Tony Clark is standing in the middle of a giant warehouse in Huddersfield, surrounded by conveyor belts dotted with endless amounts of clothes. The belts run from one end of the factory to another, swirling out from a large holding cage filled with bin bags.
Workers pore over jeans, sweaters and jumpsuits and separate them into bins. There are piles for every style imaginable - retro clothes, designer duds, gothic looks. The supply is endless - over 120 tonnes (15,000 bin bags) of clothing are delivered here every week.
Wastesaver, the factory whose floor resembles that of a thousand teenagers' bedrooms, is where all the clothes, shoes, and textiles that couldn't be sold in any of Oxfam's 700 shops across the UK end up. Clark is the manager, and today, he's going to tell me why I should recycle my bras.
UNRAVELLING THE THREAD
It doesn't occur to us to recycle our clothing; whether we've worn it to shreds or not at all, it's more likely than not that we'll bin it rather than donate it to charity. Clothing even comprises 3% of all the stuff we throw away.
But at least half of all of it can be reworn or reused, according to WasteOnline, and bras, interestingly enough, are some of the most valuable items to come out of our trash.
You might wonder who on Earth might want your old bras, much as I did. The answer is easy: Africans, says Clark.
"African buyers are looking for fashionable and colourful items and bras are that kind of item," he explains.
"They're very expensive to manufacture new and difficult to replicate with local textiles, so the market for them is just huge."
Phew - so at least that means that my slightly misshapen Calvin Klein bra won't be gracing the rails of my local Oxfam.
But what else ends up in Huddersfield?
"We can get anything, really," says Clark.
"Out of season stuff like anoraks that we don't have enough room to store, or Primark-type clothing that retails new at £3.99, so we can only sell it for £1 and not earn any profit - that comes through here a lot.
"And sometimes we get designer stuff too, Vivienne Westwood or Firetrap or Diesel jeans. We cherry-pick through it all and send the best stuff back to be resold in the UK markets, and the rest goes abroad."
The 22,000 square foot factory acts as a sort of trade intermediary between the UK and the rest of the world, where jeans, blouses, swimsuits, shorts and colourful 'summer' styles (including bras) are sold on to sub-Saharan Africa. 'Autumn/winter' styles of heavier trousers and jumpers go to Eastern Europe and the cheaper-priced items go to Asia or the Middle East.
Textile recycling originated in the Yorkshire Dales about 200 years ago, and these days Wastesaver, located in West Yorkshire, is helping to keep that tradition alive.
The clothes arrive, and leave, in black bin bags. It's like the ultimate recycler, with Clark acting as the ultimate trader.
So what if you don't donate to Oxfam, or you still think that old tracksuit really is best suited to the bin, rather than any charity? There's still a place for it to go - and it's not the dump.
Clothes are bulky - anyone who's ever tried to pack a suitcase can tell you that much. So how will throwing your clothes into a giant landfill help?
Recycling your textiles, rather than binning them, reduces the need for landfill space - which is already at a low. Plus, synthetic clothes don't decompose, whereas woollen garments do, but produce methane, a greenhouse gas, while doing so.
According to WasteOnline, if everyone in the UK bought one reclaimed woollen garment each year instead of buying new, it would save 371 million gallons of water and 480 tonnes of chemical dyes.
So how can you get recycling? Your options right now consist of putting textiles - usually household linens, shoes, clothing and (sometimes) handbags or purses - into clothes banks. You could also take them to your local charity shop or have them picked up for a jumble sale.
Charities like the Salvation Army [www.salvationarmy.org.uk], Scope [www.scope.org.uk], and Oxfam [www.oxfam.org.uk] use clothes bank schemes, with Scope and the Salvation Army also offering door-to-door collections.
Clothes are given to the homeless, sold in the charity shops or in developing countries in Africa, the Indian sub-continent and parts of Eastern Europe.
Nearly 70% of items put into clothing banks are reused as clothes, according to WasteOnline, and any unwearable items are sold to merchants to be shredded for fillers in car insulation, roofing felts, loudspeaker cones, panel linings, furniture padding, or mattresses. Clothes can also become wiping cloths, or reclaimed to turn into yarn or fabrics.
THE M&S PLAN
But sometimes we need a little help doing the 'right' thing, and that's where Marks & Spencer has stepped in. Thanks to a partnership between the UK's largest clothes retailer and Oxfam, nearly three million garments have been diverted from landfill and a whopping £2.5 million has been saved on M&S clothing, home and beauty products.
The system works by providing an incentive - shoppers who return their old M&S textiles to Oxfam receive a £5 voucher redeemable against a £35 spend on clothing, home or beauty products at M&S.
That has meant that consumers can keep supporting charity even while times are tight, allowing Oxfam to provide food for 83,000 people for six months in Kenya and buy 1.7 million schoolbooks worldwide, among other things.
"The reason the Clothes Exchange has succeeded so well is that British consumers love it," explains David McCullough, Oxfam's director of trading.
"You can save money, reduce, reuse and recycle; get rid of clothes you don't wear; declutter your home and do something for charity. It's the recession-proof way to an ethical 2009."
Now that's something that Clark would be proud of - and hearts on sleeves might just be a welcome addition to Wastesaver's many conveyor belts.
TIPS ON REDUCING YOUR TEXTILE WASTE
- Donate clothes to your local charity, textile bank, or find out if your local council recycles textiles from your doorstep. Tie any shoes together, as single shoes comprise 6% of all donations!
- Support the reduce, reuse, recycle idea by buying second-hand clothes, which will benefit whatever charity you buy it from and give you some cool period pieces to boot.
- Shop for items with recycled content in them by visiting www.recycledproducts.org.uk.
- Host your own 'Clothes Swap' party with friends: compile all the clothes, jewellery, handbags, curtains and so on that you no longer need, and dedicate a day to spend with friends with tea and cakes to swap items. It's fun, it's easy, and whatever's left over can be donated to charity.
- Buy the duds from Wastesaver by logging onto http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop/ShopProducts.aspx?sid=F9970