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  • Writer's pictureGREEN Hospitality

Where Should All the Hotel Textile Waste Go?

Updated: Mar 30, 2022

Admittedly, hotel linens feel good: they are soft and comfortable, and they are luxuriant. That is one of the reasons that hotels are hesitant about using recyclable materials for their linens, fearing the compromise of quality.

But with technological innovations, offerings in recyclable linens are catching up in quality. As the Hong Kong government sets its 2050 target to reach carbon neutrality, the hospitality industry, along with food waste reduction and enhanced energy efficiency, needs to look into its significant amount of textile waste for solutions to carbon reduction.

As a major textile consumer with exacting standards for pristinely clean bed linens and towels, the hospitality industry is one of the main contributors to the massive amounts of textile waste generated around the globe every year. But that also means that the hospitality industry has immense potential for textile waste reduction.

That’s what prompted us at GREEN Hospitality to host a Think Tank on 1 March 2022, where professionals specialised in textile research and innovation, fashion, academia, hotels, and property development were invited to discuss the roadblocks of textile recycling in the hospitality industry, the possible solutions, and areas of collaboration.

Low Global Recycling Rate for Textile Waste

Growing cotton accounts for 24% of the world’s annual demand for insecticides, which not only contribute to greenhouse gas emissions but also pollute drinkable water and cause harm to the health of cotton farm workers and people in nearby communities. Around the globe, the average water footprint per 1kg of cotton is 10,000 litres.

Despite its significant negative environmental impact, textiles have a staggeringly low recycling rate. Currently, only 1% of all garments are recycled to high quality, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. One reason is the high disassembly cost involved. For a range of reasons such as enhancing performance and texture, as well as cost reduction, modern-day fabrics are blended in any number of ways, which makes textile recycling cost-inefficient as it requires each blend to be separated and recycled accordingly.

What’s Stopping Hong Kong Hotels from Recycling Textile?

The rate of textile recycling worldwide is low but particularly so in Hong Kong, partly due to the import ban of textile waste to China and the lack of textile recycling technology available locally. Most hotels, producing tonnes of textile waste monthly, do not have any initiatives in place to recycle it.

Where a proper system for textile waste collection is absent, the high cost of collection and storage of textile waste (which is not typically budgeted) is a challenge faced by both the hospitality and fashion industries. Small properties generally don’t have a large enough volume of textile waste to justify a sizable storage space, said Aamir Sakhia, former Chief Operating Officer of Lane Crawford. The biggest challenge faced by the hotel industry, according to the Hong Kong Hotel Association, is the cost incurred from the collection of textile waste, which includes pick-up and transportation to the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel Limited (HKRITA), where a system for the separation and recycling of blended textile is in place.

Additionally, the quality of the fabric poses a challenge to the recycling process. The layers of chemicals put into the textiles affect not just laundering methods but also their recyclability, said Luke Henning, Chief Business Officer of Circ, which created a proprietary system to recycle clothes back to the raw materials from which they are made.

A Roadmap for Textile Waste Recycling Solutions in Hong Kong

Identifying roadblocks is the first step to identifying solutions. A systems approach to textile waste was suggested by Dr. Shauhrat S. Chopra, Assistant Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, who believes that adding value to something that currently has no added or market value is key to innovation. The systems approach, said Dr. Chopra, will utilize lifecycle assessment to ensure that economic value can be added at each stage of recycling, and that includes material production process, laundering aspect, managerial policies around laundering, etc. This will then guide the procurement division in decision-making, keeping in mind the entire textile value chain so that the products don’t end up becoming a waste.

As emphasized by Dr. Chopra, it makes little sense to make something that has no market for it. Here, considering the business aspect in every step of the textile recycling process is crucial, said Ronna Chao, Chairman of Novetex Textiles Limited, the developer behind The Billie System that adopts a waterless solution for recycling textile waste. For textile recycling to become a viable business, processing fees alone will not suffice. This mindset shift needs to start with hospitality businesses, and they will need to look at it as a business case rather than a CSR case, said Edwin Keh, CEO of the HKRITA. While textile recycling has a CSR benefit, not taking a proactive approach to handle textile waste carries a reputational risk for the businesses too.

But where to start? Hotel flat sheets need to be the catalyst for innovation in this field, said Sakhia. One way to enable hospitality businesses to be ahead of the game of textile recycling, said Sakhia, is to promote more collaboration between academia and the hospitality industry, so as to help hotels stay better informed on scientific research and the latest technological advancements in order to make better decisions.

And there is not a dearth of innovative technologies available to recycle textiles to replace the need for extracting virgin materials. For example, Circ’s proprietary technology allows for the re-sourcing and re-harvesting of raw materials out of textile waste. Henning, of Circ, also raised the example of LanzaTech, which turns carbon emissions into new products such as polyester.

Just as important to facilitating textile recycling is staff training and education. There exists a gap in knowledge amongst hotels’ CSR teams, said Joshua Wong, Head of Sustainability at The Hongkong and Shanghai Hotels, where his team, initially lacking the scientific knowledge surrounding thread counts and recycling methods, was subsequently able to acquire such knowledge from their partners and then communicate internally. Crucial to staff education and training is to ensure that staff understands the importance of recycling as a way to achieve a lower carbon footprint. To facilitate textile recycling, procurement staff should be equipped with the why and how of procuring higher-quality fabric or fabric that can be more readily recycled, and rooms staff should be trained on the proper way to launder textile so as to increase its lifespan or lessen quality degradation.

What’s Next: Strategic Partnership and Broad Collaboration

For solutions to scale and reap the benefits of economies of scale, collaboration is key. As suggested by the Hong Kong Hotel Association, the first step is to start pilots with the HKRITA and build business cases in partnership with its hotel members.

Adding to that are two suggestions by Carmen Ng, Director of Sustainability at the Langham Hospitality Group. Firstly, the Hong Kong Hotel Association should leverage its network to conduct a textile waste survey to understand the amount and frequency of textile waste disposal from hotels, and the willingness amongst hotels to recycle their textile waste. Cost comparison will also need to be conducted to compare the cost of textile waste disposal and that of recycling, which could make a case for government funding or sponsorship to support textile waste pick-up or other logistical costs, especially if this is supplemented by data on the amount of carbon emissions reduction made possible by textile waste recycling.

Government support, including financial and policy change, is crucial. Currently, there are no textile waste processing facilities in Hong Kong. And research institutes spearheading innovative technological solutions, such as the HKRITA, do need funding and other government support to scale their solutions, as well as to disseminate information on the latest technological innovations available.

This event was organized in collaboration with the following partners:

We would like to thank all the guest speakers for attending the event:

Acknowledgment & Disclaimer:

Some of these events are funded by the Innovation & Technology Commission of the HKSAR.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material/event (or by members of the project team) do not reflect the views of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, the Innovation and Technology Commission, or the Vetting Committee of the General Support Programme of the Innovation and Technology Fund.

在本刊物/活動內 (或由項目小組成員) 表達的任何意見、研究成果、結論或建議,並不代表香港特別行政區政府、創新科技署或創新及科技基金一般支援計劃評審委員會的觀點。


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