This Could be a Game Changer...

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IN CONVERSATION WITH | Adrian Jones | Co-Founder at BlockTexx

We’ve all heard the stats and reports on the devastating impact our industry’s textile waste is having on the environment. Hand in hand goes the issue of recycling and the complexities of bringing textiles into this system when the majority are fibre blends. Many are looking for circular solutions here, and finally we may be moving closer to finding some answers. We catch up with Adrian Jones, Co-Founder at BlockTexx, a local team leading the way in textile recycling.

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BACKGROUND…

What’s your industry background, and what brought you to the fashion & textile industry?

Funnily enough, I was an ‘accidental ‘retailer, I intended to go into banking after university but instead I applied to Marks and Spencer and I have spent all my working career in the fashion and retail industry. I started out in the UK, moved to continental Europe and for the past 12 or so years in Australia. I literally started on the shop floor at Marks and Spencer, as part of the graduate training program and then progressed through M&S, Next, Arcadia, and WHSmiths in a variety of buying, planning and supply chain roles. I moved to Australia and worked for Myer, was MD at Borders, CEO at APG and Co, and CEO at Charles Parsons Holdings, before founding BlockTexx a year ago. 

As I say, I joined the industry by ‘accident’ but fell in love with two things – the people and the product. I have had a great career and many exciting roles but as I got older, I was becoming increasingly concerned by both the amount we produce and what happens after we dispose of it, hence we started BlockTexx.

For those who don’t know, who are BlockTexx and what do you do? 

BlockTexx is a newly established and growing Australian based textile recycling business. We see textile waste as a valuable resource and have developed a process that diverts textiles and clothing away from landfill and accelerates the global textile recycling industry. 

We have developed a scalable industrial process, termed the Separation of Fabric Technology process, or S.O.F.T.®, that allows us to separate polyester and cotton blended textiles back into their base components of polyester and cotton. These can then be used in a variety of industries, either back into textiles or into a wide variety of other uses. The most important thing is that we divert the textile from landfill and encourage its circular use.

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“We have developed a scalable industrial process, termed the Separation of Fabric Technology process, or S.O.F.T.®, that allows us to separate polyester and cotton blended textiles back into their base components of polyester and cotton. These can then be used in a variety of industries, either back into textiles or into a wide variety of other uses. The most important thing is that we divert the textile from landfill and encourage its circular use.”

Who are you working with?

My biggest supporter is my business partner Graham Ross and we have worked together on BlockTexx for a year now and have supported each other through this incredible and at times, challenging journey! We both share a strong interest in the environment and have both been in or owned businesses for a long time, so know how to make one work!

We have also had the great pleasure of working closely with some of the fantastic research minds involved in this area in Australia and would have to call out our colleagues at QUT in Brisbane, who we have thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with and working closely with on this journey.

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How did the idea for BlockTexx come about? To what extent has the project been shaped by your own values & approach to waste?

Both Graham and I came to the same conclusion, that we see textile waste as a hugely valuable resource that if re-used, can have a hugely positive impact on the environment, but we got there through different routes. 

 I was constantly amazed and economically bemused by the amount of markdown stock in the Australian economy; how this has encouraged even ‘faster’ fashion and the greater disposal of merchandise. Graham, as an elite athlete, and through his sustainable fabric business, Kusaga Athletics, was already on the journey of establishing more environmentally sound and sustainable fabrics. As soon as we met, we both knew we shared both a burning desire and relentless curiosity to fix the issue.

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THE PROBLEM WITH TEXTILE WASTE...

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Can you outline the current issue of textile waste for us? Any key stats that you have come across in your research?

 The numbers are well published and well known but are still frightening every time you read them. Over 100 billion garments are produced each year in the world and only about 1% are recycled; Australia produces the second largest amount per capita of textiles in the world, a staggering 23kg per person; on average in Australia a garment is worn six time before disposal; 75-80% of the worlds fibre consumption is across cotton and polyester, yet polyester can take up to 200 years to decompose in landfill; of the 60m tonnes of polyester produced each year globally, 40m tonnes is used for garments but none of this is recycled. The list of issues goes on and on, and we decided we could either keep reading it and feeling bad about it all, or we could do something at scale about the problem, hence BlockTexx.

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What are the challenges or roadblocks when it comes to recycling textiles and garments?

 The best form of recycling is re-use, the work the Charity and Op Shop sector do in actually sorting and reselling product is the best form of recycling. Many people have been recycling textiles this way for a long time. However, if products are not fit for resale, or are damaged dirty or stained then there is not a great deal of options open for them, that ultimately avoid landfill. People talk about ‘ragging’, which converts cotton-based products to ‘rags’ but these are just one step from landfill once they have been used?

Mechanical shredding and re-spinning into a new fibre, is an option and one we explored in the early days of BlockTexx, but there is a high cost of sortation, what happens to blended fabrics and you need an infrastructure that can spin, weave and knit to reproduce a fabric. Certainly, we did not have all of the last three at scale in Australia.

Finally, whether we like to admit it or not. We are also part of the problem. Textile waste will grow as population grows, but the amount of textile waste is growing well ahead of that rate. We are using cheaper fibres, e.g. polyester to support this growth, so we have a problem of increasing mass consumption and an underdeveloped recycling model. Asking or telling people to consume less is neither compelling to consumers or businesses, so we saw BlockTexx as a vehicle to allow volume and scale recycling to keep up with mass consumption growth.

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“…we decided we could either keep reading it and feeling bad about it all, or we could do something at scale about the problem, hence BlockTexx.”

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How is BlockTexx different to other recycling businesses? What is it bringing to the table that is currently missing in industry and how are you overcoming the challenges? 

Whilst a lot of what we do is commercially sensitive and we are engaged in a patent process, we essentially have developed a chemical separation process that allows us to unlock the polyester from the cotton and back into its original form. We produce water as our waste product and achieve 95% resource recovery. 

 There are very few companies around the world doing what we do, and even less at scale, so I suppose what we bring is an original and novel process that can solve a global problem? We find it paradoxical that people have a greater concern for where their plastic bottle ends up, but have no real concern for their end of life textiles, even though 60% may be plastic?

 At BlockTexx we have two key principles; ‘no textiles to landfill’ and ‘don’t create another problem’, so hopefully this is what we are doing differently. We passionately believe that most of the textile problems can be solved with a low environmental impact if you surround yourself with, and work with smart and committed people.

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What are the outputs from this recycling system, how can they be utilised?

 We produce polyester pellets and cellulose powder. These have a variety of end uses and we are discovering new ones every week! 

 Polyester can go back into the textile industry to be reused for fibre, but equally can be used for geofabrics, e.g. netting on the side of excavations or injection moulding, e.g. playground equipment, park benches, shipping pallets etc. Cellulose has a range of uses; again, it can be converted back to viscose through wet spinning and has a range of uses in the adhesives and resin industry through to the pharmaceutical and food industry.

 We are building a variety of both intake and outtake agreements with a variety of clients across a wide a variety of industries. Who knows where their discarded textiles will end up?

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Have you come across any issues with the polyester pellets and cellulose powder? Can the products made from these materials then be recycled again?

We have tested our product outputs against industry and virgin standards and are very pleased with the results as they demonstrate a viable and commercial product that can be used in the industries we have described, and hopefully more will emerge as we evolve.

In terms of second and third life, we intend to use our blockchain technology to provide both certification of the quality and traceability of the raw material, so once a recycled uniform has become a shopping basket, it can be recycled again into another basket or a park bench.

This technology is new and we will discover issues and solve them as we evolve. One of my concerns is that the hesitation of trying to solve everything before you start, actually can stop you from starting?

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Can you break down how Blockchain fits in to your process for those new to the concept?

Blockchain, for us, is simply a supply chain tool, that allows us to deal with the issues of traceability and transparency. Not all of our transactions will be ‘on-chain’ and we will still have traditional databases, but we will be able to use ‘smart contracts’ to provide verifiable visibility through the supply chain for all of our clients.

This is important to allow confidence on the providence of the stock, e.g. did my commercial uniforms get converted into a park bench? We can show that they did and verify the journey through the use of smart contracts on a blockchain. We can also use this traceability for the second and third life of the product and give confidence about the quality of the inputs and outputs.

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What do you foresee as your own challenges and limitations for BlockTexx?

 We are at a fortunate point in history to challenge the status quo and build a textile recycling business. Significant changes in thinking are driving consumer, producer and government behaviour towards a circular economy that is in desperate need of real solutions, not constant iteration of the problem. 

 We are fully committed to building and commissioning our first recycling plant in Australia in 2019 and have no shortage of feedstock or outtake agreements. We believe that as long as we can continue to quietly do what we have planned to do we will be successful in dealing with a significant environmental problem. 

The government needs to take a more assertive leadership role in the issue of textile waste and recycling. The recent change in economic policy by China has seen many local recycling schemes deeply wanting in terms of both solution completeness and volume capacity. For too long we have simply exported our problem. Government can create a market here, simply by mandating a much higher proportion of recycled materials in its own contracts and purchasing decisions. We look forward to continuing to contribute to this debate.

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“At BlockTexx we have two key principles; ‘no textiles to landfill’ and ‘don’t create another problem’…”

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BEST PRACTICE, ADVICE & MOVING FORWARD…

 Who are some Best Practice examples that you see really innovating in the space of textile waste? Who do you look to?

There are lots of really good examples in this space and it is very important to keep firmly focused on the great innovation and work been done in this area. Being aware of the scale of the problem and constantly raising its profile is important and we all need to be aware of the size of our footprint BUT you cannot only focus on this, people need good news and great ideas to inspire them to achieve greatness also. 

We look at the discipline and completeness of the environmental approach taken at Patagonia as a huge inspiration for us at BlockTexx; we look at the important commitments being made by global businesses such as IKEA, Adidas and Nike as leaders in their field and huge consumer influencers; we look at great research been done in Universities in Australia, and at the CSIRO for inspiration and ideas. Often, we find a new way of thinking by looking at a very oblique industry and working out how we can apply that to textile recycling. Indeed, some of the work we have evolved for textile recycling with QUT, we trialed in a sugar refining research centre in Mackay!

 As we have spoken with and worked with customers, they have also come up with great ideas for the use of their products but they just need it to be converted back into the raw form so they can re-integrate it back into their own sourcing and procurement. People genuinely want to do the right thing, BlockTexx just makes the issue of textile recycling simple and easy to engage with.

 The whole ethos of what we try to do and what inspires us, is to keep recycling emotionally compelling and operationally easy. Make it real for people and make it easy and you have a winner!

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When you start to look into the realities of the impacts of the fashion industry on people & the environment, it can be quite devastating and overwhelming. Are you hopeful? And what advice do you have for those looking to make a difference in their own businesses?

 We are always hopeful and always believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday. If you did not think like that you could have survived over thirty years in retailing! 

 On a serious note, the consumer is far more engaged in environmental issues and more educated than ever; they are in control of the agenda and their wallet, so the producers will have to react to their needs to maintain relevance and sales. The producers want to engage with companies such as BlockTexx, and others, who can offer scalable solutions that allow them to be more relevant to their consumers and a better environmental citizen.

The textile industry is the second dirtiest industry after oil, so it needs to clearly lift its game, but often commentators are simply observing the problem and telling others to solve it or offering artisanal low scale solutions. This is not going to work for as mass consumption grows. We set out to build a scalable and volume business that can deal with the tens of thousands of tons of textile waste and can work on a national and international scale.

In terms of making a difference – really make sure you are solving a problem, have an original solution and have 110% belief in yourself and your partner. Oh, and be prepared to be broke for quite a while!

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How do you envision the growth of BlockTexx and your technology? What potential do you see for scalability and adoption globally and/or for other industries?

We see this as a wholly scalable global play. The business model that serves that will evolve over time, but we are comfortable with that.  We see our technology constantly evolving to maintain efficiency and relevance and want to solve other polymer separation processes, but we need to build a solid and stable base in Australia first and we are currently on track to do that. We need to serve our customers and markets exceptionally well and, in a cost, competitive manner. 

We remain very excited for the next few years at BlockTexx and look forward to continuing to share our story.


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FIND OUT MORE…

Don't be shy now - if you have a question, or maybe you'd just like to say hi, email - curious@blocktexx.com

and head to their website below for more details;

Images provided by BlockTexx

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