Salvation Army introduces automated technology to sort recycled clothes

A new ‘Fibersort™ system’ has been announced by the trading arm of charity organisation The Salvation Army (SATCoL) – utilising technology that can sort and grade non-wearable clothing and textiles by fibre type, blend and colour for recycling purposes.

SATCoL Fibresort machineAs a result of this innovation, part-funded by the Government’s Resource Action Fund, donated clothing that is not in a condition to be re-used will be able to be reprocessed and repurposed – therefore remaining in the circular textiles supply chain and being diverted from landfill.

Within the automated Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), operated by SATCol at its Kettering processing centre in the Midlands, the Fibersort™ technology – developed by Valvan – will identify and classify non-wearable textile items into grades.

Every item is first carefully inspected by staff to see whether the item of clothing can be reworn or whether it is in a condition that can only be recycled, Bernie Thomas, Sustainability Manager at SATCoL, told Resource.

Following this, the process separates textiles into fibres such as Cotton, Polyester and Wool.  This is done through the use of an infrared camera and then blowing items from a conveyor belt into bins using air jets.

The company continued to say that Fibersort™ recognises the fibre content percentage of each item and is able to sort specified blends such as Polycotton and Wool mixes at a higher level of accuracy than manual sorting. Fibres will also be able to be sorted based on specific or mixed colour categories.

Previously, Thomas explained to Resource, non-wearable clothing and textiles were manually sorted by look and feel and graded either for reuse or recycling. However, Fibersort™ can more ‘accurately classify a garment by its fibre type or fibre blend than the human eye’ – so has the potential to improve the recycling or recovery of these materials.

Further, being able to sort textiles into different material grades improves the income earned, thus charitable donations, as the resulting process outputs are more suitable for higher quality recycling applications rather than lower grade recycling uses.

In terms of environmental impact, SATCol told Resource that a small amount of waste is produced in the process, mostly items which are contaminated or too wet. These are sent to be used as energy from waste. SATCol also told Resource that the Fibersort™ technology has a very low energy demand.

As this is an innovation project, the current large-scale tonnage isn’t known, but the technology is currently processing around 500 tonnes of textiles a year and SATCol hopes this will increase as the market develops.

Thomas continued to tell Resource that SATCoL is working with the retailers and the supply chain to begin using post-consumer textiles in new textile products. The company says that it is sending samples to UK and overseas recyclers to generate further interest in the market.

Currently, the charity collects 50,000 tonnes of textiles annually and has around 8,000 clothing collection banks located across the country holding up to 240 kilos of textiles including clothing, bags and shoes.

Through the reuse and recycling of clothing collected, SATCoL says it is able to prevent over 235,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere annually.

Each year, SATCoL diverts over 250 million items and in the past ten years alone has raised over £78 million for The Salvation Army and its corporate partners’ charities – these numbers may be bolstered by the new technology.

Kirk Bradley, SATCoL’s Head of Corporate Partnerships, said “We are thrilled to be working with this new ground-breaking technology. It helps to reduce waste and more donated garments can be repurposed, resold and raise more money for vital charity work.”