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Inside Salvation Army and Project Plan B’s polyester workwear recycling revolution

The UK’s largest used textile collection organisation and a sustainable corporate workwear producer have unveiled a major leap forward in polyester recycling. Now they need business and public sector employers to commit non-reusable clothes to the cause.

Bernie Thomas is no stranger to reuse and waste reduction. As Circular Economy and Sustainability Manager at the Salvation Army Trading Company Ltd., SATCoL, he plays a pivotal role increasing the firm’s impact. Recently, that has meant fine-tuning a world first, known as Project Re:claim.

The issue of what to do with polyester once it has reached the end of its life is a big one. Environment Journal has previously explored this topic in an industry-written feature that described the material as a ‘stealth plastic’. As of 2021, we were producing 60.53million polyester fibres globally, a huge proportion of which wind up in clothing. However, it has proven difficult to develop a way of reusing those fibres once textiles are worn out, and just 15% of polyester itself is made from recycled materials.

Recycled feedstocks for this tend to come from other plastic materials, and until now it was unviable to use old polyester fabrics for this purpose. Now, by applying the same process with which plastic bottles are recycled, SATCoL and its partner, sustainable workwear organisation Project Plan B, believe they finally have a polyester solution capable not just of bringing used polyester textiles into the circular economy, but also turning those fabrics back into raw polyester pellets, which can then be used to produce new clothing. 

A world first, by addressing the problem in this way the organisations claim around an eight-fold reduction in carbon footprint compared with producing ‘virgin polyester pellets’. Combined with the UK’s only automated textile sorting facility, which Plan B and SATCoL began operating earlier this year, it is hoped 2,500 tonnes of polyester will be recycled in the next 12 months, rising to 5,000 tonnes in year two. 

‘There is no market solution, there is no technology available to recycle polyester back into polyester at present. And so that’s a gap of around 60million tonnes worth of polyester, and that is growing obviously. It’s a problem because it’s a finite resource, and even the recycled content that you see in polyester clothing is derived from other things. For example, plastic bottles,’ he explains. ‘Project Reclaim is different. It’s a thermo-mechanical process, melting the clothing and textiles, filtering impurities from them and extruding the basic building blocks of polyester production – pellets.

‘It’s a relatively simple process that has been used for recycling plastic bottles, but hasn’t before been adapted for textiles like polyester. So that’s what we’re doing with funding by the Department of Net Zero,’ Thomas continues. ‘We are testing whether this technology, which is tried and tested for bottle polyester recycling, could work for different types of textiles such as work wear and clothing. Fundamentally, we’re trying out a relatively simply innovation in new contexts, and the innovation is much lower impact than alternatives, which are resource-heavy, high-impact, sophisticated chemical processes.’

Thomas is quick to point out delays in the delivery of equipment mean he can’t comment on how the first site in the UK to use this technology is performing. But now Project Reclaim is live the biggest challenge is signing up enough employers to ensure there are used polyester clothing items available. SATCoL and Plan B want to hear from all organisations that could help bolster this supply, but particularly those interested in reintroducing the recycled product back into their own supply chains. 

‘We want samples to test whether what we are sent can be processed. We also want to develop collaborations, partnerships with organisations that want to see the materials this process produces reused, remanufactured and recycled back into their own products,’ says Thomas. ‘Alongside this, we are also working with an organisation called Innovate UK. Part of that involves investigating whether we can ask the public to provide us non-re-wearable clothing and collect those from the public, rather than those items being thrown into residual waste, so the public will become increasingly engaged in this and asked to recycle more of their post-consumer clothing.’

More on polyester and workwear:

Manufacturer Climate Action Program launches for textile and apparel industry

Polyester: The stealth plastic we can no longer depend on

Polyester to be given a second life in new Salvation Army project

 

Images: SATCoL

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