Our technical director Paul Hamilton wrote this feature for Cleaning Matters magazine.
The catering and hospitality world is rightly demanding ever-more stringent standards regarding the disposal of unwanted textiles.
So, gone are the days when it was enough for the sector to ‘do its duty’ to the environment by recycling old linen for rag, rather than sending it straight to landfill.
Progressive operators in the industry are already moving away from recycling as a default for material that seems only fit for the bin.
This is good news when it is considered that global recycling markets are currently saturated, and capacity for processing can be hard to find.
Quite simply, it is time to relegate recycling. But, how and why? While recycling still has a place in the management of waste, it should not be a first choice solution for textiles that would still be fit for purpose, if they were not stained or discoloured.
Recycling is ranked only at only number 42 on a list of 82 possible actions to mitigate climate change, according to Project Drawdown. A simpler rating system which also sees recycling as a very mediocre solution is the Hierarchy of Waste Management, endorsed by the UK Government.
Re-use is the way forward
After not using the earth’s resources to manufacture something at all, re-using that item for as long as possible is the next best option.
In our recent white paper, we call this a straightforward no-brainer. The principle goes way beyond textiles to every resources that a business might have reason to use.
This because recycling, well meaning as it is, requires another process to move material to its next lifestage, and therefore more carbon and water to make this happen.
Re-use needs no such intervention and savvy business owners are now thinking hard about what they can keep and use for longer. The benefit to the environment is clear.
This logic can easily be applied to the cottons and polycottons that dress an average hotel room, holiday let, or dining hall.
Currently, it is estimated that only one in five pieces of commercial linen sees out its full service, meaning that the majority of this resource is being ragged too early, due to marks or tears.
There are environmentally better ways to deal with the estimated 1,000-plus tonnes that fail to meet inspection in UK laundries each year, rather than throwing them into receptacles marked ‘recycling’.
Times are changing and the catering and hospitality sector is seeing that every item counts. Off-white or heavily stained items that used to be condemned, can now be revived with specialist treatment to open fibres and remove discoloration.
Advancing technology has made this possible — and word is spreading fast.
A quiet evolution in saving money
As long as pieces are not torn or ripped, tough stains such as fake tan, food, rust or mildew, can be lifted, to once again reach the stringent cleanliness standards of the highest-end establishment, for many more washes to come.
Enlisting specialist help minimises in-house ‘kill or cure’ washing, and the extra costs associated with the practice – however, this is just one small aspect of the cost savings to be had.
The greater gains to be had from developing a new thriftiness with every item are in a reduction in the need to purchase top-up stock, which typically accounts for 10% of a hospitality laundry’s turnover.
At a time when most businesses are under increasing pressure to lower costs and ramp up environmental credentials, this is hard to ignore..
Put simply, keeping the same stock in circulation for much longer leads to a steady and sustainable fall in outgoings — which could be particularly welcome in the face of rising cost of cottons and polycottons, and ongoing disruptions to supply chains.
The catering and hospitality sector is also deeply concerned about rises in energy prices and the potentially disastrous effects they could have over the coming year and beyond..
Some businesses have already seen their fuel bills jump to five times their previous levels. Now the Textile Services Association is calling on the Government for continued action.
It is good news that, according to a TSA survey, 83% of commercial laundries have returned to or increased their pre-pandemic turnover, and 79% anticipated turnover to be on a similar trajectory in 2023.
However, maintaining and building upon this stability will take new approaches, innovation and careful, thrifty planning – nothing short of a quiet evolution of the way business is conducted.
The case for sustainability
World textile production generates more than 1 billion tonnes of carbon per year, and requires large quantities of agricultural land and water, sometimes in unsuitably arid regions.
Synthetic textiles, often involving plastic polymers, result in even greater emissions – typically twice the toll of cottons.
Depressingly, the waste charity WRAP estimates that demand for raw materials to produce textiles will triple by 2050 – a staggering statistic, especially given our collective focus on net zero ambitions.
Therefore, any measure to reduce the need for new linens to the hospitality industry is a very good thing.
There is also the toll of microplastics in the ocean to consider. A million tonnes of microplastics are hitting our seas every year, contributing to a toxic mass – involving those bottles and plastic bags that we see so much more of in the media – that is so dangerous to marine life.
A significant proportion of these particles emanate from laundry cycles, and it might seem to UK businesses needing to wash textiles, that there is little they can do to reduce their own impact on the oceans.
However, studies have shown that new fabrics shed the greatest amount of microplastics in their first few washes. Emissions decrease dramatically after five washes – so it is new linen that causes the literal bulk of this problem.
This provides us with yet another good reason to hang on to textiles for longer. Older, more well-worn items are associated with much lower levels of microplastics.
At the end of its life cycle, hospitality linen is inevitably heading for landfill or incineration, and the UK has a shameful textile waste problem that no catering or hospitality provider wants to make worse.
We correctly associate much of this mountain of waste material to fast fashion, and campaigners against this throwaway culture would simply say ‘don’t buy it in the first place’.
This straightforward edict can be applied to bedding, tableware, towels, workwear, and other items that continue to be ordered into laundry stocks, sometimes with a voracious regularity.
Thriving and prospering as a business
With all this in mind, it’s no wonder that the financial world is attempting to give a wide berth to any company or organisation that does not appear to be doing its very best to minimise its impact on the earth’s resources.
The ongoing success of mindless consumers is most definitely in the balance. Looking towards the end of the 2020s and beyond, firms with robust sustainability policies are the ones who will thrive and prosper.
Banks, other lenders, and investors — as well as potential commercial partners awarding contracts — are prioritising organisations that are lowering their carbon footprints.
Increasingly, funders do not want to support polluting firms and finance will be harder to come by for those who cannot easily show they are doing their utmost to word towards net zero ambitions.
Evidence of this sea change is all around. Lloyds Bank, for example, has recently announced it will not fund new oil or gas projects. Financial institutions that do not steer clear of non-environmental practices are increasingly being called out – such as current investigations into some lenders’ links with deforestation.
Whether a hotel or restaurant chain can access essential funds – or win game-changing contracts with other, environmentally-minded players – is beginning to rely more heavily on being able to provide evidence of sustainability considerations.
Thrift is the watchword in 2023 and beyond
It makes perfect, all-round sense that re-use is slowly but surely taking its rightful place in the management of many materials and working sectors. Commercial linen is no exception – indeed it is prime territory for applying this principle.
Simply loving linen longer, buying less and looking after stock, is absolutely the way forward. Thrift is the watchword of 2023 and beyond.
The wider textile industry knows this and is working hard to help facilitate a new and widespread movement of more careful management of such resources. WRAP’s Textiles 2030 initiative is one good example of such work, with its ambitions to develop and promote longer-lasting, more durable, and less resource-intensive fibres and fabrics.
Of course, waste material will most likely make its way to that aforementioned recycling bin at some point in its journey, but this will happen much, much later.
While recycling still has a place and a purpose, its relegation now feels very real.
Regenex’s free white paper, Loving linen longer: Five carbon and money saving reasons to get the most out of laundry stock, is available to download now.