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Interview

Circulus Berkel Interview with Michiel Westerhoff

6 September 2018

The textile industry is known for its devastating environmental and human rights impacts. According to recent estimates, the total greenhouse gas emissions from textiles production, are at 1.2 billion tonnes annually which are more than those of all international flights and maritime shipping combined. Textile production is steadily increasing – and with it the adverse effects it has on humans and nature.

So in the face of these facts - what needs to happen to make circular textiles chains a reality and what can public waste management companies do to contribute to a more circular textile industry?

One year ago, we talked to Michiel Westerhoff of Circulus-Berkel, the public waste management company that serves eight municipalities with around 440,000 inhabitants in the Dutch Province Gelderland, about their plans for a new textiles sorting centre. In July 2018 the centre starting operating and we are meeting Michiel once more to hear about how they got to where they are today. Read on to learn about the procurement process and how the centre tackles some of the major issues of the textile chain in a sustainable way.

 

Interview

You just opened a new textile sorting centre, which is operated by ReShare, tell us what is special about this centre.

We wanted to create an approach to used textile disposal that really challenged the business as usual – textile still lags behind in the whole recycling world. There is very little regulation about how to dispose of textiles and the whole situation is not very transparent. About 38% of waste textiles are currently collected in the Netherlands, which means first of all that 62% are going straight to incineration together with the regular household waste.

Although it is commonly assumed that used textiles are used for a charitable purpose, more often than not they are simply sold for the highest price to buyers around the globe [1]. And what happens once they are shipped is often unclear. They are sold on local markets or burnt or landfilled. And this is where we need to start – with the textile sorting centre we are taking a huge step towards more transparency. All reusable clothes that we sort are traceable. And with the idea in mind to keep them in the loop as locally as possible, they are either sold in Dutch second hand shops or within Europe.

Textiles that cannot be reused as clothing are recycled on the fibre level, where we separate the different fibres going into the product and sell them to manufacturers of recycled clothing or other materials that require fibre. About 25% of the collected textiles are still non-recyclable and will be incinerated. We are looking into the possibilities of new recycling techniques like chemical recycling to see how this number can be reduced.

But we aimed for more: we also created 25 full time equivalent jobs for people with difficulties integrating in the work force. This way we don’t only contribute to sustainability globally but also support our community here.

These are indeed some ambitious goals you achieved – tell us how you set up the tendering process to get to this point.

We were looking for a solution to textile sorting that did not exist before. Which is why we opted for an innovation procurement procedure. Our award criteria were based on four important pillars, on each of which we gave points.

Firstly, we asked bidders to show us how they plan to ensure full transparency along the recycling or reselling textile chain. Secondly, we required a strong vision on how recycling of non-reusable clothes was going to be organized. And thirdly, we asked for a risk analysis, since the quality and quantity of textile collection can always vary – something which the contractor needs to be fully aware of. And of course we judged the business case bidders were presenting.

Our contractors buy the textiles we collect in our eight municipalities and usually, contracts were awarded to those who offered the highest price for textiles. Unfortunately, this practices incentivizes unsustainable behaviour!

With this tender we wanted to send the right signal. We set a cap on how much we would ask the contractor to pay us for the textiles – just enough to cover our costs of collection. This price was clear from the start and therefore bidders did not compete on price. Any revenues the operation now has on top of a defined revenue is shared between our contractor and us. In this way we are both incentivized to create economic value within the framework of transparency, sustainability and social employment.

And how did you ensure that bidders came up with robust solutions that fulfilled these criteria?

Key to our success was definitely the intensive market engagement process that characterized the whole tender. Prior to publishing the call for tender, we consulted the market. We invited eight potential market parties and asked them about topics such as the necessary scale for a sorting operation, their sorting process, desired form of organization, possibilities for jobs for people with difficulties joining the workforce, location requirements, transparency and traceability, possible reaction on price and volume fluctuations and treatment of non-reusable textiles.

Based on this consultation we updated the business plan – asking ourselves, what can realistically be achieved? This resulted in a number of pre-conditions for the tender that required the support of our municipalities. On this basis we developed and published the tender. After a selection phase we then entered an intensive market dialogue phase with the selected parties. It was during this phase that we really fleshed out how to achieve everything we had set out to do.

What was the most important advantage of such an intensive process?

The goals we had set after the market consultation for transparency, recycling and creating job opportunities for socially disadvantaged citizens were quite challenging for the bidders. The intensive exchange helped them and us to come up with a good solution. We also involved the social institutions that were our contact for employing people with difficulties finding jobs. 

Which impact did your tender have on the market?

We got a lot of surprising and positive feedback. For one, as I said before, the textile sorting and recycling model is far more ambitious than the business as usual because it achieves higher and traceable rates of recycling and higher rates of reuse of clothes. On top of that, we managed to create jobs for socially disadvantaged groups. Our tender pushed the market in that direction. But even the losing parties thanked us in hindsight, because they learned a lot throughout the market dialogue. This really surprised us but also shows how much need there is to work together if we want to move toward more sustainable solutions in waste management.  

If you had to do it all over again – what are the most important lessons learned?

The most important aspect of this process was its cooperative nature – as purchasers we weren’t sitting across the table from our market parties and testing them. We wanted to create an atmosphere of collaboration, a shared mission that we work towards together. If you challenge the market in a fair way – innovative solutions will come up!

As you said, the textile sector is lagging behind in recycling. Which challenges do you still see ahead?

Most importantly, the recycling of textile materials that cannot be used as clothing anymore is still in its infancy. There are some small brands that use recycled fibre, but most of our fibre is currently down cycled rather than kept in the fibre loop. For example, fibres are used for insulation material instead of new clothes. Here we really need designers and producers of clothes to think with us and produce for recycling, which means using high quality fibres, and non-mixed materials. This allows us to produce high quality fibre which can be used for textile production. The market and the entire supply chain need to develop and adapt in this regard.  

What drives you to change the game in textile recycling?

We are a public service company. Our goals are set by our elected officials and luckily, politics in our region are quite ambitious. The region has the goal to become completely waste-free by 2030. Without this political commitment and broad societal support for our mission we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Thank you so much for speaking with us and good luck for your future ambitions!

In addition to intensifying the high quality recycling of textile and textile fibres, Circulus Berkel is currently also working on a plan to improve the recycling of diapers, which make up 8% of residual waste, improved plastic packaging recycling, extraction of protein from food waste and creating more jobs in the field of recycling, including repair, reuse, and remanufacturing of e-waste



[1] 71% of the collected textiles are exported.