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When it comes to textile recycling, let’s be astronauts

Astronaut on rock surface with space background. Elements of this image furnished by NASA

Like many during COVID-19 isolation, I binge watched old films I had enjoyed when my kids were growing up.

I watched the Jurassic Park collection, and in one of the movies Dr Grant, played by Sam Neill, quoted a line that really resonated with me nearly 20 years later as I attempt to build an industrial scale textile recycling industry here in Australia.

He said: “I have a theory that there are two types of boys. Those that want to be astronomers and those that want to be astronauts. The astronomer gets to study amazing things from a place of complete safety.”

Over the past few years, we have seen a significant rise in consumer interest and subsequent engagement in the circular economy, and within our own retail industry, textile recycling.

We have seen this manifest itself in fantastic and thought-provoking TV shows such as ABC’s War on Waste, highlighting the staggering volumes of fast fashion sent to landfill in Australia every year.

We have seen this in the growing number of retailers debating the merits of establishing ‘take back’ schemes in their stores and what to do with the clothes that they collect.

We have certainly seen the growth in workshops, conferences and, more recently Zoom calls, in which the issues of textile waste are discussed at length, agreement is reached on how terrible it is, and how we should do more.

We all agree we have to do more, and we all agree we need to drive a
more circular model and encourage the transition to a circular economy.

As a participant and player in this space, and generally an optimist, I have recently had the rather sinking feeling that we run the risk of becoming very circular in our debate, in fact are we going around and around in circles and not making real change?

Maybe we have become astronomers, observing a problem from a place of safety rather than taking the risk of going into space and seeing the issue as an astronaut?

As we emerge from isolation and begin to return to the ‘new normal’, maybe we should see this as an opportunity to reset our thinking and positively decide to take action about a problem, as opposed to merely observe it. We need to always remember, as retailers, several things regarding textile waste and recycling:

  • The problem has not gone away, it has just been hidden due to lack of consumption and the inability to take stuff to the charity store.
  • The export markets, where we currently send a large part of our excess, were already declining in value due to oversupply. They are now closing due to health concerns in those markets. We need to solve the problem here.
  • Sadly, climate change and global warming, remain a bigger problem for future generations than the current pandemic. Textile waste and recycling will not solve this issue on their own, but all of us can decide whether we want to make a real difference in this area.

So, as an optimist, as an astronaut, and as I emerge form isolation and continue to engage in this industry, I hope we can all desire to become astronauts. So, what do these actions look like?

  • Retail businesses actively engaging in and financially supporting textile recycling. Globally retailing spends the least amount of its turnover on R+D of any industry. If retail businesses are serious about change, they need to invest in the solutions. Product stewardship in textiles will happen, it is already in Europe, and this is a stick to force a change in behaviour. Maybe we can use a carrot and invest in change without being forced by legislation?
  • Government at Federal and State level recognising textiles as a waste stream and treating it with the same seriousness as glass and other plastics. Governments can catalyse innovation in this advanced manufacturing sector through grants, and then ensuring mandated procurement creates markets for the recycled product. This has happened in other areas and can happen in textiles, if policy makers want it to?
  • The investment community must look more closely at CleanTech and understand the need to invest in advanced manufacturing, not just software technology. If we are going to generate both jobs and supply chain resilience onshore, we need investment in manufacturing as well as coding. There needs to be the right policy settings to encourage this investment behaviour.

Please understand this is not a rant caused by being locked up for too long! Textile recycling is here to stay. It is needed and it is wanted. We can now decide the speed and scale at which it grows into a scale industry, solving a problem we all generate.

C’mon, fly me to the moon!

Adrian Jones is the co-founder of BlockTexx.

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