Returned clothing ‘should be classed as hazardous waste’

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In an age of coronavirus, should we be taking the chance?

Customers return unwanted clothes to shops for the flimsiest of reasons, and most stores don’t ask questions, but that should be overridden in the age of Covid-19.

That’s the opinion of a nationwide commercial waste handling company, which says that returned clothing should be classed as hazardous waste until proven otherwise.

According to waste collection company, staff working for clothing retailers could be at risk of accidental infection from items sent back what whatever genuine (or flimsy) reason the customer has for not making a purchase.

“The jury’s out on how long the Covid-19 virus can live on surfaces,” says spokesperson Mark Hall, “And that means we should take every precaution for both retail staff and refuse collectors”.

How hazardous can a brand new jumper be?

Hundreds of millions of pounds worth of clothes are returned to the store or mail order company every year, some of which has been worn by the customer.

This beggars the question: How hazardous could a brand new jumper for a pair of jeans be if – say – somebody with coronavirus symptoms sneezes on it?

The answer to this is worrying: We don’t know.

According to the World Health Organisation, the virus could live “for several hours or up to several days” on a surface depending on the humidity and temperature of the environment.

“And that’s not something we want to leave to chance,” says Mark Hall. thinks that retail businesses should think very carefully about their returns policy to restrict the number of items which are sent back. They should also consider each and every parcel they receive should be treated as hazardous until proven otherwise.

“That means either finding some way of quarantining them until any trace of virus is gone, a disinfecting procedure, or immediate safe disposal,” Hall says.

“The safety of their workers should be paramount in cases like this.”

Some clothing retailers are already taking a stand against ‘serial returners’ and suspending the accounts of people who return too many items to save on textile waste, but that’s something that all outlets should think about until the current emergency ends.

“Lockdown has made people change their behaviour in many different ways,” Hall says, “And now they should also think twice about their retail habits.”
What is hazardous waste?

Waste is generally considered hazardous if it is harmful to humans or the environment.

There are very specific government regulations about dealing with this kind of refuse to ensure that it is handled and disposed of safely.
There are also very tight rules for any waste which is considered infectious.

Hazardous waste needs specialist receptacles and experienced staff to ensure its safe disposal, and meticulous record-keeping ensures that all regulations are followed to the letter.

“This is for everybody’s safety,” says Mark Hall of, “not just people in the immediate vicinity, but also for the general public.

“Think of the damage that has been caused in the past by the thoughtless disposal of dangerous waste. That’s why the rules exist.”

Were this were to apply to clothes and any other items thought to be exposed to Covid-19, then it’s certain to add extra layers of difficulty to already hard-pressed companies, but it’s with the very best of intentions.

“This isn’t about drumming up new business for refuse companies – far from it,” says Mark Hall of, “We have a close working relationship with our customers, and we always want what’s best for them and their employees.

“We don’t want our customers to become NHS customers.”

Because if the Covid-19 emergency has taught us anything, it’s to stop and think before we act. Hopefully, this will do the same for shop customers before making a just-in-case mail-order clothes purchase they’re going to return anyway.

“Stop wasting resources. Stop risking lives – that’s the message.”

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