast amounts of land, water, pesticides and energy to grow and harvest. Demand for these two raw materials is expected to increase to 90m tonnes by 2030.
2) Meanwhile, over 50m tonnes of textiles go to landfill each year globally, meaning we’re throwing out almost as much as we make. In the UK, we’re responsible for sending around 700,000 tonnes of textiles to recycling centres, with about 300,000 tonnes being thrown away and/or incinerated every year.
3) Of what gets collected, about 50% is suitable to be sold as clothing locally or can be exported for resale. The other 50% ends up in ‘downcycled’ products – furniture stuffing, insulation, industrial wipers, etc. However once these textiles have been downcycled into lower value products, they too will end up in landfill after a second use.
4) Virtually no textile to textile recycling exists today. In fact, less than 1% non-rewearable textiles are turned back into new textiles. This is due to economic and technical limitations of current recycling methods, namely, the inability to separate dyes and other contaminants from the raw materials and the inability to separate blended fibres, which represent a large proportion of textiles.
5) In the UK, the business model for textile collectors – private companies and charities – has been based on profit margins from selling the 50% of collected clothing which is reusable and has a higher value. They barely break even on the other 50% lower value ‘downcycling’ grades, where in the markets which do exist are often oversaturated. Even if higher collection volumes of textiles were implemented today, there would be limited options for them.
6) The end of use textile industry is in clear need of solutions to deal with the growing volumes of low value, non-rewearable textiles. Furthermore, global brands are increasingly making public commitments to become 100% circular in the coming years. Fantastic news, but at present, an impossible feat given the limitations mentioned above. New solutions are needed.
7) What’s on the horizon
New solutions are coming and the UK has the chance to be at the forefront of this change if it prepares and acts now. There is a new wave of technologies in development which will enable existing textiles to provide the feedstock to make new textiles as part of a repeatable process. A truly circular model of production and consumption so long as textiles are collected at end of use.
8) These new recycling technologies will enable an exponential increase of textile to textile recycling from the current 1% and go a long way to solving the UK and the world’s plastic crisis and textile waste to landfill. One such innovation is being developed by our company, Worn Again Technologies. Our process has the ability to separate, decontaminate and extract polyester and cellulose (from cotton) from end of use textiles, to go back into global supply chains as new raw materials – with the same quality, and equally important, at the same price if not less than their virgin counterparts. (The process can also take in PET bottles & packaging as inputs.)
9) This type of game changing technology is in huge demand by global brands like H&M, M&S, Kering, Ikea, Nike, Adidas, many of whom are making global commitments to circular raw materials sourcing models.
10) The opportunity for the UK & recommendations
There is a real opportunity to spearhead a new and sustainable industrial revolution for the clothing and apparel industry with home grown technology and intellectual property created right here in the UK. The feedstock is here and the infrastructure for collection is in place. Of the textiles being collected today and those going to landfill in the UK, there are enough non-rewearable textiles suitable for our process to supply 6-8 large scale production plants in the UK alone, turning a multi-million pound cost into revenue and jobs.
11) The type of manufacturing we’re proposing is not about ‘old school’ factories with smoking chimneys and heavy pollution. It’s about a new era of sustainable production where raw materials in clothing and textiles can be recaptured and recirculated as part of a circular economic model. As a result of providing a home for this type of production, the UK would become a worldwide beacon demonstrating the ability to divert textiles waste from landfill and to turn waste into wealth, stimulating jobs through nationwide increased collection of textiles and plastics, high skilled engineering and economic growth through new industry and the global sales of PET and cellulose product sales. It would also simultaneously reduce the negative impacts of virgin resource production.
12) While the outputs from the process will, in the initial years, be shipped to the far east where the majority of clothing production takes place, having this type of production local to the UK will naturally spur a move towards reshoring other aspects of textile production from spinning to textile and garment manufacture, already a visible and growing trend in the industry today.
As we complete the scaling and optimisation phase of our developments, we are looking for regions to locate multiple plants. The UK is ideal in terms of plentiful feedstock, good infrastructure and logistics, and close to ports for shipping outputs to export markets.
14) However, what’s needed for new technologies like ours to choose the UK as a preferred production region are active measures by government to support favourable manufacturing conditions, including low cost industrial land and low cost renewable energy supply. Today, regions in the US and parts of Europe today are more favourable on these key priorities.
15) In addition to favourable manufacturing conditions, we would also like to see economic incentive schemes encouraging companies selling clothes in the UK to increase the use of recycled content in products, with a recognition that quality and price of recycled / circular materials may not be where they need to be yet, but with new technologies industrialising in the coming years, this will change.
16) We’d like to see a drive to support the ramp up of increased collection as new solutions cove to market to deal with the higher volumes. The economics for collecting feedstock will incentivise this, but government programmes to encourage this will help.
17) We recommend the messaging to consumers/citizens that once finished with them, all textiles should go to recycling banks, charities, etc. Nothing should be thrown away as all of it has a value. Existing textiles will provide the raw materials to make new textiles in the coming years. We need to keep them all in circulation and not let them end up in landfill.
18) And finally, we’d like to see a widespread campaign to attract a diversity of global investor types in this new generation of sustainable industrial manufacturing.