While you are reading this article, a linen manufacturing facility is churning out all sorts of linens that will eventually make their way to suppliers across the country. Suppliers like Utah-based Alsco will rent those linens to clients in multiple industries. And when those linens finally reach a state where they can no longer be repaired, they will most likely end up discarded. This linear approach to supplying commercial linens have some in the industry asking if the industry needs its own circle of life.
The circle of life concept is something we are all familiar with. Living organisms are born into the world, they live, they die, and they contribute to the next generation of organisms that follow. In manufacturing, we prefer to call this sustainability rather than the circle of life. Yet the name doesn’t really matter. It’s the principle that counts.
Commercial linens have relied on a linear business model for as long as most of us can remember. We can repair uniforms, table linens, and hospital linens for only so long. At some point we are left with pieces that cannot be rented any longer. Then what happens? Even if those items are donated to charity for reuse elsewhere, there will come a point at which the fabric is just no longer usable. Then it’s off to the landfill. But does it have to be that way?
The Linear Nature of Commercial Linens
A report released by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in November 2017 proposed a circular model for the textiles industry, a model that would be useful to both commercial linens and retail. The model calls for recycling used fabrics rather than simply disposing of them. In its executive summary, the report states:
“The textiles system operates in an almost completely linear way: large amounts of non-renewable resources are extracted to produce clothes that are often used for only a short time, after which the materials are mostly sent to landfill or incinerated.”
The report goes on to say that as little as 1% of the material used to produce uniforms and other items of clothing is recycled. That amounts to more than $100 billion worth of material going to waste. Meanwhile, textile producers and clothing manufacturers continue with business as usual. They use the same volume of natural resources to create new pieces that will be worn for a short time and then discarded.
What a Circular Model Would Look Like
A circular model of textile production would work well in both the commercial and retail settings. However, the report is especially positive on fabric recycling within the linen rental sector. It makes sense. Companies like Alsco rent uniforms to companies on a contract basis. Uniforms from former employees are recycled and put back into the system as long as they are in good condition.
Why not take that same thinking and apply it to manufacturing? In other words, uniforms that are no longer usable by a linen service provider could be sent to manufacturers who could reclaim usable portions of the fabric to manufacture other things.
It is not realistic to expect that every thread in a company uniform can be reclaimed for one purpose or another. But reclaiming even 50% of the fabric is better than reclaiming none of it. That’s the whole point of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation report. If the textiles industry were willing to adopt a circular model in place of the current linear model, a fair amount of the waste that now defines the commercial linens sector could be eliminated.