Textile waste enters circular economy

WHILE concern about the carbon footprint of heavy manufacturing is widely discussed, less focus has been on contributions from textile wastage and production inefficiencies.

Some consumers donate clothes to op shops, thinking this is the best and most eco-friendly option. Others simply discard clothing when they no longer have a use for it.

Asthma Foundation volunteers at the foundation’s Coorparoo op shop sorting through donations to see what can be sold, what will be exported or what will go to landfill.
by Stephanie Spencer
Asthma Foundation volunteers at the foundation’s Coorparoo op shop sorting through donations to see what can be sold, what will be exported or what will go to landfill.


Perhaps few realise that textile waste contributes to climate change through the release of methane gas during decomposition or CO2, carbon and other chemicals when burned.

According to textile researchers working in Asia, there are ways to reduce the carbon footprint throughout the entire life cycle of textile products.

“Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned”
Ellen Macarthur Foundation

Writing in the Fibers and Polymers journal, they say one of the promising ways to minimise the carbon footprint of textiles is to either recycle any waste, instead of depositing it in landfill sites, or to recycle textile products when they are no longer being used.

Operating in Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has as its primary mission to “accelerate the transition to a circular economy”.

It works with business, government and academia to “build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.

“Every second, the equivalent of one garbage truck of textiles is landfilled or burned,” the foundation notes on its website.

Asthma Foundation Brisbane regional manager Matthew Thurecht.
by Stephanie Spencer
Asthma Foundation Brisbane regional manager Matthew Thurecht.

Asthma Foundation Brisbane regional manager Matthew Thurecht said, if there was a significant amount of damage to a product – such as a large number of rips, tears or stains – it would be “very difficult” to recover or reuse the item.

“Then we start coming into the realm of illegal dumping. That’s when we’re starting to talk about items that really … are unable to be re-purposed.”

That, he said, was where the real costs would start mounting up for charities. That, and trying to manage illegal dumping at their premises or in and around their collection bins.

St Vincent de Paul executive officer, transformation and commercial operations, Susan Goldie said her organisation had quantified the impact on its bottom line.

“Unfortunately, we are not able to re-sell everything that the public donates to us,” Susan said.

“In fact, we are doing some research at the moment to really drill down into this detail, but we estimate that only about 25 per cent of clothing which is donated to us is able to be re-sold.”

Open charity bin with contents spewing outside, a good portion of them unable to be recycled
Charities need to sort through donations to remove items not suitable for reuse. Illegal dumping outside donation bins is also a costly complication for those not-for-profit bodies.

Charitable organisations are able to profit through recycling initiatives, such as selling textile exports, scrap metals and extracting resources, for example, pulping books.

“We receive a lot of clothes through donations which are not suitable to be sold in our shops,” Susan explained.

“We sell them to overseas markets where they are sold in developing countries.

“Unfortunately, these textiles may ultimately end up in another country’s landfill over time.”

But there is only so much charities can do, given it is neither their responsibility to recycle and dispose of society’s waste nor, in most cases, do they have the funding or personnel to do so.

Perhaps there is hope that, in future, younger Australians will act on the need to reduce textile waste.

Griffith University Queensland College of Art student Rose Hocking re-sews old items.
by Kahlin van der Borgh
Griffith University Queensland College of Art student Rose Hocking re-sews old items.

Rose Hocking, a 21-year-old university student has alternative ways to live an eco-conscious lifestyle and her ethos is to re-purpose her old clothing.

“I try to repurpose clothing by embellishing things through hand stitching or patching, sometimes cutting and re-sewing old items to make new ones,” Rose explained.

“If the items aren’t of great quality anymore, I try to use the fabrics for household items (such as) cleaning cloths, or just save some of the fabrics to use for patching.

“Repurposing clothes benefits me as it enables me to create a new item out of an old one and will encourage me to use them for longer, which then limits my purchasing of new clothing.”

While alternatives to donating clothing are available, ultimately consumers need to be reusing what has already been produced in an effort to “close the loop”.

The phrase refers to the process of extending a garment’s lifecycle through re-purposing, re-manufacturing or recycling the item to ethically produce a new item.

Ideally, the garment does not have an end-of-life date and, instead, is made into a constantly changing renewable resource.

Seljak Blankets is an Australian company that’s leading the way to a circular textile economy with the creation of sustainable products.

Working alongside her sister, Karina, co-founder Sam Seljak explained the process of creating their sustainable, merino wool blanket company.

Seljak sisters, Karina and Sam.
Supplied by Seljak Blankets
Seljak sisters, Karina and Sam.


“Karina and I were inspired by the circular economy, the school of thought that rejects the ‘take, make waste’ linear model that society mostly uses,” Sam said.

Instead, she explained, Seljak embraces a model where things are built to last and to be re-used, but also to be re-manufactured at the end of its life.

For instance, Seljak blankets use waste as a resource, so the company is not contributing to the demand for virgin fibres.

“We collect blankets from our customers when they no longer want them and remanufacture them into more blankets,” Sam said.

“The recycled (mostly woollen) fibres become short when you chop them up, so we use polyester in our blankets for the short fibres to grab on to.

Sam said the polyester particles are melted first into pellet, then back into fibres that can be interwoven with the yarn.

“Our blankets contain 70 per cent minimum of recycled merino wool, but the (remainder) is just a combination of polyester and whatever else is on the factory floor,” Sam explained. “This could be alpaca hair or, sometimes, cotton.”

Although donating clothes to – or buying from – op shops is an ethical, environmentally friendly choice, before they surrender items, people need to consider whether the garment is of high enough quality for reselling.

If not, could the item be repaired, used for cleaning or some creative project, or, perhaps, given to a family member or friend?

Should consumers need to purchase new textiles, supporting ethical, closed-loop businesses is one way to help reduce waste.


Words: Kahlin van der Borgh
Images: Kahlin van der Borgh / The Argus; Stephanie Spencer / The Argus


Want to read more?
The original version of this story is one of 30 in a special online Climate Change edition of The Argus that was compiled by Queensland College of Art students from a final-year course called Transmedia Storytelling.