What does practical circular economy action look like? In the lead up to the launch of Planet Ark’s Australian Circular Economy Hub (ACE Hub), we are sharing inspiring stories from the individuals, businesses and community groups that are implementing circular economy principles in Australia.
Every school in Australia throws out an estimated 100-200kg of non-wearable uniforms each year. New sustainable start-up Worn Up offers to collect this textile waste from school uniform shops and transform it into new products that can be used by students. In collaboration with the UNSW’s SMaRT centre and NSW Circular, the company is developing a flat panel building product from old school uniforms to build desks that can then be reused in schools.
Worn Up is the sister company of Sustainable Schoolwear, a business that has been supplying schools with eco-friendly uniforms for over five years. These two businesses work in tandem. Sustainable Schoolwear helps schools and students reduce their environmental impact by giving them access to uniforms that are made ethically, locally (where possible) and from high quality sustainable materials like GOTS certified organic cotton and recycled polyester. When these products reach the end of their life, or schools can no longer find a use for them, Worn Up steps in to reform them into new products.
We caught up with Anne Thompson, the woman behind both initiatives, to talk about building a circular model for textile reuse.
Who are you and what does your organisation do?
I'm the director or the founder of Sustainable Schoolwear and Worn Up. Both businesses are focused on creating an impact in what we make and how we take back what we make and process it. That's really where the circularity of what we do comes into play because we feel that you can't just have one life for something, it has to have multiple lives. Being circular, for us, means anything we make doesn't go straight to landfill. What we take back, we try and give another life to, through either making it into a different product or upcycling into the same product.
What problem/opportunity did you identify within the linear economy?
What we identified was that there was this false perception of what being sustainable costs you and it was often manipulated by the large suppliers because their margins are so deep.
There's 3,111 something schools in New South Wales and there's 9000 schools nationally, if not more. If you extrapolate that out and there's 400 kids who each wear one polo shirt for 1-2 terms, and a lot of the people that we're dealing with will buy five shirts for a child, it's quite a big problem in terms of what it's made of, it's poor quality polyester. What we're hoping to do is help companies and schools understand that if you made things out of a longer polymer, or better-quality fabric, you have a better opportunity at the end of life to turn it into something meaningful.
I think it's that systemic change that is really important and high-volume change. And that's what attracted me to uniforms, because you can generate the impact much more quickly than if you're doing it from a residential or from a fashion perspective.
What goals have you set in order to build a circular solution?
Our aim through Worn Up is to take 100 tonnes of uniforms — corporate, school, workwear — out of landfill in 12 months by developing a process of collection and processing [to turn] all of that into new products.
We will take something right back down to its fibre and then we reform it completely into a new product. We can add fabric into epoxy and create tiles and desks. [What] we're accomplishing with that is taking [textiles] out of landfill and then something that might only have one life … can have a second and third life.
This is a sneak peak of a case study that will be featured on the ACE Hub website when it launches on November 24 — follow our ACE Hub communications to read the full story and to stay up to date with other developments of the Hub.
The ACE Hub officially launches on November 24 with an online event that will be live broadcast from the Sydney Opera House. Join us for a morning of talks from some of the brightest minds in the Australian and international Circular Economy space. Head here for more information and to secure your ticket.