UK homes contain an estimated 330 million items of unused home textiles which have the potential to be used, re-used or recycled

New research from climate action NGO, WRAP, estimates that in total 331,580,000 home textiles items were not used once in the last year in UK homes.

The first consumer research on the subject from WRAP, the Citizen Insights: Estimating the Longevity of Home Textiles in the UK report focuses on 10 common home textiles items to understand how many of these we own, their estimated longevity, washing and usage frequency, the reasons people stop using them and their most common disposal route. The items include bed sheets, duvet covers, bathroom towels, fabric tablecloths, fabric curtains/blinds, cushion covers, bedspread throws, rugs, duvets and pillows.

The report reveals that, in comparison to clothing, a larger percentage of home textiles are put in the household waste, though this does vary depending on product type. While products such as sheets and towels might not have resale potential, they are valuable for recyclers, through existing open loop recycling routes such as industrial rags and insulation, as well as emerging fibre-to-fibre closed loop recycling.

The report’s insights will be used to help businesses understand the active life of home textiles as well as their customer’s in-use behaviours and will inform circular business guidelines.

Key findings

  • Why items aren’t used in the past year: those surveyed like to have ‘back up items.’ There is also a perception that the older the item gets, the less we like it because it ‘doesn’t feel as nice/feels older’. A specific problem with an item, such as damage, stains, or fading is cited less frequently, indicating that lack of use is driven more by consumer perception than product failure.
  • Purchase routes: just 4% of people surveyed buy home textiles items second hand. Most people buy these items brand new*.
  • Purchase influences: the top five influences for buying our home textiles are price, quality of fabric, type of fabric/material, ease of cleaning and design/style. Sustainability ranked very low.
  • Why items are kept: the average time people keep home textiles is 6.9 years (depending on item) – two years longer than we keep our clothing on average, (4.3 years).
  • Disposal routes: while we have a lot of unused textiles in reserves, 22% of people say they regularly throw these items in the general rubbish. This is closely followed by taking them to charity shops (21%), a dedicated recycling area at the Household Waste Recycling Centre (20%) and repurposing the item for another use in the home, e.g., cleaning rags, pet bedding (18%). By contrast, fewer report regularly using retailer take back schemes (5%), selling home textiles in person e.g. car boot sale (6%) or selling them online e.g. eBay, online platforms and marketplaces (7%).
  • Wash method/frequency: this varies considerably across different home textiles items. Fabric curtains/blinds had the lowest average wash frequency (but still as much as 0.8 washes per month) followed by rugs (1.2) and pillows (1.3). Average wash frequency is highest for bathroom towels at six times a month, followed by bedsheets at 4.2 times a month. With wash frequency much higher among 18 – 34 year olds, higher income households and households with children living at home.
  • Level of repair: only 7% of people have repaired one of the home textiles items they were asked about.

Harriet Lamb, CEO at WRAP: “Home furnishings reflect our personality and lifestyle, yet most of us don’t think about how what we buy, and how we use it, impacts on the environment. The home furnishings market is worth £13.6bn a year but sadly too much of it ends up going in the bin – close to half all textiles waste is not from clothing but such furnishings. As we all understand more about the impact of our clothes on the planet, people are increasingly browsing through charity shops or other places for pre-loved outfits. Now is the chance to think in much the same way about home furnishings. Personally, I love the perfectly good curtains I bought second hand, for example.”

Robin Osterley, Chief Executive of the Charity Retail Association: Although clothing makes up a large proportion of charity shop donations, charity shops are also an important channel for the reuse of many different kinds of household items, including furniture and textiles. Items such as cushion covers, tablecloths, throws and rugs that are in a clean and functional condition are all ideal for donating to charity shops and can be sold to raise money for good causes. Items can easily be donated to charity shops in store.”

Alan Wheeler, CEO, Textile Recycling Association: “Like clothing, there is often a value to good quality re-useable household textiles, so we would encourage householders to use the available collection routes like charities and textile banks. If the items can be used for their original intended purpose and there is a demand for the product then the members of Textile Recycling Association will look to find those markets. If the products cannot be re-used then it may be possible to mechanically recycle the textiles into products such as industrial wiping cloths or insulation. However, for these products to become more sustainable and circular we require further research and market development into new textile recycling markets which could be supported and delivered by policy interventions such as Extended Producer Responsibility, product design standards and minimum recycled content in new textile products.”

What next?

The research reveals that desirable behaviours for home textiles falls behind those for clothing. Collectively, these insights can support businesses and consumers to make the right decisions to help extend the life and reduce the impact of home textiles in the UK.

Here are the key areas for making a difference:

Home textiles disposal routes: currently there is confusion from people as to where they can dispose of their home textiles. WRAP urges consumers to check with their local charity shops to see what home textile items they accept and where possible, donate their items for resale via charity. Items in poorer condition can be reused/recycled into new products and should not be put in the bin. WRAP recommends using its Recycling Locator tool from Recycle Now to find out where to do this.

There are also opportunities for home textiles retailers and the reuse and recycling sector to adopt collection options/take back schemes. For example, certain retailers offer a recycling service for feather duvets/pillows which they then make into new duvet/pillow products but they cannot currently recycle synthetics.

See more information here: Recycle Now – duvets and pillows

Circular design decisions: the research tells us that the longevity of some home textiles is very short, therefore brands need to think about designing more durable products that can withstand the higher washing frequencies associated with some home textile items to allow customers to get more use and reuse from them. Many home textile products (less suitable for resale routes) such as pure cotton towels and bedsheets are already perfect for recycling back into high quality textiles.

Opportunity for circular business models: as with the clothing sector, there is an opportunity to build a market for circular business models within home textiles. Consumers should be supported and motivated to give home textile products a second life through repair and upcycling, and where appropriate, resale and rental, rather than throwing items in the bin. However, currently only a small percentage of home textiles are purchased through resale routes even though 20% is unused in our homes, showing there is a long way to go to change citizens purchasing behaviours. Some home textile items, such as curtains, rugs and cushion covers are suitable for reuse.

Leading businesses are signed up to WRAP’s voluntary agreement – Textiles 2030, which aims to halve the carbon footprint of textiles by 2030. This initiative can support home retailers to implement circular business models and transition to circular practices.

Lisa Ly, Sustainability Manager at Dunelm: “Joining Textiles 2030 has really allowed Dunelm to support sustainability in the homeware textiles market, working collectively with industry peers to drive change. Resources such as the Home Citizen Survey provide useful insights for us to better understand consumer habits during in-use phase of homeware products and constructively apply those learnings to our product development. We see Textiles 2030 as a key part of our ongoing journey to improvement.”

Sam Cutler, Head of Environment and Sustainability at Hillarys Blinds:Insights like these are useful for home textiles businesses like Hillarys as home textiles such as ours generally have a longer life than clothing. Understanding in more detail how they are used within homes will be really important for us as we think about how we can influence customer behaviour and how we can improve the circularity of our products as we creep towards the Textiles 2030 targets.”

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