Adrian Jones: How Can Innovation Transform Textile Recycling?
Acknowledgement of Country: This interview was conducted on Gadigal and Guringai Country. We pay our respects to the traditional custodians of this land, past, present and emerging. We recognise their deep connection to the land and their unique cultural heritage, which continues to enrich our shared community.
Adrian Jones is the co-founder of BlockTexx, a pioneering textile recycling company. Blocktexx tackles one of the largest and unmanaged waste streams, blended textiles. Its cutting edge technology converts these materials into recycled plastic and cellulosic clay. These materials are then used by manufacturers in Australia.
In this interview, we learn from Adrian about the problems with blended textiles and the fascinating world of chemical recycling. Adrian also shares insights into the challenges and opportunities in the industry, along with his vision for the future of textile recycling.
What are the problems with blended textiles?
Blended textiles are everywhere, and they're very difficult to recycle. They consist of both synthetic and organic materials—synthetics are essentially plastics. Think of a plastic water bottle, a microfibre towel and a swimsuit are chemically the same.
We blend different fibre to give our clothes and household textiles multiple properties. For example, in activewear, spandex, also known as lycra, is added to provide elasticity to fit any body shape. It's clever, but we haven't questioned whether it can be recycled at the end of use. These fibres also shred into microplastic in the washing machine, which then goes into the water stream.
I've spent 35 years in the fashion industry. I'm well aware of the fashion industry's hidden secrets. Things are often more complex than they seem. The fundamental challenge is that the fashion industry is primarily set up to produce as much as possible and sell it. Fashion follows a linear economy: make, sell, destroy. Everything, from supply chains to economics, is tailored to this linear system. When products start coming back due to returns, repairs or reuse, it disrupts this model.
The medical industry invests a substantial 35-40% of their revenue in research and development (R&D) every year. In contrast, the textile industry allocates less than 2% of its turnover to R&D. This is why some of the wealthiest families globally are linked to textiles—they make and take a lot of money from it. There’s not enough funding to support innovation.
In terms of textile recycling in Australia, if I had to give a scorecard, it would be a 2 out of 10. Only 2% of old clothing gets recycled, while 80% of them go straight to landfill.
We also export tonnes of these wastes overseas, since there's no legislation against it.
BlockTexx is, in part, my way of making amends for past mistakes. We've been funding and working on the technology for the past 5 years. It's the only blended textile recycling plant of its kind in Australia that's actively working to address this problem.
How does BlockTexx address the problem?
BlockTexx addresses the challenge by unlocking valuable components in blended textiles. For example, a standard bed sheet is part cotton, part polyester (plastic)—both can be converted into high-value raw materials.
When we process these textiles, we convert the polyester into recycled PET (a common type of plastic). The cotton is transformed into cellulose, which is its basic building block. We then condense and dehydrate this cellulose into clay. These two materials are now ready to be reused.
Currently we focus on recycling business textile waste, like uniforms, workwear, and linens from hotels and hospitals. There's a large volume of homogenous stock we can get fairly easily. Sorting this type of waste is more cost-effective compared to consumer textiles.
What's Blocktexx’s process? What environmental and social benefits does it bring?
The BlockTexx process has two main parts: 'before the gate' and 'after the gate'.
Before the gate, we decommission garments by removing tags, buttons and zips. This important work is carried out in collaboration with social enterprises in the NDIS sector, and with the assistance of Queensland Correctional Services, which provides prisoners with opportunities to learn new skills and earn income.
After the gate is the chemical processing of the shredded textiles. The materials are placed into a reactor, the size of a cement truck. Through constant spinning, the polyester is separated from the cotton. In only 20 minutes, we get this most unfortunate looking soup of separated polyester and cotton. We then wash, dry, and agitate this mixture to create two separate streams: pure polyester and pure cellulose. The cellulose is squeezed to remove water, and becomes a thick clay. The polyester undergoes further steps, to become recycled PET pellets.
It's true upcycling with social impacts. We will be able to recycle up to 4,000 tonnes of textiles in the first year, around 14 million shirts. We've created up to 30 new full-time jobs and up to $43 million economic impact to the local area. We will expand this to 10,000 tonnes in 2024.
How do you make sure the chemical process is environmentally friendly?
When people hear "chemicals," they often get concerned. It's just using chemistry to get down to the molecular level. The magic of textile recycling happens on a molecular level in polymers and cotton. We also have a chemistry downstream that turns everything back into water. We reuse 85% of the water at the end of the process. It goes back into the textile recycling process. It takes a lot of energy to heat up the water, so by reusing it, we also save energy required for the production.
We're approved by the Queensland EPA, who regularly test our water and emissions.
What are Blocktexx's challenges?
The challenges fall into three broad buckets. The first being technical problems, which are on us to solve. My business partner Graham and I started Blocktexx with a simple idea scribbled on a napkin. We still have the napkin framed in our office. We've faced many technical challenges along the way. But when you have smart technical people around you, you'll eventually find solutions.
The second challenge is access to capital and funding in Australia. We've been fortunate to have one high net worth individual who believed in our mission right from the beginning and supported us. However, most of the investment community in Australia prefers to invest in pure tech startups. We don't understand manufacturing here. It's really hard to raise money here in Australia.
The third challenge is awareness and legislation. We need people to take textile waste seriously. We've spent a decade educating people not to litter, but not the damage of textile waste. You'd never throw a water bottle on the street, but you might think leaving a microfibre towel at the beach is okay. They are both plastic.
Now, people like the idea of recycling. But there's no incentive for companies to buy recycled materials. It's cheaper to buy recycled plastic from Indonesia than recycled plastic onshore.
The government can help create the markets, which will then encourage entrepreneurs and businesses like ourselves to come in and fill those gaps. For example, if the government had to only buy Australian recycled plastic, that would create a market and make recycled materials more accessible for businesses.
How can we address these challenges?
We can't keep exporting our problem. There are two key things we need to address. First, it's about educating people on textile recycling. Second is legislation.
We've already banned the export of hard plastics and soft plastics, but we haven't banned garment exports. It's time for legislative changes to manage this export ban, perhaps phasing it in gradually.
If governments and charities can't export textiles anymore, we'll face a growing landfill problem. This is where solutions like BlockTexx become even more crucial. Capital will flow into those markets to allow us to expand faster.
Like what we've done with plastic bottles, we should tighten up the legislation around textile export, recycling, and implement producer and consumer payment schemes. People need to start asking questions about where their textiles go and what happens to them after collection. Brand loyalty should also extend to how brands handle recycling and sustainability, so we should encourage them to demonstrate their actions and commitments to consumers.
What's your vision for BlockTexx and the future of textile recycling?
Polyester makes up 55% of the world's fibre usage. Slow fashion is great but not everyone can afford it. In the current economic environment, many people are worried about paying bills and putting food on the table. We'll always have polyester around, it's a problem that's not going away.
These textiles will need reprocessing, and that's where BlockTexx comes in. We want to focus on solutions, rather than criticising people for their choices. We don't want textile discussions to become divisive like the climate change debates. We have a working solution, and we need to use it more.
There'll be more interest in textile recycling. There'll be new players entering the market, be it logistics, sortation or recycling. BlockTexx is positioned to be a global processor of vast amounts of textile resources.
Our next goal is to expand the current plant to 10,000 tonnes. If we want to build another plant, we'll need the government to help with that. Then we can take our technology to countries which have a much larger textile waste issue. Other countries have a great interest in manufacturing and are willing to invest in what we do. In the future, we envision BlockTexx becoming a licensed technology that we can take overseas and share our solutions globally.
Lina Wood is a science communicator and writer, graduated from a master degree of science communication at The Australian National University. Connect with Lina on Linkedin.
Danling is the co-founder of ReCo and creative director of reco.digital. Danling has an unwavering passion for creativity, spirituality and the pursuit of positive change in the world. Connect with Danling on Linkedin.
October 13, 2023
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