Old clothes and textiles can now be converted into high-quality building materials such as flat panels. 

New research conducted at the University of NSW (UNSW) has revealed that textile-based waste materials can be turned into high-end composite products that can have a wood veneer look or a ceramic-style finish. These products were lab tested for qualities such as fire and water resistance, flexibility, acoustic and load-bearing capabilities but have not undergone any formal regulatory assessment.

The research group led by Professor Veena Sahajwalla, director of UNSW’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT), has been scientifically reforming common waste items using prototype technology developed for a laboratory-scale ‘green microfactory’ to be launched this year.

According to Sahajwalla, the research outcomes offer a solution for reducing waste and addressing unsustainable landfill problems experienced by all countries. The clothing and textiles industry is the second-most polluting sector in the world, accounting for 10 percent of the world's total carbon emissions. Clothing is also one of the biggest consumer waste streams, with 92 million tons estimated to be thrown out a year globally. The research represents a new way to convert low-value waste into high-value products and materials, building on technology that can recover and reform materials from electronic waste at UNSW’s demonstration e-waste microfactory launched in April 2018.

Sahajwalla views the green microfactory technology as an alternative to exporting rubbish overseas and creating more landfill, with the technology having the potential to create new products. Green microfactories are equipped to not only produce high performance materials and products but also eliminate the need for expensive machinery, save on the extraction of natural materials from the environment, and reduce the waste burden.

While many Australians may believe it is important for the country to invest in technology to reform common waste and reduce landfill, Sahajwalla says it will be difficult to get the technology commercialised and into the market.

The world’s first demonstration e-waste microfactory was launched in April 2018, based on a process developed by the UNSW SMaRT Centre, which transforms the components of discarded electronic items such as mobile phones, laptops and printers into new and reusable materials that can then be used to manufacture high value products such as metal alloys and 3D printer filament.

UNSW is now getting ready to launch a second demonstration green microfactory, which converts mixed waste glass into engineered stone products, and wood, plastic and textile waste into valuable insulation and building panels.