Autex Acoustics has long been one of the most prominent leaders in sustainable innovation. Their recent advancements, such as RePET, SpinFix or ReForm, offer an exciting insight into the company’s steadfast commitment to advancing positive environmental outcomes. In this optimistic interview, Jonathan Mountfort talks about the importance of single materials, simple designs and circularity; points to collaboration and open exchange of ideas as essential to progress; and reminds us that, together, we have the power to create a regenerative future and save the world.

Tell us about your background, and what led you to your current role at Autex Acoustics.

My path has been somewhat unconventional. I've always enjoyed tinkering, taking things apart to understand how they work, and then putting them back together, so I initially studied mechanical engineering, expecting to design things. However, it turned out to be mostly maths and physics, and while I wasn't bad at those subjects, it wasn’t hands-on enough for me.

After a stint as a vegan chef on the ‘Lord of the Rings’, I set out to pursue design as a way to make a real impact. I enrolled in a product design development degree, focusing on the practical aspects of bringing ideas to life. I was lucky enough to get a job right after graduating and was immediately exposed to all the emerging concepts in sustainable design, like biomimicry and cradle-to-cradle design. My goal of becoming a designer was always informed by the desire to influence how things are made – and that really challenged numerous preconceptions I had about how things are done, and what sustainability actually is.

After over 20 years in design and manufacturing, I now oversee product design, compliance, and sustainability at Autex Acoustics, and my background as an industrial designer with a focus on product development – coupled with my studies in mechanical engineering and acoustics – provides a unique perspective on creating sustainable acoustic solutions.

Speaking of sustainable acoustic solutions – how do acoustics tie in with the idea of sustainability?

Acoustics are fundamental to communication, enabling people to hear and be heard. Poor acoustics hinder speech intelligibility and make communication difficult, impacting our ability to connect and thrive. Our goal is to create environments that foster effective communication, which is an essential element of caring for people. As we are the manufacturer it is also imperative to use sustainable, non-toxic materials – we aim to create sound environments that nurture people and the planet. We integrate sustainability into every aspect of the business, from raw material sourcing, design, manufacturing and distribution. We have also achieved carbon neutrality across all acoustic interior linings and global business operations, a first across the Australian industry. This overarching mission of caring for people drives our work, and creating sound materials to design sound environments is our core focus.

Tell us about the importance of sound materials as a cornerstone of your design practice.

Materiality is crucial for me. My approach is rooted in a deep respect for materials, which is fundamental to how we go about creating circular, sustainable designs. We aim for uncontaminated, homogenous designs with single materials, such as aluminium and polyester, or other pure combinations. The goal, really, is to keep the design as simple as possible, and prioritise disassembly, ensuring that materials can be separated, and products taken apart easily.

And how does this commitment to sustainability influence your creative process?

Sustainability is non-negotiable, which narrows the design criteria. It means I can't simply glue materials together or combine mismatched polymers. I really try to consider the future: someone mining a landfill in 50 years shouldn't be cursing at the difficulty of separating components. Socks are a perfect example of this problem, as they combine materials that are near impossible to separate for recycling.

I follow really regimented criteria – much to my colleagues dismay, I’m sure – and while it might seem limiting, I believe it actually focuses and simplifies the design process, leading to solutions that are inherently sustainable.

Can you give an example of a recent innovation that embodies your sustainability principles?

SpinFix, our new mounting system for acoustic panels, is a great example. It’s a durable and easy-to-install product that allows the acoustic panels to be fixed onto a wall without the use of any adhesives. It's made from recycled PET offcuts – RePET – and uses friction welding instead of glue, ensuring the entire panel is homogenous, simply using different forms of the same recycled polyester. And because it doesn’t use glue, when the panel needs to be removed, it can be easily taken down and reinstalled somewhere else, or fully recycled.

What’s the technology that made this development possible?

Our innovation truly took off when we focused on using a single, homogenous material and working with recycled materials like Coke bottles and PET plastic. We recognised that this rigid polymer –typically used for bottles and transformed into textiles utilised by major companies like Nike and Lululemon – is fundamentally a polymer, and we questioned if it could be converted back into its original form. We couldn't find an existing process to achieve this, so we embarked on a mission to develop one. And we did.

After three years of extensive research and development, we succeeded in creating a method to re-polymerise textile waste into rigid plastic, enabling it to re-enter the standard recycling process. This creates a circular pathway that, to our knowledge, has not been implemented outside of laboratory trials or on a large scale. This method enables us to create RePET.

As long as the material input is homogenous, this approach allows any company to utilise the same process for PET recycling, and the potential impact is enormous – think about the amount of textile waste that could be diverted from landfills if larger global companies adopted this technology.

As this is one of our main priorities, we continue to innovate and now collaborate with companies capable of breaking down PET into its constituent oil and polyols. This essentially returns it to its pre-plastic state, opening up a vast array of possibilities for reuse. So really, this journey began with a focus on circular design and exploring opportunities to create a framework that addresses Autex’ end-of-life issues but it's evolved into a wide-reaching solution that not only answers our problems, but also has the potential to benefit entire industries, from fashion and furniture design to flooring and upholstery.

Can you tell us about any collaborations that take this technology outside of the realm of acoustic solutions?

Later this year, we'll launch a desk clamp made from this same material, plus we've got a couple of collaborations with architects and designers that will see it used in elements of a seating system and large-scale office furniture. In New Zealand, a company is using this material to create a replacement for polystyrene in rib raft flooring.

The beauty is that this material can be nearly anything where long life and durability is required– it’s the only way it can live up to its full potential and make a genuine difference.

That's very exciting. You’ve mentioned that advancing this technology further is one of Autex Acoustics’ main priorities. Tell us more about what’s driving the company’s sustainability focus.

With everything we do, we must focus on shifting to regenerative practices. Aim way past net zero, zero harm, zero impact – and take it further, focusing on actually generating positive effects. I always ask the question ‘how do we design a life of abundance in cooperation with natural systems?’. The idea of regeneration involves removing materials from where they shouldn't be, such as plastic bottles from the ocean, and returning them to their source – and our vision is to achieve carbon negativity and create fully circular product systems. By building these pathways, we can create a positive impact on a scale much larger than Autex alone, and contribute to the well-being of the planet and people as a whole. As mentioned, caring for people is our overarching mission, and to do that, we need to protect the soil, the sea, and everything else that sustains us. If we can achieve that, we can create a life of abundance for everyone.

What’s the role of Autex Acoustics’ Future Focus program as part of these efforts?

The Future Focus program is a comprehensive initiative to measure every environmental impact and interaction we have. From this data, we develop action plans – we quantify all our actions and identify the easiest and most cost-effective solutions, as well as more complex, long-term projects. The sustainability team then coordinates resources within Autex to execute these projects strategically. Some of them focus on reducing manufacturing energy by conducting studies to determine the best heating methods and the long-term benefits of investing in new technologies, but we're looking at everything from using less paper to transforming production lines.

Our sustainability department also pre-assesses a product's lifecycle before manufacturing. We meticulously map out the entire process and carefully evaluate its environmental impact – this often involves developing new machinery, materials, or processes to fill gaps and ensure the best possible outcome for both product performance and the environment.

Looking ahead, what excites you most about the future of sustainable design at Autex?

As mentioned, creating fully circular product systems is a huge priority – we’re focusing on the development of completely novel recycling and game-changing material pathways for PET products on takeback. The goal is to create products that improve the environment the more they are used.

If we overlay energy flows onto the process, we can create a closed-loop system that minimises energy consumption in manufacturing. Take polyester bottles – we transform them into textile fibres, which become panels. These panels can be chipped into shorter fibres, creating a backing for another new product we have just launched in New Zealand: ReForm. The original panel, made from post-consumer acoustics, offers a cost saving compared to the development of a new one, establishing the first loop in a circular material cycle – from fibre to fibre. Similarly, in Australia we are piloting a Takeback Program which will eventually be expanded across all our products. We are committed to ensuring that the materials collected in our takeback of ASL are repurposed sustainably, with full control over the entire process. We reintegrate offcuts from production and building sites, as well as end-of-life panels returned from the Takeback Programme, into our own manufacturing processes.

This fibre-to-fibre process can be repeated two or three times, actually improving the input for the pelletising process. So, a disposable plastic bottle, with a lifespan of a few weeks or months, becomes an acoustic panel lasting 10 or 20 years. If this panel then gets repurposed into another panel, and it lasts another decade or longer, from a short-lived product, we've now created 30-40 to 100 + years of usable life.

This process can be repeated potentially even beyond our lifetimes. Eventually, it can be re-polymerised, demonstrating multiple pathways for the same material. With this roadmap, and emerging technologies that can turn plastic back into oil or other substances, the possibilities extend beyond our industry. The potential exists to derive oil and other resources from this waste, reversing pollution, climate change, and global warming. Combine this with regenerative agriculture, and we have the power to save the world.

It looks like radical, collaborative, cross-industry action will become all the more important.

Definitely. By working together, we can achieve a scale far beyond what any single company could do alone. We're already seeing this in our collaborations with architects and furniture companies who are using our recycled materials in innovative ways. The days of companies operating in isolation are gone – collaboration and open exchange of ideas are essential for progress. Together, we have the power to create a truly regenerative future. And we must take serious action now.