A growing population and an unsustainable build-up of waste and complacency with non-renewable, single use products and fast fashion is contributing to many of the environmental issues we face today.
Did you know an estimated 400,000 tonnes of textile waste is sent to landfill annually in Australia alone, with millions of tonnes dumped worldwide?
The push for a circular economy is however starting to gain traction, with organisations, businesses, researchers and investors all working towards a common goal - diverting textile waste from landfill by recycling the textiles into its raw components for reuse, and avoiding traditional textile dyeing manufacturing methods known to be harmful to our environment.
From waste denim to cellulose and coloured powders
In Victoria there is a team of researchers focussed on finding new and innovative ways of reusing cotton fabrics, in particular denim, quite possible Australia’s largest single item of clothing contributing to textile landfill.
Researchers at the Institute for Frontier Materials at Deakin University, have found a way of dissolving the waste cotton (from denim) using a neutral solvent (an ionic liquid), and then regenerating the cellulose fibres through a wetspinning process.
These fibres can then be used to make other knitted or woven fabrics.
“The regenerated cellulose fibres can be either white or coloured, depending on the pretreatments used.” Said Professor Xungai Wang (pictured below).
They can also create fine coloured powders from the waste denim and apply the coloured powder onto white fabrics, completely avoiding the traditional textile dyeing process known to be harmful to the environment. That’s investigating two major issues for our environment: textile landfill and effluent discharge in our waterways.
“This ability to retain a significant proportion of colour in the regenerated fibres has the potential to lead to far less pollutant-intense fibre manufacturing processes.” Said Prof. Wang“
The dye run-off from denim production, known to pollute local water supplies, is an environmental problem we thought needed to be addressed. The ability to shift how we dye fabrics was a real challenge but we think we have found a solution that would minimise water use and effluent discharge.”
When it comes to turning waste textiles to its raw components, blended textiles (synthetic and natural fibre fabrics) are a different story and much more difficult to process and recycle, and Professor Wang is investigating this challenge with researchers at the new Australian Research Council Hub for Functional Fibres located at Deakin University (recently announced July 2021).
Meanwhile in the north, a new facility to address the complicated nature of blended textiles is being built.
BlockTexx is building the world’s first commercial scale chemical textile recycling plant, designed to turn blended polyester and cotton fabrics back into their raw materials, and will address the vast amounts of textile waste heading for landfill.
The company, now building the plant in SE Queensland, has developed a patent pending recycling process for textiles, in particular for blended textiles which have been difficult to recycle, until now.
BlockTexx founders Graham Ross and Adrian Jones (pictured l-r below), began working with researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to create a process that could separate the cotton and polyester blends commonly found in clothing. The result was a chemical separation process called SOFT (separation of fibre technology), which turns cotton to cellulose and polyester to flake.
The patent-pending technology will be used at BlockTexx’s new facility in Logan City, which is set to commence commercial-scale operation in early 2022, after Founders Ross and Jones raised $5.5 million through private investment and government funding to bring its vision to life.
“We are very excited that the dream we had four years ago is now becoming a commercial reality here in Loganholme. We will initially scale at 4000 tonnes per year, and are absolutely committed to this being the first of many owned and licensed facilities here and around the world". Said Adrian Jones.
They have appointed Chemical engineer Karen Cardona (pictured above) as the BlockTexx General Manager (Engineering and Technology) who will oversee the new facility, and is currently setting up the operations and procedures at the plant.
“BlockTexx focuses on the component materials in discarded clothing, sheets and towels, which are predominantly made from polyester and cotton. Our process recovers these raw fibres so they can be reused.” Said Cardona.
“The repurposing of these fibres ensures they get a second life across a variety of new products, spanning textiles, packaging and building products.”
Although the company is starting small, the aim is to scale up, with the BlockTexx team envisaging licensing the technology globally.
“We’re in a unique position to make a real impact. This is the first time this industry has seen a commercial-scale solution that creates a true circular economy.” Said Cardona.
More about BlockTexx: https://www.blocktexx.com/