Stinky old uniforms will build the future

Tracey Ferrier |

Annie Thompson’s business is turning tonnes of worn out school uniforms into a new building product.
Annie Thompson’s business is turning tonnes of worn out school uniforms into a new building product.

To some it resembles marble. To others, it’s more like abstract art.

But for its maker Annie Thompson FABtec is the way of the future – a recycled, waste-busting building product made from worn-out and obsolete uniforms, sweaty old sports jerseys and plastic that would have ended up in landfill.

The rigid composite board is a bit like MDF and after a long period of research and prototype development it rolled off the production line in Sydney for the first time around Christmas.

It has great potential for commercial and domestic construction as well as flat-pack applications and has already been used to make furniture including school desks and stools.

But Ms Thompson says its visual appeal – each piece uniquely reflecting the clothing it used to be – could also make it a popular feature in the buildings of the future.

“There are some particular pieces, one of the early ones made out of track pants, that everyone was attracted to,” she says.

“They’d say ‘Oh my gosh it’s like looking down on the Amazon or looking down on the reef. Everyone sees something different.

“You could hang it on a wall quite comfortably and it would intrigue people, like art does. And some of our clients are thinking of that.”

It’s been about three years since Ms Thompson and her Sydney-based family began collecting mounds of school uniforms.

It didn’t take long to accumulate a large and “very smelly” warehouse full of stuff they didn’t yet know what to do with.

But having been in in the schoolwear business for some time, they were determined to find an environmentally responsible, end-of-life solution for the garments they were selling and so Worn Up was born.

About 70 schools across Australia are now passing on their tired uniforms and Ms Thompson says there’s a constant stream of inquiries from new ones keen to join.

More than a dozen councils have stepped up to cover the modest fees Work Up charges schools for collection services, because they understand the value of reducing pressure on their dumps.

Worn Up is also taking textiles from business clients including Australia’s largest school uniforms supplier Lowes, which wanted a better way to deal with inevitable leftovers when schools replace their uniforms.

The Star Entertainment Group, which operates The Star Sydney, The Star Gold Coast and Treasury Brisbane, is also surrendering its obsolete uniforms, linen and towels.

Sporting organisations are catching on too. One prototype panel of FABtec is a vibrant pink from a batch of old competition shirts surrendered by Rowing Australia.

And Ms Thompson’s aspirations don’t end with uniforms.

Worn Up is currently working with Toby’s Estate Coffee to take their natural hessian coffee sacks, mix them with worm juice and create a new soil nutrient that will go back into the ground.

So far, the upcycling venture has prevented 55 tonnes of uniforms ending up in landfill, not to mention the plastic waste they gather for the FABtec mix, like the trimmings left over from the manufacture of plastic bottles.

But she hopes that is just the start. In NSW alone, more than 310 tonnes could be diverted from landfill every year if the state’s 3000-odd schools all got onboard.

Amanda Visser is the head of sustainability for the Star group and says the next step is to work out how best to use the building product made from its own waste.

Tables, chairs, or building formwork are all possibilities, she says.

Ms Thompson says FABtec products could also find their way back into the schools whose uniforms helped make them.

“This is sustainability in action,” she says. “It supports the curriculum the kids are learning – in NSW its called material world,” she says.

“The kids can touch it and sometimes the uniform fragments can be seen and they take such pride in the fact they’ve contributed to a solution.”

Worn Up recently won a $100,000 grant from the NSW Environment Protection Authority’s Circulate program, to extend its reach to rural schools and big businesses in the state.