Sustainable textiles provide a ‘rags to riches’ story

Every industry is looking at ways of reducing waste and ours is of no exception. Here Tina Gleed takes a look at sustainable textiles and what’s happening in the industry to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to landfill.

UK hotels produce 289,700 tonnes of waste every year. That includes 79,000 tonnes of food waste, but a significant percentage is bed linens and towels which have become substandard. To put this into context, in the US alone it’s believed that 10 million tonnes of textile waste finds its way to landfill every year. In the UK, laundries send two per cent of linen to landfill, five per cent being incinerated, 45 per cent reused and 48 per cent being recycled.

It’s an issue with global significance and is part of a wave of worldwide initiatives to reduce, reuse and recycle, but also to refuse and repurpose. Unwanted food stuffs from the hospitality sector are increasingly donated to a growing range of redistribution initiatives, but are there similar schemes for linens that are no longer commercially viable?

In a previous issue of Laundry and Cleaning Today, we looked at the robust work underway to improve the ethical and sustainable sourcing of textiles. This time we go ‘under the covers’ to explore what happens to waste fabric items when they have served their useful purpose.

What happens to waste fabric?

With the right wording, hotel guests have proven to be allies in this important sustainability issue. Notices requesting that they reuse towels have been effective, not only in managing water and energy but also prolonging the lifespan of towels by reducing the number of wash cycles they go through.

After bed linens and towels have come to the end of their useful life in hotels, there are abundant homeless and social support projects who welcome donated linens. There are also a growing number of projects that repurpose bed linen and towels that are no longer useable in their current form.

For example, in the UK, Marriott is working with social enterprise SleepingBags to recycle textiles into items that find their way back to guest rooms as totes, bathrobes and other items. Similarly, Westin Hotels & Resorts supports Project Rise: ThreadForward, to make kids’ PJs from ‘ragouts’ (damaged or old sheets).

This shows that unusable linens from hotels can be used for something else, and that hotels are beginning to explore ways in which they can repurpose materials to create new in-room items.

Textile Recycling and a commitment to the preservation of the environment

This is something of great interest to leading hotel linen supplier Richard Haworth Ltd. Recently the company was awarded the ISO 14001 certification, the internationally recognised sign of a business’ commitment to the preservation of the environment.

Richard Haworth has always been at the forefront of innovative products and had previously introduced a table linen range made from recycled bottles and hopes to explore similar innovations. Jade Ainsworth is part of the compliance team at Richard Haworth in Manchester. Part of her role is researching ways to make best use of linens that are reaching the end of their lifecycle.

Ainsworth said: “We’re looking into textile recycling including donating cut-offs to local universities for textile degrees. This would be a particularly environmentally friendly option, as it involves not having to reprocess the linen. “I’m also looking at free collections from a company that recycles textiles by processing them back into a fibrous state, which in turn allows them to be used again for nonwovens, needle punch and various types of felts including carpet underlay.”

Hospitality companies truly passionate about increased sustainability – and accountability – also seek to find ways to help their guests seize the initiative at home too.

Ainsworth added: “There are textile recycling banks at local recycling centres and in the future, we will be adding details online for all our customers so they know where they can recycle their textiles.

“Our biggest push, however, is finding new community partners and sustainability enterprises who have found new ways to turn waste linens into fresh and usable products.”

It’s essential for a company to be transparent about their business practices and ensure they showcase their accreditations to instil faith and trust in a consumer; from quality control accreditations to marks of approval surrounding the international supply chain.

Rags to riches sustainable linen textiles

Vision Support Services offer MicroFresh

At Vision Support Services, we work closely with a range of sectors from retail to hospitality and we’re delighted to offer Micro-Fresh® on a select range of our products in order to promote and prolong the life of our linen.

Micro-Fresh® technology is a state-of-the-art treatment that can be applied to home furnishings to add freshness for a better sleep. It helps to reduce odours and promote freshness.

In fact, Micro-Fresh® is expertly developed and crafted in the UK, helps to maintain freshness over 99 per cent beyond 50 washes and is effective on items even when being washed at low temperatures.

Vision has also been involved and developed a number of initiatives aimed at sustainable textiles and ensuring minimum impact of the environment, at the same time.

For example, we installed a delivery of new product into the hotels of one of our customers. This was delivered through a laundry partner where, once new stocks had been delivered; old stocks were then collected and counted, item by item.

From there, we brought the old stock back to Vision’s dedicated warehouse where we palletised the products and sent these off to a number of dedicated charity initiatives around the country where they can be reused in a range of locations; from shelters to refugee accommodation.

The remaining stock is being donated to local charity, Nightsafe, which aims to support and provide holistic support to homeless people aged between 16-24 years old. The charity is set to feature in an upcoming episode of DIY SOS; renovating a rundown church in the town’s centre for the programme’s Children in Need special.

Residual stock has also been donated to Vision’s charity partner, Blackburn Youth Zone, for their enterprise initiatives and any funds that have been raised from the sales of the residual stock have been put towards further projects at the youth club.

Paul Hamilton, technical director at Regenex gives us the options for laundries:

“Many laundries condemn good linen to rag, way too early in its life cycle, simply because it is stained – be that with food, rust, fake tan, mildew or any other seemingly indelible mark.

“But things are changing, and an increasing number of commercial linen suppliers are now becoming much more careful with what they throw away. Many of them are turning to Regenex to get the most out of every item of stock.

“Using newly-developed, special ist stain removal techniques that work by opening fibres to release blemishes, Regenex can successfully save an average of 75 per cent of a hotel, hospital or restaurant’s very dirtiest linen.”

Hamilton adds that the same principles can apply from workwear to bedding, towels and tableware. Several companies are now also working with Regenex to re-dye anything that cannot be restored by cleaning – whether that is faded, buttercream napkins, or items that could be given a new life as housekeeping cloths, or coloured spa towels.

Firms enlisting Regenex’s help so far include Shortridge Laundry, which has sites in Workington, Darlington and Dumfries, Saif Linen in Bradford and Bates of London.

All three, serving high-end hotel and hospitality customers, describe themselves as being ‘impressed’ with results so far.

In Shortridge’s first test batches with Regenex, a total of 6,500 high-quality duvets, towels, pillowcases and napkins – which were on the brink of being binned – were successfully recovered, representing a 78.6 per cent success rate.

Bates of London has been working with Regenex for 12 months, saving 14 tonnes of linen in that time. John Kitchiner, general manager, said: “We’ve been very impressed with the service from Regenex in our first 12 months of working together. “Minimising waste, and making the most of resources, is very important to us. We are so pleased to see stained items – that would otherwise have gone to rag or landfill – revived and returned to stock.”

Saif Linen, meanwhile, benefited from a 70 per cent return rate on the heavily-soiled laundry it sent to Regenex. Of the 900kg processed, a total of 631kg was successfully treated to meet hotel-grade standards of cleanliness. Such results are justifying the company’s £500,000 of investment at its outset, which allowed processes to be developed and thoroughly – and independently – tested, before being brought to market. Now operations are gathering pace to meet new orders.

The benefit of being savvier at what is condemned, is dual. The first, of course, is a significant cost saving – particularly as Regenex does not charge for the processing of anything that cannot be salvaged.

The second, much greater gain, is environmental. Manufacturing a new 1kg polycotton bedsheet generates a carbon footprint of 8kg and requires 10,000 litres of water – the same amount that an average person would take 10 years to drink.

Paul Hamilton, left, and David Midgley of Regenex, the linen recovery specialists whose innovative techniques remove stains from condemned linen, breathing new life into fabrics that would otherwise be sent to rag.

Therefore, any action to reduce the production of new textiles must be seized upon. Regenex is delighted to have processed 400 tonnes of stained linen so far, returning three quarters of this material to stock – and representing a total saving of 1,200 tonnes of carbon and 30 million litres of water.

Aberdeen Laundry Services use a number of initiatives to extend the use of their linen. David Ashton told us: “As part of the NLG we undertake two test washes per year the results of which are analysed by LTC, care of Stuart Boyd.

“Our results show that we are achieving more than 200 wash cycles before failure. We are told it is not statistically possible to give accurate figures over this point.

“We then are collecting high value items which are stained to the point of end of life which are to go to Regenex for ‘rescue’. Up to 70 per cent can be brought back into our pool. “We have on occasions ragged stock to distribute as cleaning clothes for hotels but have stopped this process as it tends to encourage the hotel to use our pool linen as cleaning clothes. We do still sell rags to engineering companies. “Where we have stock that is still usable but lies outside our standard pools, we will pass this on to local charities.

“Beyond that we sell ruined stock to a third party repurposer but over the years this has become increasingly difficult to do and the price received has fallen markedly.”

TDS Commercial Laundry told us that they strive to prolong the life of the linen by working closely with their chemical company and making sure they don’t over dose and get as many marks out on the first wash. Adding: “TDS never sends linen to landfill. We work with a ragging company who collects linen that we can’t reclaim by rewashing. There are also a couple of charities and schools who use our old sheets for art projects.” They do also point out that, however hard they try to speak to clients to help them to understand what happens on site and to find ways to reduce damage to linen, they don’t always get the engagement that they’d like.

This is a very relevant topic from TSA’s perspective. Shyju Skariah, technical services manager at the TSA said: “We have been considering new scalable technologies that are currently available in the market – whether it be about opening new opportunities to reuse the EOL textiles or chemically stripping back the material to its original composition to reintroduce into manufacturing. Sending to landfill is the very last option for the textiles that have come to the end of its life and hence the very low five per cent in that category.

“We also need to highlight that these numbers are about the very end of life of the textiles that means that the linen or the garment have been in 100 per cent reuse many times over (approx. 150-200 cycles of washing) which has circurlar economy written all over it.”

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