Traid off: What happens to your clothes when you recycle them?

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With 300,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill in the UK each year, it's never been more important to recycle your clothes. Hannah Donald heads to a warehouse in West London to find out what happens beyond the clothing banks.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 4 November 2018

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An inconceivable 300,000 tonnes of unwanted clothing ends up in the UK's landfill each year, contributing to the fashion industry having the fourth biggest environmental impact after housing, transport and food. 

Almost a quarter (23%) of Londoners’ clothes are unworn, according to new research from UK clothes reuse charity, TRAID

The study finds that Londoners own an average of 76 items of clothing, but 18 of these are lurking in wardrobes and never worn – most commonly because they no longer fit.

The total amount of unworn clothes owned by Londoners equates to 123 million items, or 333,000 tonnes of CO2e - enough to power 50,000 homes for a whole year. It would take the entire population of London 15 years to drink the water footprint of London’s unworn clothes.

In order to avoid our unwanted clothes from ending up in landfill we can give them a new lease of life by passing them on to charity to be reused or recycled. I wanted to find out what happens to them then, what happens to clothes when you recycle them? I went along to the TRAID warehouse, based in West London, to find out. 

Traid Recycled Clothing Rita Platts

TRAID's 23% campaign is calling on Londoners to put 123 million items of unworn clothes back into use

Rita Platts

TRAID want you to pass on your unwanted clothes, and has launched its 23% campaign to encourage us to do just that. As well as reducing your carbon, water and waste footprint, you’ll also be supporting the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goal 12 to ensure more sustainable consumption and production. 

According to Mary Creagh MP, Chair of Parliament's Environmental Audit Committee: “The way we design, make and discard clothes has a huge impact on the environment. TRAID's 23% campaign calls on Londoners to put 123 million items of unworn clothes back into use. Initiatives like this one help everyone to recycle their clothes, and to understand why that matters.” 

TRAID’s Head of Communications, Leigh Mcalea, gave me the grand tour.

Leigh explained: “Here at TRAID’s warehouse, where we sort thousands of tonnes of donations every year, we see the unvarnished truth of consumption. 

We see the explosion of fast fashion brands, clothes that are barely worn or still sporting the price tag and low quality brands that are made to be disposable. Our solution is to sort these clothes for reuse and resale in our charity shops. Extending the life of our clothes, and sourcing more of our clothes second-hand, is one of the most environmentally beneficial things we can do to shrink the environmental impact of fashion. 

Passing clothes on to TRAID also raises funds, which we commit to global projects benefiting the people and places making our clothes including training thousands of cotton farmers to stop using hazardous pesticides and grow organic. It’s a beautiful circle linking more sustainable consumption with more sustainable production.”

Traid Recycled Clothing Kit Oates
“Sourcing more of our clothes second-hand, is one of the most environmentally beneficial things we can do to shrink the environmental impact of fashion”

What happens to recycled clothes?

Clothes are collected from TRAID textile banks across the UK and through its convenient free home collection service. On arrival at the warehouse the collected clothes are loaded onto trolleys, and then weighed, so that TRAID know exactly how much tonnage its diverting from landfill and incineration on an annual basis – it is currently an impressive 3,000 tonnes per year.

Next, the clothes are put onto a conveyor belt where they are hand sorted. At the start of the belt I met Laura, manager of the TRAID Camden shop, who was busy getting first choice of the clothes coming down the belt to pick for the shop. The other sorters were picking and choosing for particular shops, as well as putting the clothes into categories such as children’s clothes, out of season, sari’s, linen, etc. 

By sorting through the clothes in this way, TRAID are able to edit and choose items based on what they know will sell in different areas and appeal to different communities, as well as what’s in season (out of season stock is stored and saved for when it’s back in season), making the reuse and resale process much more efficient. 

This means that the majority of items in a TRAID shop have been carefully curated at the warehouse with the customer in mind, and new stock landing weekly, making their charity shops seem much more like a regular retail destination, allowing them to compete with much bigger high street fashion retailers. 

As an offshoot of this efficient sorting stream, sometimes other organisations such as film companies will get in touch looking for certain clothing which can be sorted specifically for them to use – they’ve even sorted clothing for a Bond film. They also have partnerships with some retailers who give them faulty items, samples, customer returns and discontinued stock, which are still in good enough condition to be re-sold in the TRAID shops, and would otherwise have ended up being sent to landfill or incinerated.

"Here at TRAID’s warehouse, where we sort thousands of tonnes of donations every year, we see the unvarnished truth of consumption"

Everything that comes into the TRAID warehouse goes down this belt, with the aim to reuse as much as possible in their shops to keep the goods in the UK. However, not everything can go to the shop, sometimes because of poor condition, or because there may be an excess of a certain type of clothing such as school uniforms, or a pallet full of shoes that are brand new but have the buckles ripped off of them. 

For these items, TRAID have created another reuse and recycle stream by selling them by the weight to wholesalers, who use the goods for various different markets. This also creates added revenue for the charity, which in turn allows it to support more global sustainable fashion projects. However, when items are recycled in this way they are often downgraded into something that will eventually end up back in the waste stream. A typical example of this is textiles being shredded and then used for car seat stuffing, which is less desirable than if the items were to be reused. Sadly, some of the items are in too bad a condition to even go to the wholesalers, and as a last resort 7% of the donations that come through the TRAID warehouse are sent to landfill - still an incredibly small proportion of what would have otherwise ended up as waste.

Overall, the TRAID warehouse is an impressive place which gives hope for a future where more and more people donate unwanted clothing, which can then be reused and recycled, meaning that less and less ends up in landfill. 

Andrea Speranza, Campaign Manager at TRAID, said: “Giving longer life to our clothes by passing them on avoids the purchase of new items, reducing the carbon, water and waste footprints of our clothes. Given the chance, Londoners care and are ready to take action – and we are here to help them.”  

You can find out how to donate your unwanted clothes to TRAID here, and read more about the global sustainable fashion projects supported by TRAID here.

Hannah is Communications Manager for Not My Style, Community Manager for Social Misfits Media, and a freelance writer. 

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