Chapter 3: How is textile waste sorted?

Chapter 3: How is textile waste sorted?

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While in Europe we work with sophisticated technology to automate sorting, in India sorting is often done manually and it is quite a fragmented process. To better understand sorting practices we visited various facilities in Mumbai and Bangalore and spoke to their employees. Here are some of our key findings:

  1. Informal sorting: It may come as no surprise that the sorting of post-consumer waste is very fragmented. Some sorting is done on the streets by chindiwalla’s (waste pickers), some waste is sorted on the collection trucks, and more “formal” sorting is done in collection centres.
  2. Lack of “local sorting hubs”: There is a lack of clean, dedicated, and local sorting centres for post-consumer textile waste. 
  3. Detection of materials is a problem: It’s hard to assess what type of material a piece of clothing is and labels can’t be relied upon. Blends, finishes and multi-layered materials such as  coats are particularly problematic. Currently sorting is done based on touch and feel. Technology has its limits (1) infra-red cannot deal with multi-layered materials (2) there is some human judgement needed to perceive what can be considered “rewearable, stylish or trendy” and (3) there is a lack of low-cost sorting technology in India.
  4. Lack of value-adding sorting activities: Unlike in Europe, sorting facilities in India often lack industrial cleaning facilities or do not have the right equipment to make certain changes like taking zippers off items .
  5. Lack of demanddriven sorting: There often is no awareness on the ideal buyers of waste nor an awareness of what type of waste is needed, therefore waste is not properly sorted based on demand.
  6. Lack of good, segregated waste: All the points above contribute to the fact that the availability of sorted post-consumer waste is low, and quality is poor.
  7. Missing connections: While there are recyclers/upcyclers who want to work with sorted waste, it’s not easy to source the waste. They spend a lot of time and effort sourcing waste and are still often unable to get a reliable monthly supply of feedstock as, which negatively impacts their business growth.

Innovator highlight: Sweepsmart

Sweepsmarts designs & builds smart-waste centres globally, creating a zero-waste system. Unlike most waste facilities – their facilities are clean, safe, efficient and inclusive. They have set up Smart Waste Centres in India, Indonesia and Ghana. These collect and sort waste for recycling and are often run by informal waste pickers. 

How we plan to solve it

As sorting technologies are too expensive and not developed enough for the Indian market, we believe the focus should be put on training waste workers. Together with our partner CAIF, supported by the Ikea Foundation, we are setting up training sessions for local waste workers, and are organising the waste centres for safety, efficiency and hygiene. 

Together with GIZ & Concordia, we are taking this a step further and aiming to create and improve livelihoods for 5000+ waste workers, with at least half being women. From sorting at the source, to sorting pre- and post-consumer waste, we aim to partner with training providers and NGOs to build expertise and help waste workers monetise textile waste. The collaboration with Concordia and Enviu is funded through the develoPPP programme that GIZ implements on behalf of BMZ.

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