Australians throw out 6000kg of textiles every 10 minutes. Do you know what else weighs 6000kg? The average African bush elephant. Every 10 minutes.
Second only to the US, Australians are some of the largest consumers of clothing in the world, buying an average of 27kg of clothing a year each and disposing of 23kg.
Of that amount, about 85% ends up in landfill. Only 15% is resold, reused or recycled, creating a variety of human and environmental problems.
Alison Jose is the Director of the Circular Fashion Centre and Sustainable Textile Supply Chain. She is on a mission to make fashion circular by creating processes and sustainable fabric options that keep useful “waste” resources in the supply chain.
She says that the traditional take, make, waste model is no longer tenable, and it doesn’t make environmental or economic sense for brands to continue creating in that way.
Jose works with brands to develop and incorporate sustainable fabrics that are made in a closed-loop process. That means they’re made without losing resources like water and chemicals used to create the yarn for fabrics.
An example of the natural fibres that she works with are Modal™, Tencel™ and the latest and most eco, EcoVero™ by Lenzing AG – sustainable alternatives to generic fibres such as lyocell and viscose.
These yarns are made by extracting the cellulose of wood pulp from sustainably sourced beechwood and eucalyptus trees – the majority of which are grown close-by in Austria, Bulgaria and Poland to minimise carbon emissions. Lenzing has achieved the highest European rating for forestry practices with 99% wood sourced from sustainable and renewable forestry operations. It is certified or inspected according to the FSC® and/or PEFCTM standards, plus accredited by CanopyPlanet who monitor forestry culling for fabric use.
Lenzings’s process uses chemicals that are saved and kept to be reused. The cellulose is then turned into a glue-like substance, pushed out through a spinneret (just like spaghetti), solidified, turned into yarn and finished. The closed chemical loop production is now at 99.8% capture and has been developed over 80 years. It is a complex recycling system that includes a bleaching process that doesn’t use environmentally harmful chloride as is normally used in these fabrics.
The brand is making a number of different virgin and recycled fibres in this way to help save resources including water minimisation while creating a high-quality, sustainable fabric that’s 100% biodegradable at the end of its life.
Jose says there are many different natural and sustainable fibres that can be made this way using cellulose waste. She works with fabrics made from salvaged banana stems, aloe vera leaves and even unused milk and soybean protein.
She says the next step is making sure we extend the lifetime and usefulness of these fabrics by treating them as an on-going resource, and she’s exploring different ways of doing this through the Circular Fashion Centre.
One of the projects she’s working on is implementing textile recycling pick-up points (like op shop clothing bins) where people can take their old clothes so the fabrics can be recycled or repurposed into other products rather than going to landfill.
“There would be two bins. One bin for clothes that can still be re-worn or need minor maintenance which can be on-sold locally or repaired before being sent to Africa where there is a large second-hand clothing market of quality used clothes,” she says.
“The second bin would be for clothes that can’t be saved – underwear, old t-shirts, dresses that have seen their last day, clothes that you normally put in the garbage.
“We then bundle and transport locally to our social enterprise partners to sort the clothes into wool, denim, cotton, and blended fibres. Wool can be repurposed into filters for exhaust fans. Denim can be reused so we work with NFPs who can benefit from it. Water consumptive cotton can be shredded and reused.”
Jose says that what’s crucial here is the removal and repurposing of the synthetics and blended fabrics to keep them out of the fashion supply chain as much as possible to avoid the shedding of microplastics.
“Repurposing these into products that require zero water in production and don’t go into the washing machine is the safest option,” she says.
“There are many potential uses for salvaged fabrics, including carpet tiles, underlay, and even furniture and building materials.”
More and more opportunities are coming up to keep resources in the supply chain at all stages of production, and brands are learning about the circular economy to see how they can reduce their environmental impact and think of waste as a valuable resource.
Jose is working with a number of Australian and international brands and eco-digital printers who are coming out with a range of fabrics and garments to support the mission. Luxury brands Prada and Stella McCartney have already started, and are turning textile and carpet waste into new garments. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes the new normal.