Textile recycling may give a new life to clothes that can’t be donated to charity
You’ve bought well, then made do and mended, but that favorite old shirt, skirt or pair of shoes is now beyond repair and in no condition to be foisted upon the volunteers of your local second-hand shop.
But with Australians sending an estimated 6 tonnes of clothing to landfill every 10 minutes, coming up with other options than simply chucking old clothes in the bin is part of tackling our waste problem.
Restyling, upcycling and repurposing are all ways of eking a bit of extra life out of a garment. Textile recycling is often touted as the final step in this chain. So is it an option for most Australians?
Not yet, but hopefully soon, says Veena Sahajwalla, a materials engineer at the University of New South Wales.
Textile recycling is about looking at how individual components in an old garment can be reused.
“At the macro level, the textile can rip apart and tear but at the micro level a lot of the fibres are still well and truly alive.”
Commercial textile recycling generally involves breaking down fabrics into a form where they can be spun back out into new yarns.
For natural fibres like cotton and wool, the material is shredded, blended and combed, and then spun into a yarn that can be woven or knitted back into cloth.
But the end result is lower quality than virgin materials because the fibres are shorter and the fabric doesn’t have as fine a texture.
(This is actually where the word “shoddy” comes from — shoddy is a fabric made from woollen waste cloth or clippings.)
The process is different for synthetic fabrics like polyester, which are shredded, then granulated and formed into plastic pellets called nurdles (another fun word).
These pellets undergo a few processes so they can be melted, extruded and spun into a new fibre.
Because recycling natural and synthetic fibres involve different processes, recycling blended fabrics — which so many of our clothes are made from — is a challenge, according to fashion sustainability expert Clara Vuletich, whose research focuses on sustainable textiles.
“People were able to crudely recycle say, cotton or wool, but they really didn’t know what to do when it was a polyester mixed with a cotton,” Dr Vuletich said.
The answer to that is chemical recycling: where solvents are used to dissolve the material so the synthetic components can be taken out and recycled, but this has its own challenges as it involves flushing away the natural fibre components, she said.
How widespread is textile recycling?
There are some commercial-scale textile recycling facilities overseas but the industry is still in its infancy in Australia.
Quite a few research groups and entrepreneurs are experimenting with new techniques for extracting both natural and synthetic components from fabrics and turning them into substances that can be reused, but the next piece in the puzzle is scaling it up, Dr Vuletich said.
“There’s a lot of noise around this at the moment but it’s actually all just at the very early scale,” she said.
But perhaps large-scale industry isn’t the only answer. Professor Sahajwalla thinks micro-recycling could be a more sustainable way of dealing with waste.
Her research group has been developing a way of breaking down fabrics and then re-forming them into building materials such as wall and flooring panels.
She hopes the technology her group has developed will be able to be deployed within communities, where waste collection and reimagining happen at a local level.
“We are moving away from the notion that everything we make has to be done on a mass scale,” Professor Sahajwalla said.
“Instead of economies of scale, which we’re used to thinking about, we’re talking about economies of purpose.”
Professor Sahajwalla’s textile recycling method breaks down fabrics — both natural and synthetic — to the molecular level, allowing them to be turned in to almost anything, not necessarily just another fabric.
“To an everyday person, when we talk about recycling it’s very much about replacing like for like,” Professor Sahajwalla said.
“What we are doing is recognising that the elements that are there in the textiles are not essentially bad just because the textile is no longer fit for use.
“By the time you’ve broken it down to those micro-elements, you can bring it back to life and use it in a whole range of products.”
Thinking beyond downcycling, where items are reused but for a lower-quality purpose, was key to being truly sustainable, she said.
“I don’t want to downplay the thing that a lot of people do — just cut it up and use it as rags — that’s OK if that material is not really fit for any other purpose.
“But if you’ve got really superb quality textiles, why would you just downgrade it?”
How can I recycle my clothes?
For the average Australian, finding a way to recycle clothes was still a challenge, Dr Vuletich said.
Some places you can donate old clothing do accept garments that are no longer wearable.
Some of these are turned into industrial rags or possibly recycled in overseas facilities, although it’s often hard to tell exactly where these donations end up.
Check with your local council about what’s available in your area, because tonnes of donations to charities aren’t able to be used, leaving them to pay millions of dollars a year in tip fees.
Dr Vuletich encouraged people to actively lobby governments and industry to invest in recycling facilities.
“I think some Australian brands would be willing to try that a bit more, but we don’t have the infrastructure and systems in Australia,” she said.
“You need to help investors and entrepreneurs and give them a kick start to find the solutions, because a lot of the solutions are there.”