Microfactories in fashion

Researchers at the University of New South Wales Sydney have developed a new microfactory to transform fashion into useful building products.

The push towards decentralised waste treatment has the potential to disrupt the traditional model of collection, treatment and recycling. As waste generators look to innovative ways of resource recovery, therein lies not only potential to treat waste and reduce transport costs, but even indirectly become a manufacturer. 

Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney’s Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) Centre have been working on making this idea a reality. Having completing their second microfactory at the end of 2018, this time, the green microfactory will focus on transforming clothing and textiles into high-quality building products such as flat construction panels. 

The panels will be used for acoustic and thermal insulation, while the SMaRT Centre expects it may be modified later on for flooring and walls. 

The high-end composite products can have a wood veneer look or a ceramic-style finish and have been lab tested for qualities such as fire and water resistance, flexibility and acoustic and load-bearing capabilities. To develop the new product, the team collected an assortment of discarded clothes, uniform, bedding and mattresses. They also collected additional polymer textiles sourced from waste packaging, shopping bags and disposable lab coats. 

Upon manually removing zippers, buttons and buckles and the leftover mix of cotton, the team shredded and treated polyester, nylon and other fabrics with heat and pressure to form solid panels. UNSW is now working with various construction industry partners to ensure the products can undergo a formal regulatory assessment. 

The process follows a separate exercise by UNSW Scientia Professor Veena Sahajwalla, SMaRT Director, and a number of researchers that converted used glass into high-quality ceramics suited for benchtops and tiles in kitchens and bathrooms that can come in all sort of sizes, colours and finishes. The research, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, found a cost-effective new process to transform mixed glass into high-value building materials without remelting.

UNSW’s SMaRT Centre plans to launch its green microfactory in 2019. In addition to the fashion recycling, used glass will be converted into high-quality ceramics suitable for benchtops and tiles in kitchens and bathrooms. The SMaRT Centre demonstrated that mixed broken glass can be used in the production of polymeric glass composites, with mechanical properties, utility, aesthetics and expected market value comparable to natural and engineered stone products. 

The university’s first microfactory launched in April 2018 and has the ability to recover and reform materials from electronic waste. The microfactory functions as a series of machines and devices that use technology to perform one or more functions in the reforming of waste products.

Veena says green microfactories not only produce high performance materials and products, but eliminate superfluous machinery, preserve natural resources and reduce waste.

The challenge for fashion recycling, she says, is garments often have a variety of synthetic materials and polymers, which can combine polyester, nylon and acrylic, that need to be isolated. 

UNSW’s method works to convert materials by breaking the clothing items down and shredding them into basic elements. Using a hot press isothermal treatment process, the materials are heated and compressed and blended with a wood-based material.

UNSW’s fashion project has been in the making for the past four years. After initially looking at converting agricultural waste into acoustic panels, the university turned its focus to fashion. 

Veena says that acoustic panels offered a viable alternative to standard refurbishments which reduced waste, taking into account areas with noise pollution. She envisions a future where small businesses could utilise microfactories onsite to sell acoustic panels and disrupt the traditional interior design industry. 

“It could provide new opportunities for a local job market,” she says. 

“Another aspect of what we want to do is eliminate nasty chemicals. We all know that when it comes to many products that come from overseas, we don’t know what goes into making them. What goes into making those products has got to be one of the most important things we pay attention to and understanding country of origin.” 

Veena says the new material is now undergoing further testing to align with the international ASTM standards for acoustics. UNSW will continue to engage with government and industry bodies.

The SMaRT Centre also found industry partners to build and run the world’s first commercial e-waste plastic microfactory after receiving a $250,000 grant from Sustainability Victoria. The Australia and New Zealand Recycling Platform will build the microfactory that will be run by e-waste recycler TES and process up to 500,000 kilograms of plastic waste per year. This will be recovered and reformed into 3D printer filament for retail sale.

Given the green microfactory is due for launch in 2019, the commercial one is set to be constructed this year and for this reason, Veena says the launches will be spaced out. 

In the meantime, Veena says disruption from microfactories will experience momentum if it is embraced by the general public, enabling local manufacturers to flourish with multiple societal benefits. 

As infrastructure becomes more complex and resources more finite, Veena says that it will be increasingly important to preserve our natural resources. 

“Our cars and circuit boards have wiring in it. 

“We will need to accept that we will need these materials and the integration of electronics into our everyday lives, and there is something quite exciting on its way,” Veena says, alluding to a future project relating to electronics.

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