Australia's game-changing 'clothing graveyard' set to transform fast-fashion

Where do our clothes go that are damaged, stained or no longer wearable? The answer might surprise you.

Aussies are obsessed with fast-fashion — that's a fact.

Behind the United States, we're the world's biggest consumer of textiles per person per year, with each Australian disposing of a whopping 23 kilos of clothes annually, roughly the weight of a school-aged child.

According to environmental group Clean Up, each of us purchase almost 60 garments every year — most of which are made from non-sustainable, non-durable materials. If you don't personally have a big bag of clothes sitting in the back of your boot waiting for a "Salvos or Vinnies drop", you almost certainly know someone who does.

Goondiwindi Cotton, a farm in Queensland.
An Australian world-first trial could provide the answer one of the globe's biggest waste dilemmas. Source: Supplied / Melanie Jenson.

Australia 'world's second-biggest consumer of textiles'

But, what about the pieces that are damaged, stained or no longer wearable? Where do they go? You mightn't know the answer, but the reality is simple — landfill.

While there are some recycling bins for damaged clothing scattered around Australia's major cities, they're few and far between, and most people probably aren't even aware they exist.

One solution that has so far seen "incredible, brilliant" results, has brought our clothes right back to where they started: the cotton crops, in a "world-first trial" and major "full-circle moment".

Cotton Research and Development Corporation's (CRDC) Dr Meredith Conaty is among those leading the trial — in collaboration with Cotton Australia. She explains to Yahoo News how this "clothing graveyard" has the potential to transform the entire industry.

"We've known for a long time that cotton is biodegradable and we also know textile waste is such a huge problem, so it was just the logical next-step [to bring clothes back to the crops]," Conaty told Yahoo.

Clothes at Goondiwindi Cotton, a farm in Queensland.
Our old clothes are helping to retain moisture on cotton farms. Source: Supplied / Melanie Jenson.

Solution to major global crisis could be on our doorstep

"So that's what we've been doing for the last few years, just tweaking the system, working out if we can put raw or blended textile waste just directly back onto a cotton farm."

And as it turns out, you can.

"Instead of having the textile industry be linear, from the farm to the garment that goes into landfill, we've been pulling it back to the farm, really take things back to the start," she said.

Sam Coulton, 70, is a cotton farmer based in Queensland and his family has been in the industry since way back in 1924. Coulton established Goondiwindi Cotton in 1989, with his farm being the first to participate in what he's described as an "unbelievable" new process.

Sam Coulton of Goondiwindi Cotton, a farm in Queensland.
Sam Coulton said the results of the trial have been "unbelievable". Source: Supplied / Melanie Jenson.

Long-term farmer brands initiative 'unbelievable'

Speaking to Yahoo, Coulton said he truly does believe the program has the potential to take off nationally and globally. He explained how placing our old clothes on cotton crops actually benefits the soil by retaining moisture.

"The problem has always been rain in agriculture in Australia. [The clothes help to] conserve more moisture, because cotton holds about 99 times its actual weight.

"Everything comes from rain, from water, no matter what you look at in your building, anywhere, your furniture — everything. It comes from water.

"And to get a return on every megalitre or millimetre of water, we have to have it — and, we have to hold it in the soil as long as we can, so that food and fibre can grow."

While there were initial concerns about how the dye would affect the soil, Coulton said those worries never amounted to anything, resulting in himself and the team "really getting on board". The clothes don't even need to be shredded to return incredible results, he pointed out, though it can help.

Meredith Conaty, with Cotton Research and Development Corporation.
Meredith Conaty is among those leading the trial. Source: Supplied / Melanie Jenson.

Conaty said the discarded garments also help crops to retain nutrients and dramatically improves root growth. "They enhance the condition of the soil. So, for plants to grow in a kind of a healthy, productive, efficient way, they really depend on their root growth being as fast as they can," she said.

"They depend on the roots to explore as much of the soil as they can, and how healthy the soil is will promote that root growth and that rapid development of the plant's own systems for accessing water, for accessing nutrients, for being resilient to pests, disease and to stay healthy."

Plans to expand pilot trial

The trial is still "on a pilot scale", with Coulton personally having driven tens of thousands of tonnes of shredded waste from Brisbane, which was donated from Sheridan, to commence the program.

Conaty said now, looking forward, her team will be looking at how they can get old textiles from around the country to more farms to take the process further, and "how to do that shredding, how to do it effectively, how to produce a product that is useful to farmers, and make their lives easier".

Sam Coulton.
Coulton has links to farming that date way back to the 1920s. Source: Supplied / Melanie Jenson.

Having "really just ballooned" since its inception, Conaty said there are now "lots of different projects" underway, including six more trials at other farms.

Asked what's it like to see clothes return to where they were first born, Coulton responded: "It's indescribable".

It feels like, you know how you mow your lawn and you look around, you've got a beer in hand, and you think 'shit that looks good' — that's the feeling!Cotton farmer Sam Coulton

Shredded clothes.
Australia is the world's biggest consumer of textiles per person, only being behind the US. Source: Supplied / Melanie Jenson.

In Australia, 800,000 tonnes of textiles end up in landfill every single year, generating toxic greenhouse gas emissions and unnecessary waste.

The fashion industry is one of the highest polluting industries globally, responsible for an estimated 10 per cent of the world's CO2 emissions. Though Australians are the world's second largest-consumers of textiles, the average person only wears 40 per cent of their clothes, according to Clean Up.

Of the clothes that we donate to charity, it's estimated that just 15 per cent are ever resold.

This landmark partnership between Cotton Research Development Corporation (CRDC), Cotton Australia, Goondiwindi Cotton, and Sheridan — with other retailers now looking to get involved — has been branded a "scalable solution to textile waste" that returns 100 per cent of cotton at the end of its life to the farm, "truly closing the loop".

Do you have a story tip? Email:

You can also follow us on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter and YouTube.