An Australian start-up working on a textile recycling process by turning used fabrics into raw materials says it has funding to build a first commercial-scale factory in Queensland.
The federal government hosted a first national roundtable on textile waste on Wednesday – recognition of a stacking problem that is resulting in Australians discharging around 780,000 tonnes of textile waste each year, according to a National Waste Report 2020.
The problem is exacerbated by the lack of an efficient recycling process. Studies show that many large-scale clothing recycling systems offer negligible benefits and can be as harmful to the environment as the production of raw tissue.
BlockTexx, an Australian company that has developed its process with Queensland University of Technology researchers, hopes it can help “close the loop” by diverting textiles from landfills and replacing virgin materials at the same time.
Company founders Graham Ross and Adrian Jones say the technology has been refined during the pandemic and they now have the $ 5.5 million investment needed to build a first full-scale facility at Logan , south of Brisbane.
Ross and Jones – both apparel and fashion industry veterans – say they have enough supply and demand to expand, before the first factory is built.
“From that original idea, we always knew we were early in the market, but also a lot of technical hurdles that we have to overcome,” said Ross.
“We always seem to be talking about textile waste. We’re still thinking about how we can take that and make it a valuable product.
“The by-product is that we solve environmental problems.”
Alice Payne, associate professor at QUT and program manager at the Center for a Waste-Free World, said problems with textile waste had been accelerated since the 1980s by global trade policies. Lower tariffs encouraged more imports. Cheaper fabrics have allowed the “fast fashion” phenomenon to flourish.
“Clothes are cheaper than ever – you can buy more and more of them,” Payne said.
“At the same time, we have seen this sharp increase in the consumption of synthetic fibers. They are inexpensive, they are easy to consume compared to natural fibers.
“When you mix a synthetic fiber with a natural fiber, you create a monstrous hybrid. The common problem with all recycling attempts is that the more materials you have mixed together, the more problems you have with reusing those resources. “
The process developed by researchers BlockTexx and QUT – called “tissue separation technology” – is remarkable because it is designed to process hybrid tissues. It transforms cotton into cellulose and polyester into flakes for industrial uses such as injection molding.
Their goal for the first plant is to recycle around 10,000 tonnes per year by the end of 2022 – initially focusing primarily on commercial fabrics, including old towels and linens from hotels and hospitals.
Ross said after two years of lab testing they were confident they could bring the process to market and that it produced very high quality recycled raw materials.
“We now have a product where we can constantly compare our product to virgin material,” he said.
The company would start recycling post-consumer waste when it increased its capacity. Plans have been drawn up for a 40,000 tonne plant. BlockTexx plans to license its technology globally.
“[The size of the first plant] is significant, but also only a drop in the ocean in the amount of textiles going to landfill, ”said Ross.
“It’s definitely a global model. The world has a textile problem. Our solution has to go to the problem, because we cannot bring the problem to the solution.
“We see ourselves as a technology company. We already have several large garbage and textiles companies around the world saying it’s really interesting.
“The other smart thing about our model is that it’s very modular – it can be used on a small scale and we can expand it.”
Jones said, “Whatever happens from now on, because a solution exists, we can’t go back.
“I’m not trying to say that from tomorrow we are not going to landfill textiles, we are not going to export textile waste.
“But now we have the opportunity to do something. It really shifts the discussion from the art of the possible to the art of the practical and that’s really important in this space.