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What happens to your old clothes when you recycle them?

Ever wondered what happens to old clothes once you put them in textiles banks? Chief Reporter Grace Witherden visited Wilcox – a textile recycling plant in Wolverhampton

Many people will leave old clothes, textiles, and shoes in banks at the tip in Stafferon Way without sparing a second thought where they end up.

The answer is Wolverhampton, to the Wilcox factory, which recycles textiles from the Royal Borough along with 37 other local authorities across the country.

On Monday I was invited for a tour with Kathryn Best, who is the marketing manager for recycling and waste in the Royal Borough.

Last November the council introduced a new kerbside collection for textiles and unwanted clothes to make it easier for residents to recycle.

All one has to do now is leave out the clothes in a bag marked ‘textiles’ on their collection day, and it is then picked up by Veolia (who is contracted by RBWM to collect waste) and driven 73 miles north.

After a two hour drive from ‘Tiser Towers we arrive at the factory, and meet Jill Nolan, who is the national sales manager at Wilcox.

The company, which has been established for more than 125 years, receives and recycles 208 tonnes of clothing a day, and they also have a media centre to sort DVDs, CDs and books.

“Nothing is wasted here” – says Jill and she’s not exaggerating. A total of 80 per cent will be exported to non EU countries, 5 per cent will be exported to countries within the EU and the rest will be turned into industrial handrags and the fibres will be used from everything remaining to create heat insulation boards.

Wilcox buy the textiles by the tonne and the profits are then split between Veolia and the Royal Borough.

“We pay less for the kerbside collections than the banks because it is always of a lower quality, as the public does not have to look anyone in the eye at the point of disposal so we get a lot of material which is useless both for re-wear and also for cutting into industrial handrags,” says Jill. 

“We have even received a dead cat and a dead dog, one shoe, I don’t know what they think we are going to do with one shoe.”

After the tonnes of clothes are unloaded they are separated, and damp clothing is left in another pile so it can go into a huge tumble dryer.

Workers stand in a line, separating usable clothes and dividing them up. There are piles of jeans, trousers, blouses, jackets and coats.

I’m told I need to ‘keep my wits about me’ in the sorting room as there is a lot going on. As clothes go through the sorting line, workers pull out fancy dress (sent to Czech Republic) and underwear (sent to Africa).

Clothes which can be resold are baled up and put on container ships and staff were hard at work sorting the bales.

The company employs 500 people and is open 24/7. The factory will only shut for one week at Christmas and one week at Easter to do essential maintenance.

“We always keep 300 tonnes of reserve stock, if we had a fire and lost of all our stock it means the workers would have something to do, and we wouldn’t have to send them home,” says Jill.

Unwearable items will then go through a metal detector, any buttons or sequins must be cut off and the remaining product will be turned into industrial handrags.

Textiles are not the only products the factory recycles. We pass a pile of toys off to Cambodia, and we walk to the media centre, which recycles DVDs and books.

Piles of books are manually sorted and anything with a barcode is put through a machine and scanned. If it meets a pricing criteria it will be put into the system and sold on Amazon under ‘Massive Books’. The company sells an average of 500 books a day and all items which don’t make the cut (like books without a barcode) are grinded down and used to make items like loo roll.

“Sometimes when I see items being unloaded, I think who would want to wear that, but then I see it come out the other end and it looks like it has a bit of life back in it. We do a good a job I think,” says Jill as we come to the end of our tour.

Yes, I agree.

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