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A market for recycled clothing

A collection point near San Ġwann parish church. More collection points for fabrics and used clothing are being installed in Malta and Gozo.A collection point near San Ġwann parish church. More collection points for fabrics and used clothing are being installed in Malta and Gozo.

Collection of clothing and fabrics for re-use is taking root in localities all over the Maltese islands.

Last year’s fashions, discarded from our wardrobes and passed on, can go a long way toward helping the environment. Recycling textiles in this way helps conserve resources and saves energy that would otherwise be used in the manufacture of new textiles.

The brightest colours are the most popular among once-new clothing items sent to Africa by a local recycling enterprise.

Clothing is collected by Refab Light Blue Ltd from 50 ‘clothes banks’ and sorted with cultural variations in mind. Starting up as a subsidiary of Electrowaste Ltd 10 years ago, the textiles recycling enterprise now exports clothing for re-use in other countries.

The initiative won an industry award from the Cleaner Technology Centre. The idea was promoted in schools, notably San Andrea School, which was foremost in helping to introduce the scheme to schoolchildren.

Around 20 per cent of what is collected goes to Northern Ireland for re-distribution. Carnival costumes are recycled northward, as there is not much call for them down south – except in some Tunisian festivals.

The rest goes to Africa or India. A vivid red dress or canary yellow shirt would be popular in sub-Saharan Africa and is likely to end up in a container bound for that continent, to be sold in the markets of Togo or Senegal.

“More sober shades of apparel may be sent to Tunisia where dress is a little more conservative,” explains recycling partner Brian Cardona.

He runs the recycling operation in partnership with an Italian entrepreneur who has seven years’ experience in this sector of waste management in Italy, the US, and also in Tunisia. He had acquired the contacts needed to build up a distribution chain for the Maltese company.

Clothing deposited in the blue Refab bins will be carefully sorted, with good quality items removed for re-use. Material unsuitable for any other use is used as fuel in incinerators

Unwanted fabrics collected from tall blue metal bins placed around Malta (To date there are 42 bins in Malta and eight in Gozo) can provide a living for someone in areas where there is need. Apart from clothing, hats, scarves, belts, handbags and shoes in good condition are shipped southward. In the past year, 30 large containers of assorted apparel were sent to Africa.

Operating temporarily out of a sorting shed in Żebbuġ, the self-financing enterprise has diverted a million kilos of recyclable waste away from landfill since last year.

Fabrics not suitable for re-use go into making rags, especially if they are made from absorbent cotton. Other fabrics may become RDF (refuse-derived fuel) for use in incinerators.

Synthetics, and especially nylon, have a high calorific value when burnt. Clothing that is deposited in the blue Refab bins will be carefully sorted, with good quality items removed for re-use. Material unsuitable for any other use is used as fuel in incinerators.

Owing to the success of the basic scheme over the past few years, some investment-heavy expansion is presently under way. The Refab-Light Blue partnership is now aiming for a capacity of 400 collection bins nationwide, and a move to new premises is imminent. The fabric recycling operation is awaiting permits to move from the present operating space of 350 square metres near Wied Qirda to a warehouse nearly double the size.

However, it has not all been a smooth journey as a few local councils have been slow to adopt the scheme. This is put down to a lack of trust. The recyclers urge that people should behave responsibly and not use the collection points as dumping sites for any type of waste. Curtains, old sheets, small carpets and soft toys can also be deposited in the bins. All items must be clean and in good repair.

Such an enterprise surely deserves a helping hand from the relative ministry. Much more investment is needed, along with educational programmes. Space could be made available at reasonable rates in unused government premises.

It is thanks to the energy of this team that Malta has a better chance of reaching EU recycling targets. The company has been used by other waste agencies with little recognition or reward.

At present there is no obligation to provide figures for the amount of clothes recycled on a national basis. This has led to recycling of clothes and fabrics to be hidden from the numbers the presented to European Commission.

As soon as the legal notice on recycled clothing comes into place, and the figures involved become clear, then hopefully some much needed assistance will be forthcoming.

Even though this recycling enterprise had small beginnings, it has always helped organisations such as Nature Trust, Inspire and Happy Paws – even donating fabrics as bedding for stray animals. This year the company is working in collaboration with the Community Chest Fund.

Local charity shops selling second-hand clothing clear out their old stock for recycling to make room for newer items continuously being donated.

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