Meet The Women Using The Latest Tech To Turn Cotton Textile Trash Into Treasure

By Alice Duthie
on 25 March 2024

Who doesn’t love a Marie Kondo-style wardrobe cleanout? Old shirt no longer ‘sparking joy?’ Onto the op shop pile it goes.

But did you ever stop to wonder where that former fave actually wound up, once it reached its shelf life?

You might be concerned to learn it probably now sits in the 800,000 tonnes of textile landfill Australians create each year.

The rise of fast fashion means textile waste is a growing challenge, but one the Australian cotton industry isn’t shying away from.

Dr Meredith Conaty, Cotton Research & Development Corporation (CRDC) Innovation Broker, and Cotton Australia Supply Chain Consultant, Brooke Summers are among the team spearheading a coordinated set of world-first lab, field and logistics trials across Australia that are searching for the global textile industry’s holy grail: circularity.

“We have teamed up with cotton growers and Cotton Australia brand partners, as well as world-class researchers, to explore innovative tech solutions to tackle cotton textile waste,” Dr Conaty said.

Among the list of projects underway is a world-first on-farm trial that turns pre-loved textiles into environmentally friendly compost. Now in its third phase, the trial is investigating different processing techniques and transport options – in the hope the team can create a scalable solution to cotton textile waste that not only diverts waste from landfill, but provides a high-quality compost that can be spread back onto paddocks to nourish the soil before next season’s cotton plants are sown.

Natural, biodegradable, renewable, and recyclable, cotton fibre can be returned to the earth – breaking down quickly in water and soil to deliver both environmental and production benefits.

Phase 1 field trials showed cotton compost increased soil organic carbon content and slightly improved soil fertility. And because the cotton fibre breaks down more quickly when composted in paddocks than it does when piled up in landfill, carbon emissions are potentially lower, too.


“Waste is one of the biggest issues facing the global textile industry – and the answer could literally be in our own backyards,” Dr Conaty explained. “This trial presents a scalable solution to textile waste that returns 100% cotton at end of life to the farm, truly closing the loop.”

Textile waste is a challenge across all corners of the world. But the cotton industry in Australia is leading the way with solutions that are scalable and can deliver value to the farmer and the natural environment.

“The Australian cotton industry is small compared to cotton production worldwide, but we lead the world in sustainability. Waste is the latest example of how forward-thinking and proactive the industry is – embracing new research and implementing new practices that accelerate our sustainability impact,” Dr Conaty said.

Coordinated by Cotton Australia and supported by CRDC, Coreo, Thread Together, Sheridan and Goondiwindi Cotton, this circularity trial is just one piece of a puzzle that looks to deliver a long-term, scalable solution to cotton textile waste.

And while growers are championing the research, Cotton Australia’s Brooke Summers says the involvement of retail brands and consumers is essential in delivering solutions at scale.

“The Australian cotton industry is passionate about closing the loop on circularity by returning cotton waste to paddocks to become part of the next crop. But if solutions like this are to succeed, collaboration along the supply chain is critical,” Ms Summers said.

“This project is a true end to end collaboration between cotton farmers, researchers and our ultimate brand customers, that is solving a critical challenge for cotton globally.”

“We need retailers to consider a product’s end-of-life during the design phase, prioritising natural fibres like cotton that can be returned to the earth.”

“And we need everyone to be more conscious consumers – think about where a product has come from, and more importantly, where it will end up once it no longer sparks joy in the wardrobe.”

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