I’ve often wondered where the bags and bags of donations go when they aren’t good enough. The clothes that are that tiny bit too tatty, slightly too tacky, downright boring or the sad pieces that no one wants.
Well now I (and you) need wonder no more.
One of my good friends, Crispin, works in Oxfam’s MK hub, a warehouse in Milton Keynes where donated clothes and books are taken if they are too worn, being sold in the wrong demographic or if the charity shop doesn’t have enough room for them.
As one of several operations in the UK (there are similar warehouses in Huddersfield and Portishead), the MK Hub collects from all Oxfam shops within a 75 mile radius.
Every shop has a collection once a week. The lorry will pick up the bags of un-sellable, out-of-place and overflow items and take them back to the big warehouse.
And it is big.
It has to be given that everyday, 3 or 4 lorries arrive jam packed with clothes and books to be sorted.
This was the mountain of clothes already piled up by 10am.
Mouth agape, I was shown around the huge operation that is the MK Hub.
First up, books.
Boxes of books
Nearly 6,000 books arrive each day where they get sorted according to quality. Any with missing covers or big rips get sent straight to the paper skip to be recycled.
The remaining books then get their barcodes scanned to determine their popularity. Books that no one wants and are unlikely to sell get sent to recycling (or sold on as props to films and TV sets).
The lucky books however get scanned again at a separate computer, which downloads all the information you need to sell it online. The front cover image, the size, the blurb, everything.
And within two scans, the book is up online.
Whilst Oxfam have their own online shop, to maximise their audience they sell their books and DVDs on several other platforms like Amazon, Ebay and Play. Their super smart scanning system even works out the best price for the book compared with other big book selling companies.
Once up online, the books are then stored alongside their 50,000 other counterparts in the warehouse until someone buys them.
As well as the books, boxes of VHS tapes, scratched CDs and DVDs also turn up everyday. Every part of these items can be recycled but first, they have to be sorted. The video/CD is placed in one box, the paper cover is taken out and recycled and the hard plastic cover goes in another box. That might not sound like much sorting but imagine doing this with every CD, video and DVD enough times to fill all these bags.
And then imagine repeating the process every couple of weeks.
It’s a long procedure but one that ensures that every single item that can be recycled is recycled. What’s more, Oxfam get paid for these materials meaning that whether you donate the good, the bad or the ugly, everything helps Oxfam help others. Even that scratched up Vengaboys CD that you wish you’d never bought…
Next up, clothing.
Conveyors of clothes
The upstairs of the MK Hub is devoted to clothes and accessories. As with the book sorting, the system up here is similar and just as efficient. The clothes bag mountain is loaded onto a conveyor belt and sorted according to quality.
Pieces that can be sold online, at festivals or given to designers to reuse and restyle get put to one side.
Clothes that are wearable but unlikely to be sold in the UK are sent down a chute and will make their way to Senegal to an Oxfam project called Frip Ethique. These clothes will be sold at markets by women in Senegal to raise money in the fight against poverty in the country. And yes, ladies, this is where your donated bras end up.
Heavy clothes, fabrics and mixed rags are sent down another chute to be sent to Wastesaver, the Oxfam warehouse in Huddersfield. These then get re-sorted and tend to be sent to other Oxfam’s projects where warmer clothes are needed.
The rest is sent down a chute marked ‘waste’.
But it is anything but.
These items are packed down tight (and by tight, I mean really, really tight – each bale weighs 400 kilos) and the solid blocks of material then get sold on to become car seat stuffing.
Rags to riches
But what then happens to those clothes that can be sold in the UK?
Once picked off the conveyor belt, these clothes get hung up and steamed to make sure they are all clean and fresh for their new owners. If they aren’t being taken to be sold at festivals, they are photographed and uploaded to the Oxfam online shop. Volunteers write a description for each item and note down all details like brand, size, fabric and colour – just like on any other clothing website.
Then, just like the books, they are stored carefully in the warehouse amidst the many, many rails of clothes to hang quietly until someone buys them to start their clothing life anew.
I have to say at the end of my tour, my mouth was still hanging open and I was left utterly astonished and totally delighted by what I’d seen. The level of recycling within the warehouse was better than I had hoped or even dreamed. Not a single thing goes to waste. Everything gets sold or recycled. Even their post bags are recyclable.
What’s more, this operation is predominantly run by volunteers.
To give you some idea of the amount of work there is and the sheer volume of stuff they sort through, here are a few facts for you to mull over:
On average, every single day:
I was incredibly impressed with the entire system at Oxfam. Not only have they thought everything through to the last step (which is never the landfill), they also have an amazing team of hard working staff and volunteers.
I couldn’t be happier to know that whether my vintage coat was sold instore, my slightly dowdy t-shirt was sent to Senegal, my extra copy of Harry Potter was sold online or my scratched up Vengaboys CD (yes, I really did have one) was recycled – what matters is that my donations to Oxfam have gone somewhere positive and not just ended up the landfill.
What else can I say except, Oxfam, you are brilliant and I salute you.
(Special thanks to Crispin and MK Hub for allowing me to come poke around)
All photos by: Jo Corrall