Why it’s time to relegate recycling

Here’s what Paul Hamilton, our technical director, wrote recently for Cleaning and Maintenance Magazine on latest the thinking regarding laundry stock and sustainability.

Laundry owners and managers used to ‘do their duty’ for the environment by recycling old textiles for rag, rather than sending them straight to landfill. 

But this attitude is no longer enough, as the business world in 2023 and beyond rightly demands ever-more stringent standards regarding the disposal of unwanted linen.

Forward-thinking players in the laundry sector are already moving away from recycling as a default for material that seems only fit for the bin — and this is good news when it is considered that global recycling markets are currently saturated, and capacity for processing can be hard to find. 

My prediction is many more firms will begin to follow suit. Put simply, it is time to relegate recycling. Do less of it. 

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, were they not stained or discoloured.

Recycling is rated only at only number 42 on a list of 82 possible actions to mitigate climate change, according to Project Drawdown. A simpler ranking system which also sees recycling as very mid-table is the Hierarchy of Waste Management, endorsed by the UK Government and others, and recognised as guidance for best practice.

Re-use is a far preferable concept. 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.

For commercial linen, this indicates that there are more environmentally-beneficial ways to deal with the estimated 2,000 tonnes of stock each year that fails to meet inspection in UK laundries – rather than throwing it into a receptacle marked ‘recycling’.

In the vast majority of cases, heavily marked or greying 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 across the sector.

Provided pieces are not ripped or torn, tough stains such as fake tan, food, rust, chemicals, or mildew, can be removed, and items returned to stock — to once again reach even the stringent requirements of high-end hospitality, for many more washes to come.

The benefits to the environment and the laundry business are huge. Developing a new thriftiness with every item saves both carbon and money, by cutting down on the need to purchase top-up stock.

Enlisting specialist help also minimises the limitations of in-house ‘kill or cure’ washing, and the extra costs associated with the practice. 

Most businesses are under increasing pressure to lower costs and ramp up environmental credentials and, as mentioned, re-use offers great new possibilities for both.

From a carbon reduction point of view, re-use lowers the need for new textiles, in line with the Hierarchy of Waste Management’s cautioning against unnecessary manufacture.

Re-use also cuts down on thirsty recycling processes which themselves require another round of water, and carbon emissions.

Keeping the same stock in circulation for much longer leads to a month-to-month reduction in outgoings – particularly welcome in these times of rising cost of cottons and polycottons and ongoing disruptions to supply chains.

And looking to the years ahead, firms with robust sustainability policies are the ones who will thrive and prosper.

We know that banks, other lenders, and investors, as well as potential commercial partners awarding contracts, are already prioritising organisations that are able to demonstrate a genuine desire to lower their carbon footprints.

So, across many sectors and materials, re-use is king, and commercial linen is no exception. Of course, waste cottons and polycottons will most likely make their way to the recycler at some point – but much, much later, after maximum use in their original form.

The laundry sector used to be quick to look to recycling for go-to solutions, and while this 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.

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