Moving mountains of clothes: a day in a textile recycling factory

We visited Bristol Textile Recyclers to see how they find new homes for pre-loved clothes.

Bristol Textile Recyclers (BTR) opened their factory doors to the public recently for #BigGreenWeek, Bristol’s annual festival of sustainability.

BTR is a family owned business that collects 100 tonnes of textiles each week from local charity shops and textile banks. They also collect from schools and local councils and help sports clubs, churches, Scouts and Girl Guides and other community groups fundraise by supplying free recycling banks and organising clothing collection drives.

During our visit, it was astonishing to witness the sheer scale of clothes, shoes, bedding and other household textiles they sort through every day.

How clothing and textiles get recycled

When clothes come in from one of BTR’s 13 collection vehicles, bags and bags get unloaded onto an area of the factory floor to form what is affectionately called ‘the hill’. At busier times of the year, this changes to ‘the mountain’! 

From here the bags are emptied and their contents travel up a conveyor belt to be hand graded into one of 160 different categories. A team of about 40 staff assesses each item to determine its reusability and which market it is destined for. 

The first section we arrive at is the ‘cream’ grade where ‘vintage and quirky’ pieces of clothing are being identified and separated into large containers. These items make up around 0.5% of BTR’s stock and are sold on to UK-based wholesalers and members of the public at monthly vintage kilo sales.

Clothes on a conveyor belt being 'cream graded' at Bristol Textile Recyclers.

The other items plucked off the conveyor belt for the ‘cream’ grade are new or clearly unworn items. These are sold to Eastern European markets and make up another 0.5%.

The majority of BTR’s stock is graded into reusable summer clothes destined for Central Africa and reusable winter clothes for South Asia. And these include all sorts of items such as t-shirts, dresses, trousers, shirts, skirts, children’s clothes, coats and shoes. 

What was surprising to discover is that there is a huge demand for bras, mainly from countries in West Africa such as Benin, Ghana and Togo. Last month alone BTR sold 1,378 kilos of bras. 

At the end of each day, around 20 tonnes of sorted clothes are packed into bales and loaded onto containers ready to travel to their next destination. (If you’re wondering, 20 tonnes is the equivalent weight of three adult male African elephants).

Bales of clothes at Bristol Textile Recyclers, ready for their new destination.

And as well as running a finely-tuned textile sorting operation, BTR regularly teach children about the importance of recycling at educational assemblies and offer free factory tours to community groups, clubs and schools. They also run upcycling workshops and work with Labour Behind the Label, a campaign for garment workers’ rights. 

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