Meeting notes. Textile recycling with Jeff Vollebregt of UPPAREL

Meeting notes. Textile recycling with Jeff Vollebregt of UPPAREL

by Charli Cox

We can’t throw garments away. They don’t get recycled — 73 per cent of garments are landfilled or burned, and less than 1% is recycled. At the same time, production has doubled in the last 15 years, and that clothing, according to the Ellen McCarthur Foundation, is being worn 40 per cent less. In Aotearoa, New Zealand, we import over 380,000 tonnes of textile products, half of which end up landfilled. Scion’s recent data confirmed that our clothing is a significant source of microplastic pollution, in that 87% of the microplastics polluting Tāmaki Makaurau waterways came from synthetic textiles.

UPPAREL — leaders in textile recovery and recycling came to life in 2016, founded by Michael and Tina Elias, who have spearheaded sustainability and circular principles from day one. Their approach is to see all material accounted for, acknowledging the value of our finite resources and ultimately demonstrating commercial success is possible and that waste-to-resource is viable. It is also necessary. As of writing, the textile recycler has diverted 1,290,086 kg of textiles from landfill and kept 4,515,301 kg of greenhouse gas emissions out of our atmosphere. They’ve also facilitated the reuse of 5,702,180 items. 

Until December 2022, there was no local industry solution for textile waste. It was a leap worth taking. Jeff Vollebregt, director of UPPAREL in Aotearoa, New Zealand, has brought us one step closer to some sort of utopia where our waste could become something else. “I loved the fact that the founders, Michael and Tina Elias, weren’t waiting for solutions or handouts - they just committed themselves to tackle this massive issue head-on and to being a key part of developing a solution!” 

Jeff, with a career spanning two decades working in the sector at TAL Group, Ironman and Designer Textiles Intl., knew there was a solution for managing textile waste. “I’ve always loved that ‘just do it’ attitude. We’re always learning, adapting, and doing our best to make the greatest social and environmental impact possible.” Within 12 months, the Onehunga operation had diverted 80 tonnes of textiles from landfill.

“With my background in garment and fabric manufacture, I knew that there was no genuine solution for managing textile waste.“

Visiting UPPAREL, you realise Jeff considers the end of the life cycle, the beginning of the textile design process, and many possibilities exist for these materials that most would consider waste. Upcycling, working like this, employs people — more so than managing landfill sites. Garments are decommissioned by hand. All hardware – zips, buttons, and plastics must be removed. These items are either recycled or donated. From there, fabrics are scanned to determine their composition — that’s the starting point for figuring out what kind of products can be made.

Wool gets spun into fibre used in insulation for the construction industry. Cotton and poly-cotton are transformed into cushioning and foam products — these upcycled products replace virgin polyester equivalents, which are products of the petrochemical industry. Other products include acoustic panelling and soundproofing. There is an array of different products that are everyday in-use materials, and it makes sense that we focus energy on transforming what exists. “We're replacing existing products made of plastic and cellulose with recycled fibres, and at the end-of-life, it can return to us for recycling — we’re creating a circular product.” 

Late March, Upparel worked with Icebreaker to deliver a textile recycling programme across their retail stores. “99 per cent of what we receive can be recycled and repurposed,” it was the first in-store brand activation. For brands wanting to appeal to a customer that is ecologically conscious or interested in sustainability, recycling programmes can become a part of how brands operate. 

Ultimately UPPAREL found a new way to transform low-value clothing donations into something better, achieving an addition of value and creating employment opportunities while supporting the industry’s new mission of championing circularity. 

With the rise in consumption of fast fashion, Auckland Council estimates that textiles are currently 9% of city landfills and that by 2040, at current growth rates, that percentage of textiles landfilled would grow to 14%. We are a way off from seeing the degrowth of fast fashion, but product stewardship doesn’t seem all that distant. Our clothing does not last forever, but we can make something else out of it – not us. We don’t have the technology or skills to do it. But UPPAREL and their partners do.