Last week, the Australian Fashion Council received a $1m grant to start working with industry to reduce the country’s mountain of textile waste. It’s a sum that pales in comparison with the money on offer for recycling other products, however, and it has left some in the industry feeling underwhelmed.
Julie Boulton and Aleasha McCallion are project managers at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and co-authors of a report about a circular T-shirt that was released in March this year. McCallion says the $1m grant, when compared to other waste streams, is further evidence that the fashion industry is “consistently overlooked and underestimated, both on economic value and on how the system touches every single person”.
The grant, which will help establish the country’s first national product stewardship scheme for textiles, is part of a $1bn plan to transform Australia’s waste and recycling that was announced last year. At the time, $190m was earmarked for new infrastructure to recycle plastic, paper, tyres and glass, a figure that dwarfs the amount granted to fashion waste so far.
Kellie Hush, the acting CEO of the fashion council, says there is “a long way to go obviously, but it’s a great start to have the federal government on board and taking notice of the issue”.
The issue being the 23kg of clothing the average Australian dumps in landfill each year – putting Australians in the unenviable position of being the second highest textile consumers in the world, per capita, behind the US. While it is possible to recycle clothing in Australia, the sector has very low rates of uptake thanks to a lack of infrastructure to collect, sort and recycle textiles.
The council will use the grant money to collaborate with industry stakeholders – including designers, retailers, manufacturers, charities and textile recyclers – to create three reports by March 2023. The first will look at data and material flow. The second will analyse global initiatives, policies and technologies promoting circularity in textiles. The third will make recommendations for how to move forward, including a roadmap to 2030 in line with National Waste Policy Action Plan targets.
We are five to 10 years behind what’s been going on in the EU
Hush says the first stage is about collaborating with industry to investigate what’s realistic. She says once the reports are written, “we’ll have recommendations and I can assure you that some of those, or most of those, will require investment with the federal government and private enterprise to help us fund those programs”.
Alice Payne is an associate professor in fashion design at Queensland University of Technology and one of the experts who will shape the scheme. She says: “This is just the beginning of what will actually be a longer journey … this amount of funds is a way of bringing stakeholders together.” She says they will build on existing work in scholarly literature and reports from around the world and tailor them to “the Australian context in consultation with Australian stakeholders”.
These conversations will explore changes in design and manufacturing for durability, as well as charitable recycling and second-hand business models, the need for innovation and investment in recycling technology, and consumer education. For now, the focus is on industry and not on policy or legislative change.
The principles of a circular fashion industry are well established, but have recently been popularised by international non-profits like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which produces significant research and reports on circularity in fashion. According to the foundation, a circular fashion industry is one where clothes are designed to be recyclable and durable, so they can be worn more and repaired, and shared and resold until their end of life, when they are collected to be recycled or returned to the earth.
McCallion and Boulton drew on the work of the foundation to write their report on a circular t-shirt. “We should be looking to retrofit great examples from overseas to the Australian context and working together to advance the agenda as fast as possible,” says McCallion. “We aren’t reinventing the wheel.”
If you’re going to solve the problem of textile waste, you have to do it at volume, you can’t be artisanal
Adrian Jones, BlockTexx
They say there is evidence overseas that circularity works when you have industry collaboration alongside legislation and policy change.
Boulton says: “We are five to 10 years behind what’s been going on in the EU, France, the Netherlands, Germany. They’re currently having these debates on labelling and banning textile waste … that’s what we should be doing. It’s silly to focus on locally made products, it’s such a tiny part. We need to go further than product stewardship and we need government regulation to look at what is coming in and stop the bad stuff.”
The European Union is currently working on legislation to manage and control textile waste. From 2023 all clothes and shoes sold in the EU will have colour-coded labels informing customers of the product’s environmental impact. Under the European Commission’s waste framework directive, member states will have to set up separate collections for textiles by 2025. Payne says whether or not this model is followed will be determined by “conversations with councils as well as with state governments and the like. It might be part of it but it’s something that will have to be determined in the group.”
Adrian Jones is the co-founder of BlockTexx, a technology company building Australia’s first large scale textile recycling facility in Logan, Queensland. He also believes the government needs to set a legislative framework, because under voluntary codes businesses don’t change.
“We’ve only seen significant change in France, the Netherlands and Denmark because governments have said we are moving towards an export ban, or a producer pay scheme or a consumer pay scheme, or a combination of all of the above. Then we’ve seen significant growth of onshore chemical recycling.”
The BlockTexx plant uses chemical recycling technology, which is preferred over mechanical as it produces a higher quality material that can be recycled again. In three years the plant should be processing 10,000 tonnes of textile waste annually. Jones says: “If you’re going to solve the problem of textile waste, you have to do it at volume, you can’t be artisanal.”
He says the infrastructure required for large-scale recycling would cost “tens of millions of dollars” but it doesn’t all need to come from government. To fund their new plant, BlockTexx raised $5.5m: $1m from the federal government, $1m from the Queensland government and $3.5m from private investment.
Even so, he’s glad the $1m grant has been awarded to the fashion council. “I just hope it’s well spent and doesn’t produce a whole lot of research that says ‘wouldn’t it be good if we did something about textile waste?’ We kind of know that.”