Automated circular economy plant for waste textiles

waste textiles

UKFT is developing a fully-integrated and automated sorting and pre-processing plant for waste textiles from the fashion industry.

The Autosort for Circular Textiles Demonstrator (ACT UK) is a £4 million two-year project that will support the transition from uneconomic manual sorting of clothes and textiles that are not suitable for resale to highly-automated sorting and pre-processing, which can then be used as feedstock for existing and emerging recycling processes. The processing plant could eventually divert thousands of tonnes from landfill each year.

ACT UK brings together a consortium of recycling technologies, textile collectors/sorters, academia, manufacturers, industry associations, technologists and brands/retailers. It has been supported with funding from the Circular Fashion Programme supported by Innovate UK, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), all part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). 

“What happens to our textiles when we no longer need them is a growing problem that we cannot ignore,” Adam Mansell, CEO of UKFT, said. “With this ground-breaking project, we’re aiming to create a model to sort and prepare NRT for recycling in a way that’s never been done before, at scale. A national system of recycling plants could save 100,000s of tonnes of material from entering landfill. In turn, the system could generate huge volumes of material for use across the UK textile manufacturing sector.”

Textile industry circularity

Today over one million tonnes of used textiles are generated annually in the UK. Estimates suggest that a third of these are non-rewearable textiles (NRT) which are currently being lost to landfill/incineration or are being exported, to be sorted in lower cost labour regions.

Manual sorting of used textiles has its limitations. It is not possible to sort garments by fibre composition ‘by eye’ and pre-processing (button, zip and trim removal) and sizing steps required by textile recyclers haven’t been optimised and customised to meet their individual specifications. No scaled process currently exists which brings all of this into one industrial process or facility.

ACT UK will build on sorting approaches that are currently coming to market in countries such as the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden. The UK approach will innovate, combine and advance existing and new supporting technologies to overcome current barriers to materials circularity.

The project will bring together and advance key technology components including state of the art optical scanning, robotics, AI, pre-processing (buttons, zips, trim removal) and size reduction equipment – all under one roof. It will create a world-class blueprint that integrates the latest technologies and can be deployed across the UK.

With close involvement of Circle-8 Textile Ecosystems, the project partners are IBM, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Pangaia, New Look, Reskinned, Salvation Army, Oxfam, Textile Recycling International, Shred Station, Worn Again Technologies, English Fine Cottons, Alex Begg, Camira, Manufacturing Technology Centre, University of Leeds, University of Huddersfield, Textile Recycling Association and WRAP. 

Related sustainability projects

The ACT UK project to reduce waste textiles is closely links to other sustainability projects that UKFT is involved in.

The future UK textile manufacturing industry needs data, infrastructure and supporting policies to drive circularity. Data will build business cases and inform regulations such as an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme, which will then drive infrastructure and capital investment into the industry, creating commercially viable opportunities for the UK industry.

The new Circular Fashion Innovation Network (part of the Institute for Positive Fashion) in partnership with the British Fashion Council (BFC) and is also part of the UKRI Circular Fashion Programme, which will support and guide the creation of a circular fashion ecosystem in the UK

The Digital Supply Chain Hub for Textiles that will improve visibility of data flows in waste textiles, which will be critical to understanding flows of textiles through the ATSP

The sandbox development of an industry-led Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme for textiles

UKFT is participating in the Digital Supply Chain Hub Testbed for Textiles project, which will address the issue of the approximately one million tonnes of used textiles which are created in the UK every year.

The UK is moving to redirect more than 400,000 tonnes of low value, non-reusable textiles from landfill into UK-based textile recycling plants and enabling retailers, collectors, sorters, recyclers and manufacturers to understand and report on used textile flows.

UKFT is informing legislation, supporting commercial and business case planning and the viability of fibre recycling infrastructure in the UK. Through this work UKFT hopes to bring significant opportunity for transition to sustainable practices: creating opportunities to increase value and margins and achieving meaningful growth in the onshoring of manufacturing.

“Sustainable manufacturing and recycling infrastructure will be key drivers in the move to a circular fashion ecosystem in the UK,” Mansell said. “We’re excited to support our industry to connect, collaborate and share experiences to build the most resilient, sustainable and competitive sector for future generations.”

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