LONDON – Textile-textile recycling is viewed as the Holy Grail where fashion is concerned. Being able to turn old clothing into new clothing would in theory enable the fashion industry to achieve its circularity objectives and, to a certain extent, continue with business as usual.
That’s the marketing story, in any case. The truth is somewhat more nuanced, and one only need visit a few textile recycling mills to see that our industry is a million miles away from turning the concept of circularity into reality. Textile recycling in all its forms is a hard slog, involving blood, sweat and no few tears. If you want to get rich quick, this industry is not for you.
We’ve argued for years that more openness, transparency and pragmatism is required in this space, and that what is and is not possible – commercially at least – is being oversold. There’s no harm in celebrating achievements but these should always be balanced with the fact that our industry still produces mountain upon mountain of poor-quality clothing which is fit only for landfill.
We’ve followed the main recyclers and technology businesses in this space for years. Australian company BlockTexx has always struck us as an outfit which has remained level-headed and honest about what can and cannot be achieved in the recycling space.
So it came as no surprise at all to us when the company recently announced a world-first: the opening of a commercial operation in Loganholme, Queensland, Australia. This facility will recycle around 50,000 tonnes of textiles and create 140 jobs over the next four years, if all goes to plan.
This is the first commercial scale textile resource recovery facility focussed on blended (cotton-polyester) products in the world. The patented technology of BlockTexx, S.O.F.T. (separation of fibre technology) processes pure polyester, poly/cotton blends, pure cotton and any other cellulosic material.
BlockTexx will hit the ground running, despite the challenging economic environment. The business has months of runway of feedstock, long-term feedstock supply contracts which exceed capacity and a long-term sales contract for its cellulose (CellTexx™). On the polyester side, trials continue with industrial partners using BlockTexx’ rPET pellets (PolyTexx™).
The recycling process of BlockTexx sees material being placed into a bespoke reactor, where polyester and cotton are separated. Cotton is broken down to cellulose, and this can be used for paints, cosmetics, concrete and other sectors. Polyester goes through a heating and liquifying process to be turned into pellets that can be used for playground equipment, furniture, coat-hangers and other products.
In terms of feedstock, BlockTexx receives materials to recycle from large scale laundries and workwear companies.
On the eve of the commercialisation of its new facility, Apparel Insider caught up with Graham Ross, co-founder of BlockTexx, to find out more about the company’s progress and general state of the textile recycling industry globally.
Apparel Insider: What percentage of what you take in would otherwise be heading for landfill?
Graham Ross: Through our S.O.F.T. (separation of fibre technology) process, we achieve a very high processing recovery rate of almost 1 to 1 from feedstock input, around a 95 percent recovery rate.
Apparel Insider: I understand you will be taking workwear and also textiles from laundries. I am guessing this is because these are easiest to recycle right? What about old clothing? Why are you not taking that?
Graham Ross: BlockTexx is focussed on providing real solutions to our supply customers’ unwanted textiles. Textiles are used across a wide spectrum of industries, not just in retail clothing. Through our research in Australia and globally, we identified entire sectors of the market with limited end of life solutions. Because of security concerns and/or unusable garments, these sectors had only two options – burn it or bury it
As our facility’s capacity scales, we will integrate more post-consumer clothing into our feedstock intake. Again, like the feedstock we get from our commercial partners, the fibre blend is critical to our process. Polyester/cotton blends, 100 percent polyester and cellulosics are our preferred fibres and brands using these materials will be our priority.
Recycling is hampered by the excessive use of complex fabric blends and non-recyclable fibres. This can be mitigated through shared knowledge and direct advice to clothing manufacturers. This methodology will support their decisions in regards to fibre selection and inform garment manufacturers on how to design their garments to be recycled at end of life.
This year, BlockTexx launched a design consultancy unit to do just that. We are now successfully operating a product stewardship scheme with workwear partners with the goal of the program to develop a circular solution for these clients.
Apparel Insider: On the issue of polyester, as this fibre is notoriously challenging for recycling. I understand you are in trials but what potentially will your rPET pellets be used for?
Graham Ross: There are no fibre spinning capabilities in Australia, so our product customers are currently domestic industrial. As you would expect, we have interest from textile mills to begin polyester fibre trials. When processing capacity increases in the facility, we will begin to follow up on these opportunities. There is considerable interest from mills and fibre manufacturers for our product.
As we are scaling our processing into 2023, we are conscious of the commercial scale volumes required to meet an operating mill.
Our onshore focus is with injection moulding companies producing products such as playground equipment and with geotextile manufacturers. Geotextiles provide reinforcement, drainage and filtration of construction materials in a variety of infrastructure projects such as rail, building and mining developments.
Apparel Insider: What about on the cellulose side? Could you tell us more about what will happen with outputs from recycled cotton?
Graham Ross: BlockTexx is creating a valuable and sustainable new resource for industry. We have, for example, partnered with Vital Chemicals, an Australian manufacturer of erosion control and regrowth products. Vital Chemicals has developed an industry leading product using BlockTexx’s recovered cellulose (CellTexx™) that is sprayed onto large scale infrastructure sites to stabilise soil and replant broadacre development zones.
Apparel Insider: It sounds like you are taking a pragmatic approach to textile recycling? And not trying to ‘close the loop’ in fashion?
Graham Ross: For BlockTexx, the importance of our technology is to divert textiles from landfill and manufacture recycled materials for reuse. Textile fibre reuse isn’t our priority at this time, for us the importance is to meet domestic market demand as we begin to build a profitable business for the future.
Adrian and I have always had a commercial lens on our company’s development. Whether that is hand in hand with our scientists, our clients or the government. Our view is that we are building more than just one recycling facility, what we are doing is laying the foundations for Australia’s textile recovery industry.
Textile resource recovery is challenging, clothing collection and sortation is fragmented and the developed technology is nascent and cutting edge. Closing the loop on the fashion industry is complex and will take time, great effort and increased investment.
Apparel Insider: Do you think progress on ‘closed loop’ fashion is perhaps being oversold?
Graham Ross: Commercial scale fibre to fibre production is much more technologically and economically complex than is often described in reports. Early innovators in the blended fibre recycling space are still working towards this .
A sustainable recycling industry is more than technology, business models have to be economically viable.
There are a growing number of consortiums focused on collection and sortation. While this infrastructure is essential for scaled chemical recycling, we can’t lose sight of what is required to deal with the problems of over production and landfilled clothing.
Apparel Insider: What do you believe needs to happen to push the needle on clothing recycling issues in terms of commercialisation?
Graham Ross: As has been reported in multiple industry reports such as FFG’s ‘Financing the Transformation in the Fashion Industry’ – priority needs to be for large scale investment from industry and governments in end of life innovations, hand in hand with strong regulatory policy.
These levers can accelerate the growth of resource recovery companies like BlockTexx, enabling scaled solutions across the world. Otherwise we will have lots of really well sorted piles of unwanted clothes with no capacity to do anything with them.
It’s the cart before the horse.
We also have to be mindful of the economic value of unwanted clothing. Given the volumes destined for landfill year on year in every country, to most, its value is close to zero.
In the transition to a circular economy, existing and evolving collection and sortation models have to be careful that their vision is not limited by their purpose and their purpose is not simply self-serving: where there is the potential to create a model with a cost of doing business that isn’t financially viable for recyclers.
Adrian and I made a conscious decision to focus on developing our technology to a commercial scale and not being tempted with opportunities for small scale pilots or overly ambitious product development. How many more reports do we need about the problem of textile waste in Australia and across the world that leave the solution hanging? For us 1000 tonnes in landfill is too much, let alone millions of tonnes when there isn’t a recycling solution.
Apparel Insider: Do you feel a bit cut off from conversations in this space being based in Australia? How can you change that and how can you make what you are doing more connected with what is going on globally in fashion supply chains?
Graham Ross: We haven’t been totally cut off, BlockTexx is close to Asia where most of the world’s textile and garments are manufactured. We have been involved with the global industry through Fashion For Good’s Asian accelerator program, Plug and Play’s Innovator accelerator program and belong to many industry associations. Like alternatives in this space, we have had many conversations over the years with most of the major fashion brands and manufacturers.
Now we are operational, Adrian and I will accelerate the discussions we have had with industry partners and foreign governments to bring our textile recovery solution to the global problem of textile waste.