When a university academic handed a property developer a small grey tile recently, and said “this is your son’s old school uniform” it marked the confluence of a creative vision, a desire to offset a major problem and public demand.

The vision belongs to Professor Veena Sahajwalla of UNSW and her team at the university’s Centre for Sustainable Materials Research and Technology (SMaRT) [subs: corr.] who have devised a way of turning unwanted clothing into practical building materials.

The problem, as outlined by Susan Lloyd-Hurwitz, CEO and Managing Director of major league property developers Mirvac, is that the building industry contributes more than half of the annual waste in Australia.

And the demand came from consumers – alarmed by more than half a million tonnes of discarded clothing going into landfill annually – who two years ago were shown the potential for “green ceramics” with the unveiling of furniture and artworks in a display at the Marrick & Co apartments in Marrickville in Sydney’s inner west.

Australians were shocked in 2019 when Chaser TV host Craig Reucassel reveal the horrific amount of waste that consists of barely worn fashion, in his War On Waste TV series.

Apositive public response to green ceramics encouraged a huge expansion of the project which has culminated in an apartment at the Pavilions complex in Homebush being the first in the country to be finished using green ceramics as a construction material.

“The people of this city are passionate about the environment,” NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said, officially opening the display apartment last week. “They’re committed to fighting climate change … so their values are reflected in the technologies embodied in green surroundings.”

Mirvac and the SMaRT Centre’s collaboration on micro-recycling and the circular economy is a chance for Professor Sahajwalla to prove that it’s viable to re-purpose unwanted fashion fabrics as a resource rather than burying it in landfill.

“You can create different pathways to recycling,” she said. “The one that we have developed … is converting materials into whole new forms.”

As shown in a recent episode of Australian Story, that new form takes crushed glass and shredded fabric, applies heat and pressure and the result is tiles of various colours and textures.  Examples on display at the Mirvac show apartment included floor tiles, decorative wall tiles, splashbacks, tabletops and designer lampshades.

Ultimately, she says, her dream is that usable waste would be collected and converted at local “MICROfactories”, saving on raw materials and transport costs while diverting some of the half million tonnes of dumped textiles away from landfill.

For now a pilot facility attached to a recycling plant in Cootamundra is producing the ceramics.

“In Australia, the building industry is responsible for around 60 per cent of the waste we generate,” said Ms Lloyd-Hurwitz. “We have been able to demonstrate a better way to build, using reformed waste, which not only helps our industry but provides a valuable second life for the mountains of glass and clothing, much of which would otherwise find its way to landfill.

“Just as important, we are demonstrating to the broader industry that there are viable alternatives that can lead to a more sustainable future.”

Mirvac’s involvement has also involved testing the ceramics to ensure they meet their own as well as industry strength and safety standards. Meanwhile the demolition of the old Channel Nine studios at Willoughby – plus other projects – have provided virtual goldmines of recyclables for Prof. Sahajwalla’s team.

However, the developer’s support for the circular economy is very much ahead of the game, as far as the construction industry is concerned, although attitudes are changing.

“The circular economy is now where carbon awareness was five years ago,” says Jeff Oatman, Senior Manager with the Green Building Council Australia (GBCA).

But there is growing interest and this week GBCA is hosting an online conference with a number of sessions devoted to the topic.

There are no immediate plans to install green ceramics in new Mirvac apartments. It would need a greatly increased output of materials before that was feasible.

However a series of public and industry events and tours will be held in the Pavilions apartment over coming months to show what the future could hold.

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