Wear your clothes and paint with them too

By Tamanna Wadhwani 4 December 2023

New research from Deakin University has shown the ability to transform waste textiles into pigments that can be used as colouring polymers and in painted works of art.

Australian landfills receive around 800,000 tonnes of textile waste every year. Despite 95 per cent of clothing sent to landfill being fit for reuse or recycling, only around seven per cent of textile waste gets recovered. 

The research led by Associate Professor Rangam Rajkhowa, at Deakin University’s Institute for Frontier Materials, has devised a new method of extracting pigments from textile waste that can be used as colouring polymers and painting pigments. 

According to Associate Professor Rajkhowa, the world-first pigment extraction process could be key to diverting discarded clothes and other textiles from landfill, creating value from the thousands of tonnes of textiles currently thrown away. 

"We've found that particles produced from textile waste segregated by colour could be used for a range of applications. This includes pigments for printing or colouring textiles, and which can also be used to create art," Associate Professor Rajkhowa said

The research team partnered with Textile Recyclers Australia, who sourced the unwanted clothing and textiles used in the project from households, retailers and industry. 

As shown in a video interview with the ABC, this extraction process uses existing machinery to crush the clothing down into fine particles, which are then mixed with water and beads and ground into a fine liquid. This liquid is then dried and converted into clay or powders that can be used as colouring pigments. 

"Our simple but powerful approach could address the huge challenges of recycling textiles due to complexities of different colours, fibres and blends,” Associate Professor Rajkhowa said. 

These pigments have already been featured in the Perpetual Pigments exhibition, part of Geelong Design Week, where First Nations artists used the recycled pigments as paint in their works of art. The display also included screen-printed fabric designs using the pigments, produced by surf brand Rip Curl in a test run for their new t-shirts. 

Kiri Tawhai (Noogar-Tuwharetoa)
Rip Curl t-shirt

"We wanted to explore what's possible. It's fantastic that these recycled pigments can be used and experimented with," said Dr Russell Kennedy, co-curator of Perpetual Pigments. 

"We hope this is the first step in developing new ways that waste textiles can be given a beautiful second life." 

The aim for this process is to use minimal water and energy and reduce the grinding time, and the team at Deakin University are positive that much of the water used can be recovered and reused.  

As part of the project, the researchers are also working with an industry partner to conduct a business and sustainability analysis and generate data on the carbon footprint. 

This project received support and funding from Sustainability Victoria’s Circular Economy Markets Fund and Deakin’s Science and Society Network. 

The next stage is to scale up the recycled pigment process to demonstrate the potential for commercial use, for which they will be working with industry partners to determine the most efficient and cost-effective methods. 

Tamanna Wadhwani
Tamanna moved from India to Australia to pursue a degree in environmental science and conservation biology. After learning about the concept of a circular economy in 2020, she worked with various organisations in this sector and is interested in solving complex climate change and waste management problems. She loves to communicate with people about all things sustainability or animals. Outside of work, Tamanna is a budding hip hop dancer who also loves travelling, cat cuddles and reading.