Linen: sustainability success story or dirty secret?

Old linen is being repurposed for use in punch bags and sofas, but is the route to recycling as watertight as it appears? By Nick Hughes.

Linen is the ubiquitous material that has the uncanny ability to hide in plain sight. The foodservice and hospitality industry uses millions of pieces of linen every week in items ranging from chef whites and napkins to tea towels and tablecloths. Yet in comparison with waste materials such as plastics, food, and other textiles, the story of what happens to linens once they reach the end their lifespan is rarely told.

Recent years have seen a surge in campaigns highlighting the environmental impact of fast-fashion, the result being that a growing number of retailers are working with partners to establish new routes for reuse and recycling. Comb over textile reports from the likes of WRAP, however, and it’s clear that attention is currently being devoted to addressing the unsustainability of more common clothing materials such as cotton and polyester. Linen, despite its ubiquity, remains largely invisible by comparison.

So what is the path to recycling for linen and are companies taking their responsibilities to extract maximum value from the material seriously?

There are effectively two business models for using linen in a commercial foodservice setting; businesses either hire it from a specialised contractor in a continual cycle or purchase it and launder it themselves on premise.

Contractors say they have established systems in place for recycling or repurposing linen that has come to the end of its lifespan; understandably so since the product itself is the biggest asset area within any linen rental business. Footprint contacted three of the largest linen suppliers for information on the proportion of material that ends up being recycled. Elis failed to respond to questions, but both Johnsons Stalbridge Linen Services, part of the JSG Group, and Clean Services claimed that none of their linen ends up in landfill or incinerators.

Clean supplies five million linen items to its customers each week from seven laundry production facilities located throughout the UK. The company avoids having to landfill any unusable items by selling its ragged linen to recycling companies or donating it to charity, according to head of group marketing, Ted Walker.

Clean works with two different recycling companies, Coppermill and Midland Wipers, who take the used linen and other used textiles and recycle it into industrial cleaning cloths for use across a range of industries, including manufacturing, airlines, and hair and beauty.

Coppermill managing director Mark Ratzer explains that the cloths are used for cleaning, polishing, decorating, engineering and mopping up and are sold to a variety of customers ranging from car washes to Buckingham Palace. Lower grade items, which account for around 10% of the textiles Coppermill processes, are repurposed for a variety of uses such as fillings for punch bags and boxing gloves, sofa stuffing and loft insulation.

Clean also donates significant numbers of towels to local charities including Monkey World and St. Joseph’s Hospice.

Johnsons Stalbridge operates a near identical model. The business supplies around 130 million items of linen and other workwear each year, according to managing director Donald Smith, with 100% of the used linen sold to Coppermill for repurposing and reuse.

Another JSG subsidiary, London Linen, has partnered with Marks & Spencer in what it describes as the industry’s “first ever combined closed loop recycled relationship”. Old linen is recycled into bags for life which are available across over 700 M&S stores nationwide with every bag sold raising money for UNICEF.

Added to its versatility, the longevity of linen is another tick in the sustainability box. The textile is made from the fibres of the flax plant and is favoured by the foodservice and hospitality sector for its strength and absorbency not to mention its coolness when working in a kitchen environment. Walker says that linen items can be laundered and reused up to 200 times depending upon the linen and towelling specification. “The number depends on whether the linen has been misused, for example if it has been used as a cleaning cloth by housekeeping staff, been exposed to chemicals or dragged across the floor,” he explains. “These are some of the most common reasons that linen may be taken out of circulation prematurely.”

Clean uses radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology to measure and accurately pinpoint the lifespan of a piece of linen. “If similar issues are regularly brought to light by the system, we can address the manufacturing of the products with our supplier to ensure we get the most out of each piece,” says Walker. “Similarly, implementing RFID tracking has enabled us to analyse usage patterns with our customers. If we notice a correlation between a customer and lower lifespans, for example, we work with our customers and provide care training to ensure linen is looked after effectively.”

For all its virtues, there is no escaping the fact that there is an environmental cost associated with linen, not least the water, energy and chemicals used in laundering; but Smith believes that hiring linen in a commercial process remains the most sustainable way to deal with laundry, compared to disposable and paper linen and domestic or on premise laundering. “As an industry we would argue that purely from a process perspective the controls we have in place for water recycling, re-use of heat, chemical usage, and simple economies of scale with utilities make a large scale commercial process more sustainable,” he says.

What is indisputable is that there is a large information gap on what happens to linen that is laundered on premise. While organisations such as WRAP are increasing their engagement with textile waste, their focus is currently on clothing where volumes are much higher and there are significant challenges with recycling (almost 90% of corporatewear, for instance, is sent to landfill or incineration, according to WRAP). And where data does exist, the distinction is rarely made between different textiles.

Anecdotally, experts say that while the big linen contractors may have the scale to establish partnerships with the likes of Coppermill, the same is unlikely to be true for individual hospitality firms. And there are further question marks over the extent to which restaurant and hotel staff are adequately trained to separate out for recycling linen items that have come to the end of their lifespan.

That’s not to say that the contracting model is perfect. Because linen is on a continual cycle, suppliers concede it is near impossible to pinpoint what proportion of linen that goes out to a client comes back to the supplier. Experts suggest that it is inevitable that items get lost in the system. “I find it hard to believe that there is no leakage in the linen supply chain,” says one recycling expert. “Certainly householders throw linen in the bin and I cannot believe that all hotels [and] laundry services recycle 100% of what they eventually have to discard.”

In many respects the story of linen in foodservice is a positive one that companies should arguably be promoting more vociferously. Yet all the while attention is focused on other more common textiles, there are just too many knowledge gaps to rubber stamp this enigmatic material as a sure-fire sustainability success story.



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