Tackling textiles in landfill

What should you do with old textiles?
27 April 2021

Interview with 

Sarah Gray, WRAP


rolled up fabric


Let’s turn to textiles: the curtains, carpets, and other soft furnishings, as well as the contents of your wardrobe. This is a very thirsty industry too. Every kilogram of cotton we make requires potentially 10s of thousands of litres of water! There’s also a hefty heavy carbon footprint: textiles make more emissions than international flights and maritime shipping. So what can be done to lighten the load? Well, Katie Haylor's been having a clear out...

Katie - I have just pulled most of this old carpet off my stairs. And some rather old lino off the floor in the kitchen. I've shampooed them, scrubbed them, but they are not fit for purpose anymore. And I don't really know what to do with them next. Can they be recycled? Are they destined for landfill? What do I do? Luckily I know an expert, Sarah Gray from the UK-based NGO WRAP - the waste and resources action programme.

Sarah - Best thing I think is probably to try to find somebody else who would be grateful to use it. If it's not usable again, some local councils do provide a collection service. But there are other things you could do, like chopping up the old carpet, for example, and using it perhaps as bedding for animals - maybe at the local animal rescue center. Something I enjoy doing is gardening and I use old carpet as a barrier for the weeds. It doesn't matter if it's synthetic, you can cut holes in it to plant through it. You can move it around when you want to clear another patch of weeds.

Katie - Great idea. I've been meaning to get my veggie bed ready for ages. And it sounds like more than enough textiles are already going to landfill.
Sarah - Households - we're throwing away perhaps about 300,000 tons of clothes every year. And about the same again, a bit more, of household textiles. So things like curtains, bed linen, towels, things like that. As much as 500,000 tons of those were thrown away the last time we counted in one year. Think about it like one ton of those textiles, you'd probably be able to fill a large, maybe a long wheel-based van. So 500,000 of those vans, and that's what we've thrown away in one year. It's a huge amount.

Katie - So what is the carbon footprint impact of diverting would-be landfill items and giving things another lease of life?

Sarah - So the effect of throwing things out - there is an impact associated with landfilling them. A small amount of the carbon footprint is to do with greenhouse gas emissions, especially methane coming from landfills. By reusing textiles of course we avoid that. But the other thing is that we're avoiding having to produce as much in the first place.

Katie - That's what to do with the old stuff. But when it comes to buying new home furnishings, how do you separate the green products from the greenwash?

Sarah - That is a really good question and greenwash has been around for a long time, but I think it's a real concern at the moment. What we really need to be able to do is to get good information on the products we're buying and be able to check that information, to see whether it's true. And that isn't that easy at the moment. One way that you can check is perhaps finding out a bit about the labels that appear on things by doing your own research, perhaps on the internet, to see what those labels mean. What are they actually offering to do by saying that something is "eco" in one way or another? And another is just looking on the company's website that is selling the items and seeing what their sustainability policies are. But at the moment, we're having to do quite a lot of work ourselves to get that kind of information. There's definitely room, I think, for clearer labeling and more information just being available with the product itself.

Katie - One option is to move away from using raw materials in the first place.

Sarah - The more that we can use old textiles and turn them back into textiles again when they're not usable anymore, is kind of the optimum way to recycle because you create a circle that can continue, it can go on and on. So potentially that is a really great way available to us there we avoid having to extract more raw materials, which is where we think the highest environmental impact comes from. If we can just keep things going in that continuous circle, then that really is where we think there's the greatest potential to make a difference in the long term.

It's a real challenge right now, and we need to invest a bit in new technology - sorting the stuff that's put out for collection to be able to separate the different fibre types. And then we need recycling technology to grow. So the amount of textile recycling going on at the moment, especially where that value is maintained in the product, there's hardly any of it! It's really in its infancy. And this is where we're looking to see more innovation and potentially it could get quite exciting over the next few years, as we see industry looking to respond to that challenge.

Katie - So I asked Sarah for her top green tips, if you are going to choose a new item.

Sarah - Do look at the label and look to see what information there is with that product, and be prepared to check it if you don't mind. Look to see what you can find out about the information provided with it. But also the main thing I would really say is choose something that you love, that you'll want to keep. By keeping things in use for longer, by not replacing too frequently, but choosing things that don't wear out and that you carry on loving as well, that's a really good way to have something more sustainable in your home. There is plenty of secondhand stuff available, and there are more ways that we can buy it than there used to be. So you can buy great things at your local charity shop, but you can also find lots of places online that you can buy as well now.


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