Recycling textiles for sector-agnostic circularity

Otis Robinson

JUL 28, 2020

Otis Robinson speaks with Graham Ross, co-founder of BlockTexx, a company that aims to recycle textiles via chemical separation while pushing sector-agnostic circularity from its HQ in the global south.

Within the textile industry, the word sustainability has become marred by misconception and its legacy cluttered with empty promises. Consumers – increasingly aware and more vocal than ever – criticise brands who falsely claim sustainability. Plenty use it as merely a marketing ploy, thus, it can be hard to wade through what is genuine and what is false.

In July (2020), Fashion For Good, a global initiative that connects innovators to industry to drive adoption of sustainable solutions, hosted a webinar in which Adrian Jones, co-founder of an Australian start-up named BlockTexx, commented that consumers are on the lookout for true and demonstrative change. Graham Ross, also company co-founder, suggests BlockTexx’s sustainable solution is able to combine genuine environmental benefits with marketing opportunities and ‘real dollars’ – consequently pleasing the demands of both consumers and businesses – and that it has been a long-time coming.

“It’s remarkable that it’s taken so long for brands to get on the front foot about sustainability,” says Ross. “[Obviously,] it’s been driven by consumers raising their concerns, and there are incredible opportunities to provide value back to consumers by having sustainable practices or using recycled or reusable materials. But to realise all those opportunities and value, there has to be some investment into innovative technologies such as BlockTexx to get this up and running and get it at scale, so that it can make a real meaningful difference, not just for the environment, but also for businesses.”

LOW-ENERGY, ZERO WASTE
BlockTexx was conceptualised in 2018, when Ross (who had previously developed his own sustainability brand) partnered with Jones (whose experience traversed through several large retail brands including Marks & Spencer) to brainstorm. There are myriad obstacles within the industry, but most importantly, garments continue to pile up at landfills – 80 billion pieces of clothing are consumed each year, or an estimated GB£140m worth of clothing per year, according to WRAP – thus demands for circularity grow higher than ever.

“We both knew fundamentally that there was a large challenge [within the textile industry],” says Ross. “There was nobody looking at [textile recycling] from not only an environmental perspective, but also from a really serious commercial opportunity, and this was an opportunity to reframe [circularity] and recover discarded fibres and fabrics so we wouldn’t have such a large problem at the [garments’] end-of-life.”

Coupled with university researchers, the emergent BlockTexx team created the S.O.F.T. (Separation of Fibre Technology) process, which separates polyester- and cotton-blended fabrics through a ‘low-energy, zero waste’ procedure. Compared to other textiles such as wool, which represented only a fraction of the global market, Ross says polyester cotton offered a ‘great commercial perspective’: synthetic fabrics account for 63% of the material input for textile production, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

The founders first began at laboratory scale. Later, at a small pilot plant with a capacity of tens of kilograms, the process was optimised for several paid trials with companies across the textile industry: “Brands, both pre- and post-consumer; we worked with laundries; workwear; we worked with signage companies, [too],” Ross explains.

By then, the team had crystallised an understanding of not only the materials they would accumulate through end-of-life waste (essentially, what would go into the S.O.F.T. process; textiles ranging from garments, furniture, signage and more) but also what products and materials the procedure would generate at the other end: rPET pellets and cellulose powder. By the end of 2019, BlockTexx was ready to build its first industrial-scale facility, which would accommodate 10,000 tonnes – until the Covid-19 global pandemic hit.

“The original plan was to build a 10,000 tonne facility – which is not very big compared to the stage that our competitors are at – [but now] we’re launching a 3,800 tonne plant, with plans to scale up to 10,000 within a short period of time.”

CLEAN TECHNOLOGY
Ross and Jones distance themselves from specific industry buzzwords – such as waste management and recycling – because they feel popularised perceptions of textile circularity don’t quite hit the mark and are incumbered by legacy industries.

“We’re positioned […] in a new industry. There’s a huge opportunity to reframe the entire industry to allow it to grow separately from […] legacy industries.”

The founders believe textile circularity is weighed down by unrealistic expectations, like recycling textiles for use solely in the textile industry, when there lies much higher potential to recycle fibres and fabrics within a sector-agnostic circular model. As such, BlockTexx positions itself as a clean technology company which utilises its proprietary innovation – S.O.F.T. – to recover fibres and fabrics from polyblend textiles and garments for reuse within industries from construction to cosmetics and more.

The patent pending S.O.F.T. process has been developed and optimised over the past two years. Ross describes the chemical separation process: it unlocks cotton from polyester, recovering 100% of the polyester and leaves a by-product that is claimed to be entirely recyclable water. The disintegration of the constituents of polycotton blend textiles may hold massive potential for fibre circularity that transcends industries.

“The cotton breaks down into a cellulose powder; the polyester remains inert, and we put this through a simple melting process and end up with an rPET pellet,” Ross says. “The rPET has opportunities to go into textiles, or any injection moulding, while the cellulose has opportunities to go into the building industry, the cosmetics industry, the pharmaceutical industry or the food industry.

“Investors are keen to [create a closed loop] within their one industry in one sector, [but] they are missing out on opportunities to get into the market quicker, or into areas that are maybe just as high-demand and just as profitable, but also allow you to scale your business quicker.”

BlockTexx’s remit to restructure circularity has been proven in its pilot testing. While working with a hotelier that would typically send its waste linens to landfills, BlockTexx used S.O.F.T. to separate the fabric’s constituents. Later, the extracted polyester was turned into early-stage coat-hangers for use in the hotel’s accommodation areas. Ross explains the benefits of such a business model: “For them, that saves their linens ending up in landfill, but also provides a product (the coat-hangers), that they would normally have to buy, back into their operations at a reduced cost.

“That’s with a reduced amount of CO2 emissions (from avoiding landfills) that they can bring into their sustainability targets. It becomes a fantastic marketing story that they can share within their staff and also to their guests that are staying at the hotels.”

Ross claims the S.O.F.T. process recovers around 95% of input – “Pretty much, almost one-for-one,” he adds – which means around 3,600 tonnes of fibres and textiles could be recovered in BlockTexx’s planned 3,800 tonne capacity facility. BlockTexx can also offer other environmental benefits including the offsetting of CO2 emissions. By sending only 1kg of textiles to BlockTexx instead of landfills, or by utilising 1kg of its recovered constituents instead of virgin or raw materials, Ross says 29 kilograms of CO2 is offset.

GLOBAL SOUTH
Ross suggests this business model is pertinent now more than ever. End-of-life product pileups may increase following the Covid-19 pandemic as the closure of retailers led to a surplus of unwanted and unused garments; consequently, this may lead to a collapse in the second-hand clothing collection market as their value plummets. Such demand means BlockTexx’s clean technology solution should generate a lot of interest, but the pandemic itself has left its own ascension at a stalemate. As the company scales up its S.O.F.T. process, it requires investments to allow consistent growth, he explains.

Ross accredits a limited funding availability to BlockTexx’s location in Australia: innovation in the global south is often overlooked, particularly within the fashion industry, where frequently, funding runs often do not have the mandate to invest outside of their home countries in the global north, even though much of the globe’s garment manufacturing happens in the south, Ross adds.

But he claims the position of the company on the globe, in Australia, gives it the unique ability to access the entire market. There are plans to enable the installation of the patented, proprietary technology in facilities around the globe, but in the meantime its current position also enables low-cost importation of textiles to BlockTexx’s current location. Through the Australian government, pre-consumer or post-industrial materials can be imported into the country tax- and duty-free, with the only cost being shipping charges.

“Those materials can be returned back to a raw material, then turned straight back to the mill. It’s a huge circularity opportunity,” Ross says. “We’re already talking with a few European brands who are incredibly keen to close the loop on that.”

Nevertheless, throughout 2020, Ross and Jones will continue to work to boost awareness of the company and seek investment opportunities through the Fashion For Good platform, all while planning pilot trials with fibre manufacturers and brands to plan for a post Covid-19 industry.

“We’ve got supply and demand partners waiting,” says Ross. “We’re fully staffed up. We just need [investment] money to be able to build the kit and get up and running and we can be at commercial scale very quickly. We are ready to go. As they say in Australia, we are shovel-ready.”

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