Rags against the machine
Thefts of textile banks and their contents this year have cost the recycling industry and charities hundreds of thousands of pounds – so what are companies doing to combat the problem? Rob Cole finds out
A recent spate of textile bank thefts, both of the bank itself and of the clothes within them, has increasingly drawn the interest of the national press, with the Guardian in particular bringing the issue into the public gaze.
Currently, there are around 15,000 textile banks across the UK, some owned by big charities such as the British Heart Foundation, while others are run by companies on behalf of smaller charities. According to the Textile Recycling Association (TRA), some 750 clothing banks went missing across the UK between January and March 2018.
Those figures were put into the public domain as part of a coordinated attempt on the part of the textile recycling industry to raise awareness of and prevent the theft of textile banks and their contents – estimated by the TRA to cost charities around £370,000 in donations. And this action appears to have had an impact. Richard Alvin, Director of Crime Deter, theft protection and investigation specialists, said: “It would be safe to say that the mass media outreach we did in March across all local BBC radio stations, the BBC’s One Show and BBC Radio Five Live Investigates has seen a drastic reduction in the thefts of clothing banks.”
However, the problem persists. The illegal dumping of textile banks on land without permission is a pretty tell-tale sign of theft. Alvin continued: “The dumping of textile banks without permission on land like car parks is still a nationwide problem, with over 100 cases being reported to us each month.”
Theft on this scale is no mean feat and requires a sizeable network of labour power to carry out. So, who is perpetrating these thefts and why? Current prices for donated clothing collected from textile banks stand between £200 and £280 per tonne, rendering theft of used clothing, or the banks themselves in order to capture even more, a potentially lucrative endeavour. According to Alan Wheeler, Director of the TRA, thefts are usually the work of criminal gangs, often from Eastern Europe, with any using forced labour to carry out thefts.
However, it is often difficult to get the police to intervene, as Wendy Yarney of textile recycling organisation BIU Group, which operates 1,500 textile banks across the UK, attests: “There is little police interest in the problem – thefts are either not investigated or when they are investigated, the case is closed very quickly.”
Wheeler states that often, in order for the thefts to be taken seriously, they need to be linked to suspected modern slavery issues and their indicators – lack of English, sub-standard or crowded accommodation, lack of documents and so forth. While the TRA does not have the resources to investigate these links and present them to the police, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority does, and is now able to aid such investigations.
“The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority now has powers of investigation and powers of arrest on these issues that are the same as the police”, says Wheeler. “Even though they don’t have the resources to investigate everything coming their way, at least now when I pick up the phone, I don’t have to explain the issues, they know the subject area.”
While difficulties with bringing the law to bear on the criminal gangs remain, “the onus is on operators to ensure their security systems are up-to-date”, states Yarney.
To this end, BIU has invested around £2 million in its collection banks in recent years, introducing a remote locking system and strengthening chutes, which are constantly refined. According to Yarney, the BIU’s latest locking system is “a multi-layered security authentication system”. Though it is too early to quantify the impact of the lastest locking system, previous upgrades have seen a 20 per cent increase in tonnages of collected textiles from BIU banks.
Container manufacturer Egbert Taylor has also been actively working to increase the security of its textile banks, working with Nathans Wastesavers, Scotland’s largest textile recycling company, to reinforce its chutes and improve locking via its Taylor NLoc system. Kevin Docherty, Area Business Manager at Egbert Taylor elaborated on the technology used to ensure security and record the contents of the banks, which can be used as evidence of thefts: “The collection driver is pre-authorised to access the banks using an app on their phone. Once the collection driver has emptied thebank the fill level info, time and date are logged on the system along with the name of the driver. The sensors can also log failed access attempts, sudden drops in levels due to theft and fire.”
Innovations such as these demonstrate that textile bank manufacturers are upping their game to tackle theft. With the continued action of the TRA in publicising the issue in the national press and linking the thefts to modern slavery crimes, there is every hope that these incidents can be kept to a minimum.