Transforming Clothing Waste: Australia’s Fashion Solution

Blake Harris 06/11/2023 Recycling Waste Management
fashion waste

Problems with fashion waste have become a pressing concern in Australia. The rapid pace of fashion consumption, driven by trends and fast fashion culture, has led to an alarming amount of discarded clothing.

“Why is clothing waste an issue?” you may ask. The answer is multifaceted.

The consequences of this waste are severe, impacting the environment, economy, and society at large.

Innovative Solution

At Deakin University in Geelong, a team of dedicated scientists at the Institute for Frontier Materials has been working diligently for the past five years to tackle Australia’s growing textile waste problem. Their solution might just revolutionise the way we think about clothing waste.

Imagine a colourful clay that resembles children’s playdough. What if I told you this clay is made from old clothing?

This is precisely what the scientists at Deakin University have achieved. Their groundbreaking solution involves answering the question, “Why is clothing waste an issue?” by taking waste textiles and grinding them into incredibly fine particles, which are then repurposed as pigments for dyeing new textiles.

This innovative approach has the potential to dramatically reduce the environmental impact of fashion waste.

Challenges and Progress

The road to recycling textiles isn’t without its challenges. Problems with fashion waste often stem from the complex nature of textile materials and the difficulty of recycling them.

One of the major hurdles faced by the Deakin University team is the limitation of recycling single-colour clothing. At present, textiles need to be manually cut and separated before the recycling process can begin.

However, there is promising progress in automating this process, particularly in Europe, where the textile recycling industry is making strides. Another challenge lies in separating different fibres and materials within textiles.

The scientists at Deakin University can currently break down textiles made from up to two materials, with polyester proving to be one of the trickiest. Nevertheless, Dr Rangam Rajkhowa, the lead scientist, has noted that ongoing work with blend materials is showing promising results, indicating potential solutions to these challenges.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of fashion waste cannot be overstated. Discarded clothing takes up valuable landfill space, contributes to soil and water pollution, and releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as it decomposes.

The use of traditional pigments for clothing and various industries often relies on petrochemicals, further exacerbating environmental concerns. The potential to reduce the reliance on petrochemicals by recycling clothing into pigments offers a significant advantage.

This approach could not only minimise the carbon footprint but also create a positive environmental impact. However, it’s crucial to ensure that the entire process remains sustainable.

According to Dr Rajkhowa, the textile recycling process uses approximately 10 to 15 litres of water per kilogram of fabric, but the majority of this water can be recovered in the dyeing process.

Government Initiatives and Future Prospects

To further promote textile recycling and the use of innovative solutions like those developed at Deakin University, government support is essential. In Australia, the federal government has recently introduced a $1 million product stewardship scheme.

This scheme involves adding a 4-cent levy to every new garment sold in the country, but it is not compulsory. Additionally, the stewardship scheme does not yet provide clear answers about what the end products of textile recycling will be.

However, this initiative is a step in the right direction, showcasing the government’s recognition of the textile waste issue. Nevertheless, there remains the need for both financial and regulatory support to make these technologies commercially viable.

Danielle Kent, the project director at the Australian Fashion Council, acknowledges the importance of such innovation. She emphasises that Australians need to reduce over-consumption and place value on reusing clothing already present in their wardrobes.

Textile recycling is not a silver bullet; it’s part of a broader approach to tackling the issue at its root.

Scalability and Future Prospects

One of the critical challenges in fully implementing the textile recycling process developed by Deakin University is scalability. While the innovative use of recycled pigment as paint and screen-printing material has demonstrated its potential, expanding its application on a larger scale requires significant investment and resources.

Ben Kaminsky, co-founder of Textiles Recyclers Australia, recognises the potential of recycled pigment. His company collects waste materials, such as clothes, sheets, and towels, and crushes them to be reused as furniture stuffing.

They receive about 150 tonnes of waste textiles each month from various sources, including charities unable to resell second-hand items. Kaminsky’s vision includes building a factory near Deakin University to produce the recycled pigment at scale.

He envisions multiple uses for this pigment, from topical paints to building products, opening up various pathways for its application. To ensure the success of such endeavours, the environmental impact of recycling must remain lower than that of producing new products, addressing problems with fashion waste effectively.

A Sustainable Path Forward

The growing problem of clothing waste in Australia is not insurmountable. The scientists at Deakin University in Geelong have provided a glimmer of hope with their innovative approach to recycling textiles into pigments.

However, challenges remain, including scalability and government support, which are vital to make this technology commercially viable. In the quest to address clothing waste, it’s not just about recycling; it’s about changing consumer behaviour, reducing over-consumption, and valuing the clothing we already have.

The journey to a more sustainable fashion industry is a collective effort, and while the Deakin University team’s work is a significant step in the right direction, it’s not the sole solution. With increased support, innovation, and a shift in consumer attitudes, Australia can lead the way in redefining its fashion industry and tackling the issue of clothing waste effectively.

By embracing innovative solutions like the one developed at Deakin, we can take a substantial stride towards a more sustainable and environmentally responsible future.

References

Clayton R. Australia’s fashion waste is a growing problem, but these scientists say they have an answer. ABC News. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-11-03/clothing-waste-recycling-technology-discovered-at-deakin-uni/103053214. Published November 3, 2023.

Recycling researchers turn old clothes into paint. ABC News. Published November 3, 2023. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-11-03/recycling-researchers-turn-old-clothes-into-paint/103059366

How local op shops are caught up in the cost-of-living crisis. Dailytelegraph. https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/wentworth-courier/how-local-op-shops-are-caught-up-in-the-costofliving-crisis/news-story/3048659ad2bf63eafa81830db1ff10d2. Published October 30, 2023.

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  • Blake Harris

    Blake is an Editorial Communications to this publication. His responsibilities include researching, writing, and editing feature articles and news reports.

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