For this City of Sydney sponsored project we recycled unwanted clothing into spun yarn, and learned a lot about the plight and potential of post-consumer waste.
Following our success recycling fashion industry production waste, I found myself itching to tackle the next frontier: recycling true post-consumer waste. This means old, unwanted clothing and textile goods sourced directly from the general public– a notoriously complicated category of waste to recycle, owing to the immense diversity of fibre blends, styles and fabric types characterising the modern wardrobe.
Our efforts kicked off in early, pre-covid, 2020 when I reached out to Matt Davis, CEO of Salvos Stores Australia. I asked Matt if Salvos would be willing to supply us with unsellable, unwanted donations of clothing as feed for this project.
Finding a charity store to work with was front of mind for this recycling run, because if you’ve read any of the recent coverage of the issue, you’ll know outlets like Salvos, Vinnies and the Red Cross are having an increasingly tough time contending with the public’s appetite for fast fashion and ‘disposable’ textiles, leaving them with ever proliferating volumes of poor quality, fast fashion crap they can’t sell.
This shortfall has led to some unhealthy stop gaps: last year ABC’s foreign correspondent aired a revelatory story called 'Dead White Man's Clothes', which followed where a lot of this unsellable donated clothing actually ends up via the practice of export dumping– exposing a global system that is both inequitable and imperialistic. I'd highly recommend a watch, but prepare to be seriously grossed out.
Charity stores all over Australia are deeply ensnared in this practice, but I think it's important we don't rush to place the blame on them alone– our unhealthy relationship with waste and what we do with it is complicated and cultural.
Let's not forget that these beloved local charity shops were originally designed to collect and resell high-quality donated goods at more affordable prices, in service to the economically disadvantaged in our communities.
This goal has been increasingly distorted by our modern ‘buy it and bin it’ consumer culture, which has cornered these charities into a role more akin to public waste management, often at huge expense to them. They’re being given ever more poor quality stuff, but are able to sell ever less of it– now being undercut by fast fashion retailers who, perversely, are selling brand new stuff at lower cost than charity stores can match.
Unable to dam the flow of waste at its source, the charity sector is hustling hard to develop the means to reuse, recover and recycle this deluge of stuff. SatCoL (The Salvation Army Trading Company in the UK) has spearheaded some promising collaborations on this front, including the use of Fibresort machinery– made by Belgian company Valvan– which automatically sorts textile waste by fibre in order to automate and streamline recovery efforts. They've also engaged a new fibre recovery facility in West Yorkshire– established by textile recycling expert Dr John Parkinson and now operated by textile manufacturers Camira– which recycles unsellable donated wares into new woven fabrics suitable for furniture and interiors.
Acknowledging the need for such solutions, Matt Davis was enthusiastic about our recycling efforts, and connected us to Phillip Wahba– store manager of the Salvos warehouse in Tempe/St Peters (lovingly dubbed The Tempe Tip by Inner West locals). Phil suggested we come in for a tour in order to get a sense of their process, and to figure out where in their order of operations we might insert ourselves to extract garments we could recycle.
Thus began an 18-month period of weekly visits. Each trip I would spend about 1-2 hours working alongside the warehouse sorting staff, who would put aside garments throughout the week for me to rummage through. These garments were taken from their ‘rag out’ selection; which included donated items they’d assessed as too damaged, worn or degraded to be resold, as well as items which had been out on the shop floor for weeks but hadn't been bought.
For this run, our Hong Kong recycling mill– The Billie– advised us to aim for knitted fabrics and garments only. This included knitwear (sweaters, cardigans, scarves and beanies) and knitted jersey garments (like T-shirts).
The Billie explained that knitted fabrics, with their bulkier yarns and maleable structures, are easier to recover fibre from, compared to their dense, fine, woven counterparts– which require a different mechanical calibration and are best processed separately.
The Billie specialises in recovering natural fibres: wool, cotton and silk work best, and although they can contend with small proportions of regenerated and synthetic fibres, these are generally harder to recover and best avoided.
Given this was the Billie's first time recycling an entire batch of post-consumer items we were keen to keep things simple, heed this best practice advice and send them only natural fibre items (I had no problem with this as I was keen to avoid messing with synthetics; their lack of biodegradability and the issue of microfibre pollution freaks me out).
However what struck me during my first few weeks sorting at Salvos was the rarity of garments which were just one, pure fibre type. Synthetic blends were ubiquitous; it was the norm for predominantly cotton or wool items to have polyester, nylon, elastane, polyamide or acrylic blended in.
A 100% wool jumper was a real find, and it began to feel a lot like digging for treasure– literally. The rag out stock was kept in these huge, deep cages on wheels with open tops. I’d wheel one full and one empty cage over to my little corner and begin digging my way through, migrating the contents of one to the other by the armful and extracting anything promising I spotted along the way. It was physical work which I’d do as fast as I could so as not to hold up the warehouse staff– who were keen to start bailing and move things along.
There were a number of times I encountered items that were very clearly not what they said on their content tags: like a chunky knitted vest that claimed to be 100% cotton but was surely acrylic or the like– with that plastic, sticky, hairy feel– and nowhere near as heavy as chunky cotton would be.
Encounters like this made me wonder how trustworthy fibre content tags were in general. This scepticism proved justified when we eventually lab tested our 'all natural' recovered fibre and discovered it contained a small but diverse variety of synthetic fibre.
Following fibre blending– where we blend all recovered fibre with virgin cotton and wool at a 1:1 ratio to achieve appropriate tensile strength– the amount of synthetic fibre in our yarns sits at trace levels, but it still aggravated me to see it in there despite my best sorting efforts. This will likely be an ongoing issue until we have more accurate ways of measuring a garment's fibre content, beyond its tag.
As our collection of recyclable clothes grew and grew, my sister Lily (founder and creator of personal emission reduction app One Small Step) encouraged me to apply for a City of Sydney Environmental Performance Innovation grant (now renamed the Innovation and Ideas grant). The grant sponsored projects run by local organisations aimed at developing sustainable solutions to waste management and recycling, among other categories.
We ended up getting the grant and being awarded $20,000 to put towards our salvos recycling project.
This funding allowed us to recycle a larger volume than we’d initially envisioned, and run more extensive tests of the fibres we recovered; garnering greater insight into the fibre and chemical composition of collected materials.
We ended up collecting just shy of 500kg, or half a metric tonne, of clothes from Salvos, and then spent about a week sorting each item into six distinct colour categories– warm neutrals, blues/greens, pinks/reds, whites/pales, greys and darks/blacks.
As we neither bleach nor dye anything throughout the recycling process, this sorting step determines the colour of the final yarn entirely. It kind of feels like mixing paints; trying to anticipate how such a diverse array of differently coloured garments would combine to create an evenly blended colourway, and how that colourway might be skewed or changed based on the colours you add to it.
Following this we folded and boxed everything up and had it all shipped off. First stop was Tai Po, New Territories, Hong Kong, where The Billie team sanitised, de-hardwared and disassembled everything, before feeding each item through their fibre recovery machinery to yield re-spinnable fibre.
Their team put together the following video of our Salvos consignment being worked on:
From there, this recovered fibre was sent to Novetex Textiles’ spinning mill in Zhuhai, Guangdong Province, mainland China– about 100km west of Hong Kong– where it was blended with virgin RWS wool and GOTS organic cotton, before being spun and plied into yarn. I was so keen to get over to Guangdong to document this step of the process, having spent time in Novetex's Zhuhai factory whilst working for them as a design assistant several years ago, but as this was right in the midst of the heaviest period of global Covid lockdowns my international travel plans were thwarted.
However in the midst of this milling process we were able to extract samples of each colourway and send them off to the Bureau Veritas testing laboratory in nearby Donggaun City. The lab would review these samples to accurately determine their fibre composition and whether they contained or were coated with any potentially hazardous chemicals.
We asked Bureau Veritas to follow the ACCC's guidelines for which textile chemicals to watch out for. These included formaldehyde– often used to reduce the appearance of wrinkles in fabrics– and particular types of synthetic Azo dye, found to be carcinogenic in large quantities.
Despite widespread awareness of this since the early 2000s, certain toxic Azo dyes have been found in clothing sold in Australia as recently as 2014, when the ACCC did a sweep of random testing and found excessive levels in clothes sold by Cotton On, Rivers, Mossimo, Just Jeans, Myer, Target and Jeanswest. These products were recalled, but these chemicals could still be out there– hanging in wardrobes around Australia, and being donated to Salvos, so we were keen to test for it regardless.
The Billie had emphasised the importance of testing our recycled fibres for chemical safety from the get go, but up until this point I hadn't quite grasped how ruinous a positive test result could be.
What would we do with all this stuff if it turned out to be chemically contaminated? Did we just have to organise to have it safely disposed of? And what of the implications for recycling post-consumer textiles in general, if after all this work collecting and sorting and shipping, the entire consignment would need to be abandoned? The financial risk alone could render the whole process untouchable.
Mercifully we received the test results within a week, which showed no trace whatsoever of these hazerdous chemicals. I was deeply relieved, but also left with many new questions. Did we just get lucky? We had collected only knitwear and knitted textiles for our consignment– which typically would not have any anti-wrinkle formaldehyde treatment because they aren't woven– and that were predominantly composed of wool, cotton, silk and linen– better quality natural fibres perhaps not typically dyed using cheap Azos.
If we expand our collection criteria to include wovens or synthetics, might we be more likely to encounter these chemicals? It's an issue we'll need to keep front of mind for future recycling runs.
So our yarns made their way back to Australia, and although The Billie had sent us many updates, reports and photos, it was an immense thrill to unbox them, review the colours and feel the textures in person. In the weeks after receiving them I spent hours crocheting and machine knitting– getting a feel for their character, strength and usability– and sending out sample cones to local knitwear manufacturers for review.
We then connected with Clare and Paul Thornley of Fibre Arts Shed in Jilliby, who helped us steam and set the plies of the yarns so they were less likely to separate/split when being worked with by hand, and also wind them into neat, 100g hanks. Their setup is phenomenal– with an expanded shed full of serious milling equipment able to scour, comb, draft and spin woolen yarns from locally sourced fleece. We were heartened to find such an operation available locally, and our yarns are all the better for it.
In the end our Salvos recycling run proved to be a fascinating and encouraging effort, and one that’s taught me a lot about the logistical realities of sourcing, sorting and saving the public’s textile waste.
I'd love to develop ways to turn this approach into a more regular, streamlined system, with key areas of improvement including:
- Purifying the fibre blends (i.e. creating a 100% cotton yarn or 100% wool yarn– rather than mixing all these recovered and virgin fibre types together)
- Finding a way to weed out that synthetic content as best we can
- Creating a wider range of colours– especially, brighter more distinctive hues
- Producing a wider range of yarn weights/plies– especially finer weights more suitable for commercial manufacture of machine-made knitwear
Many thanks for reading, and I'll be sure to keep you posted on our continuing efforts to recycle Australia's post-consumer textile waste.